Sherry is all the rage
While most recent trendy liqueurs are of the bitter variety (see: Fernet, Malört), the hottest cocktail ingredient right now is something your grandmother probably has a bottle of—sherry.
The fortified Spanish white wine has a reputation as a stodgy beverage, but lately Chicago bartenders can’t seem to get enough of it. We haven’t seen a new cocktail list without at least one sherry cocktail, while multiple styles are being used at places like Drumbar, the Violet Hour and Barrelhouse Flat, and a couple wine-focused spots have sherry lists.
“There’s a misconception that most sherries are sweet and made to cook with,” says Jeremy Quinn, sommelier at Telegraph, Bluebird and Webster’s Wine Bar. “I try to introduce that style to guests, but they recall their grandmother sipping it out of a little cup. Then I give them a splash on the house with an olive and they say it’s great and order a whole flight."
Getting drinkers to order sherry straight can be a challenge, so it's a good thing the wine is also wildly popular as a cocktail ingredient among local bartenders. "As a component, one would be hard pressed to find another product category that can provide nearly as much variation and flexibility,” says Barrelhouse Flat’s Jessica Tessendorf. “Lean and delicate, nutty and dry, sumptuous and sweet; you're covered. It is capable of bridging gaps between ingredients, much like other fortified wine and amari."
Its versatility has earned fans such as Billy Sunday’s Alex Bachman, who uses it “to establish an acidic backbone in cocktails whether they are rolled, shaken, or stirred" and Sable Kitchen and Bar's Mike Ryan, who says, “You can replace the botanical elements you find in a vermouth with naturally oxidized or barrel-aged elements you find in sherry. They’re cool, natural flavors that produce just as much complexity as you’d find in a vermouth.”
Given how bar programs have progressed over the past few years, it makes sense that it's finally sherry's turn.
“Sherry used to be used quite a bit in cocktails and punches in the 1880s and 1890s,” says Rachel Thompson of the Violet Hour. “And that’s a period the current cocktail movement looks back to. I think it’s a natural progression—we’ve revived all these liqueurs, we’re exploring different types of amaro, and sherry was the next thing to go back to.”
The Aviary’s Charles Joly says sherry’s popularity can also be contributed to the Consejo in Jerez that oversees sherry production and helps promote the region. Recently, that’s included a sherry competition in New York.
What exactly is sherry?
Despite its current ubiquity in cocktails, sherry is kind of hard for the lay drinker to understand. Why are there so many kinds? What does PX mean? Why should we drink it?
To answer these questions, we decided to ask for a sherry lesson from Vera sommelier Liz Mendez, whose Twitter bio reads: “Troop leader in the #SherryRevolution.”
“Some say sherry is confusing; I like to say it is misunderstood,” Mendez says. “In its most basic form, it’s a fortified wine. Which means that a neutral spirit is added to it to bring its alcohol content up.”
Here's a quick lesson: Sherry is made in the Jerez region of Spain from three main grapes: Palomino, which accounts for 97% of sherry grapes, Pedro Ximenez, which is left to become a raisin on the vine before it’s pressed, and Muscatel. The grapes are turned into wine that’s fortified and put into a barrel. Much of sherry is aged in a solera system, in which wine is taken out of barrels so new wine can be put in. That blends the sherry, and you can’t tell the age of it, because it’s a mix of ages.
Those three grapes make a variety of sherry, which range from bone dry and sweet. The dry sherries are fino, manzanilla, oloroso, amontillado and palo cortado. The sweet sherries include Pedro Ximenez, cream and Muscatel.
Finos and manzanillas are called “biological” sherries, because flor, a yeast, develops on top of the wine in the barrel, and it results in a nutty flavor. The other sherries are oxidized, which means flor doesn’t develop, and they’re richer and deeper, and can have maple and molasses notes. Palo cortado is a more complicated sherry—it starts out as a fino or amontillado with flor, then it becomes a non-flor sherry, so it has characteristics of both styles.
Each style of sherry is available in Chicago and we had bartenders walk us through cocktails they made with it. The result: where to drink sherry, from the driest style to the sweetest.