Sherry-based drinks are a hot new trend in cocktailian bars, but I didn’t have a handle on them until recently. An educational trip I took with a bunch of great American mixologists to Jerez last October taught me a lot more than I expected to learn about sherry.
First off, what the heck is sherry? (Hint: It might not be what you think).
Sherry, properly called Vino de Jerez, is a fortified wine from southwest Spain. “Fortified” means that alcohol has been added to preserve it, which was originally done so the wine could survive a sailing voyage.
Now the alchohol preserves the wine as it matures in very old wood casks arranged in the solera system. Suffice it to say that this system of barrels results in a consistent product that is blended during the aging and handling process.
While in the solera, some barrels contain flor, a layer of yeast that protects the wine from oxidation. In other barrels, the flor either dies off, or is eliminated by addition of more alcohol. This gives us the two sides, or main styles of sherry, the fresher flor side, and the more oxidized side.
Sherry Style Specifics
Fresh or unoxidized styles of sherry still have a nutty complexity to them, not unlike dry vermouth. Fino is the most popular style in Spain and includes Tio Pepe and La Ina. It is crisp and bright on the palate, and should be the color of a young pinot grigio—not brown at all.
The other fresh style is manzanilla, which is fino sherry produced in a town right on the seacoast. It’s like a briny fino, which tastes better than it sounds.
Among the oxidized styles, amontillado is fino that didn’t make the cut. When a barrel of fino is not good enough for the blend, they let the flor die, and the wine turns into a nuttier, pale brown wine that still has bright acidity.
Even more oxidized are the barrels that, from the start, are chosen to be intentionally oxidized. This is oloroso, which is richer and nuttier than amontillado, and can vary from dry to fairly sweet.
There is also a super-sweet style called PX, for its source grape Pedro Ximenez. It’s the sweetest wine on the planet, and tastes like raisin juice from heaven.
Mixing with Sherry
Sherry may be a hot mixology trend now, but sherry cocktails aren’t new. “King Cocktail” Dale DeGroff used to make a Valencia Martini for the owner of the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. He describes it as a “gin Martini with fino sherry in place of the dry vermouth.”
A vodka version was Dean Martin’s cocktail at Chasen’s, a great Hollywood watering hole.
I asked around to see what my mixologist friends use as guiding principles when creating sherry cocktails. One of the best comments came from Jackson Cannon of The Hawthorne in Boston: “While vermouths bring texture, fruit, herbs…and bitterness to cocktails, sherries bring nuances of nuts, spice and a richness born of their biological process. They are incomparable for a range of food-friendly cocktails.”
There are a few other guiding principles I’ve discovered about mixing with sherry. One is to use white goods with fresh sherry, brown goods with oxidized.
For instance, the bright freshness of the fino and manzanilla styles works with the clarity of spirits such as vodka, gin and silver tequila.
Conversely, the nuttiness of amontillado and oloroso go nicely in whiskey and Cognac cocktails.
You can also replace the vermouth with sherry. For your first couple of tries, just take a classic Milanese-style cocktail and replace the dry or sweet vermouth with the appropriate sherry. It doesn’t fundamentally change the cocktail, it just twists it around a little.
And instead of simple syrup and liqueurs, you might consider PX sherry for sweetening. Its rich, raisiny flavor not only sweetens, but adds a deep richness and mouth-coating body.
Finally, sherries have tons of flavor without high alcohol (ranging from 15%-19% ABV). This means that you can offer a lower-alcohol drink that still has tremendous flavor impact.
So get a few of each style of sherry and start experimenting. Offering a few sherry cocktails will show that you aren’t following—you’re leading the way.
3 oz. Fino or manzanilla sherry
1 oz. Jalapeño-infused blanco tequila (cut up one fresh pepper, add to 750-ml. of tequila and let sit for about two or three hours)
½ oz. Rich simple syrup (2:1)
¼ oz. Fresh lime juice
Build over ice in a rocks glass. Stir to combine and garnish with a slice of cucumber.
Phil Ward of Mayahuel in New York created this recipe.