Get Started With Sherry

photo by jypsygen via flickr
photo by jypsygen via flickr

Sherry often unfairly gets lumped together as a single entity. Yet, it's as diverse, possibly even more so, as any other spirits or wine category.

"Sherry stands apart as it has a very distinctive nose, and the process in which it's created is probably what gives it that," explains Chantal Tseng, a certified sherry educator and self-styled sherry ninja. She holds court at D.C's Petworth Citizen & Reading Room, and also hosts sherry pairing dinners with a venture known as Red Eye Menus. "There are different types of complexity, and a versatile range of styles."

Tseng is an advocate for the drink which she loves. "Sherry is my real passion, it's what I want to drink every day," she says. And she's also hoping to help usher in a renaissance. "Sherry is still an underdog." One key to its revival is of course understanding what it's all about.

Sherry Defined

The core definition of sherry is that it's a fortified wine produced in Andalucía, Spain, within what's known as the "Sherry Triangle," the most well known corner point of which is Jerez de la Frontera. Sherry must be solera-aged (in which tiers of barrels are stacked, with older wine added to younger wine in a constant system) for a minimum of two years, with certain categories retaining higher minimums. It drops in at an ABV between 15 and 22%, depending on category.

sherry solera at Gonzalez Byass, photo by Ewan Munro via Flickr
sherry solera at Gonzalez Byass, photo by Ewan Munro via Flickr

Sherry can be made from three grapes—Palomino, which represents the bulk of sherry, Pedro Ximénez (PX), and Moscatel. It can then be found in two distinctive styles which are then further broken down into many sub-classifications, with those two core categories being differentiated in terms of how they're aged.

The first, known as biologically-aged sherry, is aged with a layer of flor (yeast) at its surface which prevents oxidation. The second, known as oxidatively-aged, is aged without the flor which then allows for that oxidation. Certain sherries walk a middle path in between, beginning the aging process with a layer of flor which eventually dissipates.

But you're not going to be looking at many sherry lists and seeing "oxidatively-aged" or "biologically-aged" sherry as a defining characteristic. Therefore, the defining categories of sherry that you should familiarize with include:

  • Fino
  • Manzanilla
  • Amontillado
  • Oloroso
  • Palo Cortado
  • Moscatel
  • Pedro Ximénez (PX)
  • Cream

Even further sub-categories exist, such as Fino en rama or Manzanilla en rama, with en rama or "raw," referring to very lightly filtered biologically-aged sherries. Broad categories such as Oloroso or Amontillado may also be further segmented into stylistic ranges.

So what do all of these categories represent? Let's let Tseng riff on the subject...

Bamboo cocktail, photo by Tom Richter
Bamboo cocktail, photo by Tom Richter

"Fino has become my more daily bread slash wine. It's the one I gravitate towards more, it's refreshing and more of a daily drinking type of sherry. I still love Amontillados and all of that. I really love the dry Amontillados... Manzanillas... the sweeter sherries I certainly enjoy, but not something I would drink as much as a food pairing or special occasion type thing.

"Olorosos are both, you have mediums. You have this whole category of dry Olorosos, then there's the mediums. Same with Amontillados, you can have sweeter Amontillados as well. As a go to, Finos and Manzanillas, love to drink those... but I drink them all.

"The sweeter sherries are more like cream sherries which are blended, or just straight dessert wines, which are PX and Moscatels, which are much, much sweeter. Those are great in cocktails as well but not really a go-to personally."

Cocktails to Start With

"[Sherry]'s hard to grasp... I started falling in love with sherry but I still didn't get it for years," says a laughing Tseng of the myriad categories and characteristics of sherry. "I needed to be in Spain, touring the bodegas, to be like, 'OK, now I get it!'"

For those of us who can't get out there for ourselves, the gateway drug to exploring sherry is the cocktail. I asked Tseng to provide a list of her five favorite classic or modern-classic sherry cocktails. Of course, she couldn't help her sherry-loving self, and gave us six.

Bamboo

"The Bamboo was created in 1899 by Louis Eppinger who bartended at the Grand Yokohama Hotel in Tokyo," explains Tseng. "It's a beautiful Martini variant in which dry Sherry, Fino, is substituted for gin."

"Sherry in its many forms has a gorgeous affinity with both dry and sweet styles of vermouth," she says. "I mix like I mix my Dry Martinis, 2:1 ratio of Fino to vermouth with a dash of orange bitters, stirred, served up in a chilled glass with a lemon peel. Olives on the side because like the original, this drink loves to whet one's appetite."

There are as many riffs and interpretations to the Bamboo as there are to the Martini itself, so feel free to experiment with different types of sherry and vermouth, and finishing touches.

