With Independence Day celebrations upon us, those of you not trying to figure out a fireworks-watching strategy that won’t leave you in traffic till 2 a.m. may instead be working out the most quintessentially ’Murican dishes and drinks to ply guests with. Heck, maybe you’re doing both: After all, if we can’t make an awful lot of noise while consuming an awful lot of food, why did we bother having a revolution?
The approach of the holiday got me thinking back even earlier, to the Columbian Exchange, that period in the 15th and 16th centuries when waves of European exploration resulted in the interchange of agriculture, technology and ideas (and, P.S., smallpox) between “Old” World and “New.” Many summer picnic classics like ripe tomatoes, grilled corn and potato salad depend on those New World ingredients; others, like the fruit in our American-as-apple-pies, came over from Europe.
What many European explorers also brought was sherry, a fortified Spanish wine that has been made in Andalusia for centuries. As Talia Baiocchi writes in her James Beard Award-nominated 2014 book “Sherry: A Modern Guide to the Wine World’s Best-Kept Secret,” by the time Columbus rocked up in the Bahamas, it’s possible that he and his crew “had spent the length of the Atlantic journey on a sherry bender. Like many of the A-list explorers of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, he had a thing for it.”
A recent symposium I had the honor to moderate at the National Archives, “American Drinking B.C. (Before the Cocktail),” part of a series connected to the Spirited Republic exhibit, homed in on that period and thus on sherry and the agave-based alcohols made in Mesoamerica long before Columbus showed up.
The two spirits form “the intersection” between the culture that arrived and the culture that was already here, says Derek Brown, chief spirits adviser for the exhibit and owner of several local bars, including sherry-focused Mockingbird Hill.
That “thing” the explorers had for sherry stuck and grew, spreading through the colonies via ongoing trade with Europe. Sherry was a common punch ingredient, and in the late 1800s, the sherry cobbler, a simple yet summer-perfect concoction of sherry, sugar, citrus and ice, was so beloved that it became known as the drink that popularized the straw.
Much of that historical Americana was, until recently, largely unfamiliar to Spanish sherry producers, says Steve Olson, a wine and spirits educator and beverage consultant who — with Brown and David Suro-Piñera of Siembra Azul tequila — led the panel at the National Archives seminar. When sherry producers and the Spanish trade commission hired Olson in the late 1990s to introduce more American consumers to sherry, he told producers that — along with educating chefs and sommeliers — they should be encouraging sherry’s use in cocktails.
“They didn’t want to do that, because that would cheapen their sherry,” he says. “I said, ‘No. In this country . . . when we put a spirit in a cocktail, we’re elevating it. If you see your sherry in a drink next to a premium spirit . . . it’s going to say, hey, wait a minute, this must be good stuff.’ ”
The sherry category contains wines ranging from dry as dust to sweet as treacle, and that might be a challenge for winning over U.S. drinkers. Despite many articles preaching the sherry gospel, noting its increased popularity among bartenders and passionate following among cognoscenti, U.S. sherry sales have stayed at a virtual flatline over the past decade. To tell a friend that you like sherry is a bit like saying you like “vegetables” or “the Dutch”: a sweeping endorsement of a category so diverse that claims of universal affection are hard to credit.
Yet sherry itself is a wonderful teacher, and happily not one whose classes only private-school kids can afford: Most bottles are incredibly reasonably priced. Learn about the styles, buy a few — or drop by Mockingbird Hill for a flight — and you’ll start getting the picture of what sherry can bring to cocktails. A trace of brine? A tart, citrusy note? A warm, lingering hint of hazelnuts or toast? A deep, figlike, honeyed sweetness? There’s a sherry for that.
A particular sherry “can bind a drink, lengthen a drink, brighten a drink, deepen and round a drink,” says Olson, and all with a lower alcohol content. “And I don’t know how anyone could have a bar with sweeteners and not use Pedro Ximénez as one. . . . You don’t even need to make a syrup out of it.”
And in a happy coincidence for two drinks that go back such a long way in the Americas, sherry pairs beautifully with agave-based spirits.
“If you’re looking at the aromatic compounds in sherry . . . you can get savory, mineral-forward and herbaceous notes. I mean, I might as well be describing tequila,” says Chantal Tseng, an independent consultant and former bar manager at Mockingbird Hill. “You can get those similar green tones in some of the blanco tequilas, and that minerality is there, too, that salty edge.”
Their long histories and artisanal roots often mean that “people who love tequila and mezcal tend to love sherry with the same kind of evangelism,” says Baiocchi.
Brown says that has to do with the quest for authenticity that has become central in bartending culture. “We’re not mining [the past] for the first orange vodka,” he says. “We’re mining it for drinks that connect a people and a place and tell us a story about our world.”
Baiocchi’s book includes recipes that show off the interplay between this Old World wine and this New World spirit. They include La Perla, the cocktail that won the first run of the annual Sherry Cocktail Competition, which Olson helped launch in 2005. In it, grassy, herbal notes from the tequila and tart apple tones from the manzanilla sherry are tied together with a rich pear liqueur.
But if you’re hot and sweaty and have a good view of the star-spangled sky next week, just remember: Sherry Cobbler is as American-summer classic as it gets, and it pairs beautifully with the smell of fireworks.
For more information on upcoming events in the Spirited Republic series at the National Archives, go to www.spiritedrepublic.org/events.
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears regularly. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.