Time to take another look at sherry

July 4, 2013

Mockingbird Hill, which opened in Shaw last month, is one of the most head-scratching bars to open recently in the District. It’s dedicated to sherry, a spirit most people in Washington don’t sip frequently, and it doesn’t have a burner in the kitchen, preferring to served ham carved from cured pig legs. The modern but small bar would be considered a novelty if it weren’t for the name behind it: Derek Brown, the cocktail expert who opened the Passenger and the Columbia Room.

Whether you’re a total novice to sherry or can rattle off the appellations of Jerez, Mockingbird Hill is worth a visit. Here’s a quick primer for first-timers.

It was inspired by family vacations to Spain.

Brown opened the Passenger with his brother, Tom, but he’s working with his wife, Chantal Tseng, at Mockingbird Hill. (Tseng was the woman behind the bar at the Tabard Inn for nine years.) Tseng is one of the biggest sherry fans you’ll ever meet — she calls dry fino sherry her “spirit drink” — and the couple has made multiple trips to Spain to seek out interesting sherries. While there, after a long day of tasting, they would go to “these great little places” where everyone was sipping it, Brown says. They were simple spots, with good sherry and simple snacks of cured ham, sliced off the leg, and dried fish and nuts. That was Brown and Tseng’s vision for Mockingbird Hill.

The proprietors know that sherry has an image problem.

“We’re facing two barriers,” Brown says. “There’s the perception that it’s sweet, when 90 percent of sherry is dry. Number two, the idea that it’s something that your grandmother drank. I say, ‘Not unless your grandmother was cool as [heck].’ In the ’80s, they drank cream sherry or sweet sherry. This is totally different.” Tseng adds: “Sherry is complex. It’s like a cocktail on its own: There are herbs, there are elements of barrel aging. It’s a natural progression for people who like good cocktails.”

The owners didn’t like sherry at first, either.

“I can totally relate to people who say, ‘Oh, I won’t like this,’ ” Tseng says. “When I was working at Firefly, I poured a bone-dry sherry, and I hated it. I was like, ‘Why would anyone ever drink this stuff?’ ” Tseng gradually grew to love sherry, after pairing it with food at Komi and the Tabard. “The more I learned about wine, the more I realized that [sherry] is the perfect wine. Now it’s all I crave.”

This is a sherry-and-ham bar, not a cocktails-and-ham bar.

Tseng selected 54 sherries, organized by style. There are five fino sherries, for example, and four of them cost $6 or less. “You should be able to get a good glass of any kind of sherry for $6, $7 or $8,” she says. Additionally, Tseng created various flights ($10-$12) with small pours based on various themes. Try representatives of the three dominant sherry regions, or three sherries that exhibit flor, the yeast that gives the aged wine its flavor.

Snacks include four types of cured ham, including Virginia’s Surryano and one Iberico ham, and cured duck, for those who can’t or won’t eat pork. There are smaller nibbles, such as Virginia peanuts or manzanilla olives for pairing with sherry, or slightly larger snacks, such as manchego cheese with honey and cocoa-covered corn nuts. Expect to graze rather than sit down for a full meal.

Both Brown and Tseng are renowned for their mixology skills, but this is a bare-bones bar, with a very small liquor selection, including three wines (one red, one white, one sparkling). If you want a martini, they can make one, but if you want an obscure cocktail, probably not. “We tried to steer away from being a cocktail bar,” Brown says. “We’re a sherry bar.”

That said, there are things other than sherry on the menu.

Four taps sit behind the bar. Two are reserved for beers from DC Brau and 3 Stars. Another pours a Green Hat gin and tonic, which Brown and bartender J.P. Fetherston created for Red Apron Butchery at Union Market. The last tap is dedicated to Vya vermouth. “I’ve always loved it, but I think it changes the flavor of a cocktail,” Brown says. So at Mockingbird Hill, it will be served with a large ice cube and slice of orange and topped with soda water for a sparkling summer refresher.

You can try and learn about sherry for free.

There’s no better way to get someone into sherry, Brown says, then to let them try it and then tell them why it’s special. That’s why he offers a free class about sherry every Tuesday in the restaurant’s back room.

Sometimes the focus will be on specific grapes or regions, and sometimes it will be a 45-minute version of Sherry 101. Attendees get a quick lecture on how sherry is made; the geography of the “Sherry Triangle” in Cadiz, where the grapes are grown, and how the weather affects the flavor; and the different styles of sherry that Mockingbird Hill sells. “One of the difficult things about explaining sherry is that it’s almost like explaining wine,” Brown said during one class. “There are so many different styles to explore.”

A guided tasting is an easy way to get started. Brown poured small glasses of fino, manzanilla, amontillado and amaroso for everyone in the room, accompanied by nuts and snacks. Bottles were passed so students could examine the labels. There was the loose revelry of a wine-tasting party rather than the structure of a formal class, with questions and comments encouraged. Brown’s enthusiasm for the spirit was clear.

A schedule will be posted on a chalkboard in Mockingbird Hill’s back room. Just arrive by 5 p.m. to snag a seat. A similar class, covering ham, is offered Wednesdays at the same time.

The name and the soundtrack are punk rock.

Mockingbird Hill, for those who aren’t fans of “The Only Band That Matters,” is taken from a line in the Clash song “Spanish Bombs,” which was about the Spanish Civil War. Brown says the name is a tribute to teenage epiphanies: “The first time I heard about Spain and understood the country was through [Clash singer] Joe Strummer. It wasn’t because I looked at a map or because I read Cervantes.” Expect to hear everything from the Slits to the Ramones — which is what separates this from a rural sherry bar in Cadiz.

Mockingbird Hill

1843 Seventh St. NW. 202-316-9396. www.drinkmoresherry.com.
Open Tuesday through Sunday at 5 p.m.

Fritz Hahn has covered bars, drinks and nightlife for the Washington Post Weekend Section since 2003, but he also writes about everything from Civil War battlefields to sailing classes. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.
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