"Just like a gin Martini, the drink will alter depending on which Fino you use," explains Tseng. "I enjoy them lighter with Tio Pepe Fino and with more body using Valdespino Inocente Fino, but the variations are endless and a good Fino en Rama could add even more complexity. My go to dry vermouth is Dolin."

The Adonis

Alvear Fino, photo by Amanda Schuster
Alvear Fino, photo by Amanda Schuster

"The Adonis was created sometime after the Broadway play of the same name grew to be a hit," says Tseng, dating the drink to the mid to late 1880's. "It was likely invented and popularized at the Waldorf-Astoria bar. The Bamboo is to a dry Martini as the Adonis is to a Manhattan. For my recipe, I prefer using a nice dry Amontillado 2:1 to sweet vermouth with a dash of aromatic and orange bitters and an orange peel for garnish."

For Tseng, the Adonis was actually her proper introduction to sherry, providing a script-flipping, awakening moment. "This was the first sherry cocktail I ever had and the first step down my path to falling in love with sherry," she says.

"Once again, there are many variations out there," Tseng continues. "I have a taste for the drier so I keep it 2:1 and prefer Valdespino Tio Diego Amontillado, Lustau Los Arcos Amontillado or Bodegas Grant. Dolin Rouge Vermouth has become a preference but richer styles like Cinzano and Contratto Rosso also work well. Orange peel is key. This is the first cocktail I ever had where I realized how amazing orange oil and peels are in drinks."

Jungle

Next up on Tseng's sherry cocktail hit list is one which isn't quite as well known as the others, "but should be," she says. "If you've never had a Trinity cocktail—equal parts dry gin, dry vermouth and sweet vermouth, with an orange peel — then you need to. Still in the royal family where the dry Martini is King, the Jungle takes abstract passed around heritage from equal parts recipes like the Negroni as well."

Array of sherries at Mockingbird Hill in Washington, DC - photo by Jake Emen
Array of sherries at Mockingbird Hill in Washington, DC - photo by Jake Emen

For Tseng, the Trinity or the Jungle is a great option for someone who thinks a Martini or Negroni is perhaps too stiff and spirits-forward. "If the Martini or the Negroni is too daunting for a novice drinker, then the Trinity and the Jungle break you in, the Jungle being a touch drier than the former," she offers.

"Try one with Jensen's London Dry, Tio Pepe Fino and Dolin Rouge Vermouth," Tseng suggests. "Then sub in and out the Fino for Amontillado and the Rouge for the dry vermouth. The possibilities, once again are endless and all pretty tasty."

Trident

Tseng's next choice is a modern classic. "The Trident is a more modern sherry cocktail invented by Robert Hess back in 2000," she says. "It's equal parts Aquavit, dry sherry Fino, and Cynar, with 2 drops of Fee Bros. Peach bitters and a lemon peel."

Monty Collins

For her fifth libation, Tseng goes modern again, but this time for one of her own creations. "The Monty Collins is an Amontillado Collins with honey and ginger," she says. "I started making versions of this drink back when I was still bartending at the Tabard Inn circa 2010 or 2011. It's named after my cat who is in term named Monty, short for Amontillado. It's also the official sherry cocktail of International Sherry Week this year."

Sherry Cobbler, photo by Tom Richter
Sherry Cobbler, photo by Tom Richter

That's right, Tseng loves sherry so much that she named her cat in its honor, and then in turn, the cat became the namesake of a signature cocktail that's quickly becoming a modern classic.

"Substitute gin with a dry Amontillado like Tio Diego or Los Arcos, add a half ounce of 1:1 honey syrup, a half an ounce of fresh squeezed lemon juice, a couple drops of raw ginger, ice and sparkling mineral water like Apollinaris or Gerolsteiner. Then garnish with an orange twist. Also great with a little freshly grated nutmeg which I likely have an addiction to."

Sherry Cobbler

After already providing five cocktails, Tseng knew she needed another. "I feel bad leaving out the classic Sherry Cobbler," she says. "In its heyday, it was the Budweiser of bar orders."

That's not a knock on the drink, but rather it's a testament to its ubiquity. "You could walk into any old watering hole and that was what you drank," she says.

The Sherry Cobbler stretches back over 200 years, putting it on the early Pantheon of classic cocktails across any category. "It's an oxidative sherry, anywhere from Amontillado to cream sherry, over crushed ice with seasonal fruits, often sweetened to taste and often also served with fresh mint," says Tseng. "So delicious and perfect for the warmer seasons."

So try your hand at mixing one of the above cocktails for your sherry initiation. See what calls to you, and then begin branching out to sampling them on their own.

Follow Tseng on Twitter @ShinobiPaws for her ongoing sherry wisdom, and to see what she's up to for International Sherry Week, taking place this year from November 7th-13th.