It seems that everyone who writes about sherry starts off by talking about how misunderstood it is. They point out that it’s much more than a sugary-sweet drink for old ladies, or that it definitely shouldn’t be confused with the low-quality “cooking sherries” found in the supermarket.
My own first association with sherry is from television: It was the drink of choice for fussy Frasier Crane and his stuck-up brother, Niles.
So yes, sherry has a bit of an image problem.
It probably doesn’t help that the many classifications of sherry, plus the complex way it’s aged, make it an imposing beverage. But there are only a few things you need to know to get started with sherry, and exploration will be rewarded with experience of one of the world’s great wines.
At its most basic, sherry is a fortified wine hailing from southwestern Spain, centered on the city of Jerez; the word “sherry” is in fact an anglicization of Jerez. What makes sherry so interesting is the solera aging process, which takes a boring wine fermented from (mostly) the white Palomino grape and transforms it into a stunningly complex fortified wine.
In the solera process, fortified wine is aged in a series of barrels called sherry butts. Wine is removed for bottling from the oldest butt, then replenished with wine from the next oldest, and so on down the line. As a result, sherry is a blend of wines from many years, with sherry butts often in use for more than a century.
While the wine passes through the solera system, flavors are allowed to develop through oxidation. Fino-style sherries develop a protective layer of yeast called flor, which partially protects them from oxidation. These range from bone-dry manzanillas and finos to richer, nutty amontillados, which are often blended with sherry fermented from the region’s other major grape, the very sweet Pedro Ximinez.
There is also palo cortado, a fino sherry that takes on the characteristics of the other major style, oloroso.
Oloroso sherries are fortified to a higher percentage of alcohol, preventing the protective layer of flor from growing. These wines develop rich flavor from years of aging and oxidation. As with fino sherries, they vary in sweetness. Basic olorosos range from bone dry to lightly sweetened with Pedro Ximinez.
Cream sherries, originally targeted to the British market, are considerably sweeter. And pure Pedro Ximinez sherry is incredibly lush, with raisiny and nutty flavors. It makes a decadent dessert wine.
Sherry is fantastic on its own, but since my beat is cocktails, let’s talk about a few ways to mix with it. Much like that other fortified wine, vermouth, sherry is perfect in aperitif-style drinks. The Bamboo cocktail, created by bartender Louis Eppinger while he worked in Japan in the late 1800s and featured in David Wondrich’s excellent book Imbibe!, combines the two wines to great effect. Try one of the drier styles of sherry in this one.
1½ oz. sherry
1½ oz. dry vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
2 drops Angostura bitters
Stir with ice and pour into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Though sherry is often overlooked now, there was a time when it was featured in one of the country’s most popular drinks, the Sherry Cobbler. It sounds more like a baked good than a drink — one patron at an event where I was serving it got confused and asked for “a Cherry Pie, I think it was?” — but this simple cocktail is as good a way as any to get introduced to the wine. The Sherry Cobbler is among the drinks featured in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 bartender’s manual How to Mix Drinks. It’s as tasty today as it was then.
4 oz. sherry
1 Tbsp. sugar (or less if using a sweeter sherry)
Slice of orange
Shake everything with ice and pour all into a glass. Garnish with seasonal berries and serve with a straw.
Finally, I can’t resist offering one drink from my own menu. Whereas the previous drinks are light and refreshing, this one uses the sweet, syrupy Pedro Ximinez sherry and a whole egg to make a rich after-dinner cocktail. You could pair this with dessert, but that might be overkill. This is practically a dessert by itself.
For this cocktail, I recommend the Lustau San Emilio PX sherry, which is balanced by a little more acidity than some other brands.
2 oz. Pedro Ximinez Sherry
½ oz. Angostura bitters
1 whole egg
Freshly grated nutmeg, for garnish
Shake the first three ingredients hard with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with the freshly grated nutmeg.
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