A Sip to Spain

Sherry’s diverse flavors go down easy — and mix into hip, food-loving cocktails

February 12, 2012

Attention, bright young drinkers of D.C.: Think your nuanced knowledge of single-batch rye and hand-chiseled ice makes you a cut above? Max Kuller, the hip wine director of Spanish tapas spot Estadio (1520 14th St. NW; 202-319-1404), is calling your bluff. According to him, these days, sherry wine is on the lips of the country’s style setters. “The cool kids in New York have caught on and are getting serious about sherry,” he says.

That’s not to say sherry, a Spanish wine fortified by brandy, doesn’t have a hold on D.C. But at least for now, you might consider sherry quaffing more like a secret club populated mostly by the likes of your favorite bartenders.

“People think of sherry as an old-fashioned drink that they don’t drink; maybe their grandparents drank it. But it’s actually very cool,” says Diane Gross, co-owner of Cork Wine Bar (1720 14th St. NW; 202-265-2675).

Of course, sherry wasn’t always considered a blue-haired special. In 1587, Sir Francis Drake torched Spain’s Cádiz Harbour and helped himself to thousands of barrels of the potent stuff; once unloaded back in London, sherry became the Brits’ new “it” drink. Even Shakespeare spun sonnets about sherry “sack,” as it was called in those days. By the Victorian era, certain circles considered sherry a synonym for all fine wine.

Yet sherry’s roots are decidedly humble. Most is made from the palomino grape, a white varietal that thrives in the hot air and chalky soil of the arid Jerez region in southwest Spain.

Sherry gets aged for five or more years in a reverse-pyramid solera system, with bottling done from the lowest, oldest barrels. The driest, youngest sherries — light-hued finos and manzanillas — are fortified to about 15 percent, retaining the top layer of yeast. Called flor, the yeast protects the liquid from oxidizing and lends a salty, briny flavor straight from the coastal area’s sea breezes.

Another kind of sherry, amontillados, begin life as a fino but are aged longer, fortified to a higher alcohol percentage and ultimately exposed to air, which results in a caramel-amber hue and medium-deep flavor.

When amontillados lose their flor entirely and begin oxidizing naturally — and accidentally — those wild-card wines become a variety called palo cortados, known in the industry as a “rare, deviant sort of thing,” Kuller says.

Full-fledged oxidized sherries are categorized as olorosos, with a rich and brooding, slightly sweet and nutty depth. The dark Pedro Ximenez dessert sherry is made from grapes by the same name and features a concentrated sweetness that’s nothing short of decadent.

“Sherry has an extreme flavor profile — salty, bright, nutty, rich; the diversity really sort of blows your mind,” Gross says. Such multiple personalities mean sherry makes a formidable cocktail ingredient. When mixing sherry with other spirits, it’s easiest to think in terms of complementary colors — lighter, drier sherries go well with light spirits, particularly vermouth; darker sherries play well with amber tipples such as bourbon and brandy.

For an alternative to a dirty martini, the Columbia Room’s (1021 Seventh St. NW; 202-393-0220) Katie Nelson suggests the Bamboo, a “slightly savory and crisp” sherry cocktail (also circa the 19th century) made with manzanilla and dry vermouth, orange bitters and a lemon twist. Tabard Inn’s mixologist, Chantal Tseng, loves the stuff blended with black or spice tea, sweetened with a touch of honey, and enjoyed over a good novel. Savvy home bartenders might also look to dessert sherries as a boozy sweetener (why use simple syrup when, say, a fortified option is available?).

“Sherries are among the most interesting wines in the world,” says Suzanne McGrath, a wine educator and the president of Arlington’s Curious Grape (Curiousgrape.com), a wine shop set to reopen soon in Shirlington. “They’re totally unique, only made in one place, and have survived since the Middle Ages,” she says. “If you explore the different styles, you’re going to find something you like — and once you do, there’s definitely going to be a place for sherry in your life.”

Make It!

Estadio’s El Cazador (pictured at top)
A bit bitter, a bit sweet and quite citrusy, this drink shows sherry’s versatility.

1.5 oz. dry Oloroso sherry
0.75 oz. Campari
0.5 oz. lime juice
0.5 oz. honey syrup (two parts honey: one part hot water)

Shake. Strain into a coupe. Garnish with an orange zest.

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