Everything comes back around, the saying goes. That’s certainly true for sherry cocktails in the US, even if it has taken a century.
Over the last five years or so, starting in New York and spreading across the land, sherry-laden cocktails have landed thousands of devotees. The libations take many forms: Some echo the popular cocktails of the late 19th century such as the Sherry Cobbler, Bamboo and Adonis, or have sherry replacing stronger stuff in classic drinks; others are avant-garde concoctions (Japanese carrot shochu and oloroso, anyone?), and many play up a newfound affinity between agave products and sherry.
The movement is basically a merging of two trends of the last decade, says Peter Liem, co-author with Jesús Barquín of the book Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla. “There has been a greater appreciation of sherry for sherry’s sake, with people learning about enjoying sherry as a wine,” Liem adds. “And then there’s the craft cocktail movement. The two coexist quite nicely.”
Helping them coexist even more is the lower alcohol and often lower cost of sherry vs. other potables, according to two New York mixmasters.
“It’s really affordable,” said Victoria Levin, general manager of Landmarc at Time Warner Center. “A lot of producers are making some great sherry at lower prices. You can really try it without spending a bundle and taking a big risk.”
Toro beverage director Caitlin Doonan, whose tapas emporium has had almost 30 sherry cocktails on its list over the past year, loves the combination of “all that flavor but less booze. We’re trending away from the times where people want to just sit and get drunk. People want to try different cocktails, and it’s hard to do with basic booze.” For Doonan and others, though, the biggest draw is “the great layers of flavor … [sherry is] like a spice cabinet,” and the wide-ranging qualities provided by the different types of sherry.
Talia Baiocchi, author of last year’s Sherry: A Modern Guide to the Wine World's Best-Kept Secret, with Cocktails and Recipes, also touts sherry’s “incredibly versatile styles, from completely dry to completely sweet. It offers bartenders a complete seasoning,” Baiocchi says.
It isn’t one ingredient; it's 10 different ingredients. “What bartenders love is to be able to use it for almost anything. You can use fino in place of dry vermouth in a martini and amontillado in place of sweet vermouth in a Negroni. It can add perceived acidity like you get from citrus. With the more oxidative style, it adds umami and expression. Even just a quarter-ounce or half-ounce definitely changes the aroma and complexity in drinks.” Small wonder, then, that “there has been this almost evangelical feeling in the bartender world” about these drinks, Baiocchi said.
For the most part, sherry-cocktail aficionados are concentrated on one of the US coasts. Not surprisingly, New York remains the epicenter, but Baiocchi said Washington DC is becoming a real hub along with San Francisco and Portland (Oregon).
“You see it up and down the East Coast, but also in St. Louis, Chicago and through Texas,” she says, also citing Bellocq in New Orleans and Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, where Bobby Heugel has been a prominent champion of the drinks. Liem lists Bar Vivant in Portland, Mockingbird Hill in Washington and Vera in Chicago as sherry-cocktail meccas. A San Francisco restaurant, 15Romolo, offers up an annual holiday “Sherry Christmas” list in which all but one libation includes some kind of sherry.
And since 2012, SherryFests have hopped around North America, alighting even in Toronto, with cocktails becoming a bigger part of the proceedings every year, says Liem, co-founder of the event.
The cocktails’ primary devotees, Levin notes, are “mostly 20- and 30-somethings who are into the food and wine scene. It’s often the kind of people who are interested in pre-Prohibition cocktails or ask if kale is organic. But it’s also people who are just into the experience.”
For years, the stigma of sherry as what Doonan calls “that dusty bottle in your grandparents’ cabinets” prevailed on these shores. Not so for today’s Millennials, a more adventurous, worldly-wise generation than their predecessors. Still, she said, most of them don’t dive willy-nilly into sherry, either by itself or in cocktails.
“What we’ve found with our guests is that it takes a couple of times,” Doonan explains. “They might not have experienced the oxidation or flor. The exposure to flor is a very specific flavor profile. If someone has never had sherry, we start with manzanilla because it’s the lightest and most delicate; easy to drink. Once they get into it, they want to try every kind we have.”
According to Levin, sherry cocktails “in general get people to ask questions. They might not order the drink but will ask about the sherry, and we then can use it to get people to sample sherry by the glass and later the cocktails. They look at it as ‘here’s a way to try something new, stretch your ex-periences, stretch your palate.’ ”
Oh, and sherry cocktails are not going anywhere, all hands agree.
“This is here to stay,” Doonan said. “People are interested in sherry, and as it is demystified more, people are getting more and more comfortable with it. It’s awesome to work with, not crazy expensive and adds great layers of flavors.”
What’s not to like about that?
Bill Ward is a Minneapolis-based wine writer. His website is www.decant-this.com.