Sherry – shaken but not stirred?

Xeco Sherry

Could our love of sherry be revived by treating it like a spirit instead of a wine – sipping it after dinner and mixing it in cocktails? Henry Jeffreys aims to shake things up…

The sherry revival is one of the great perennial topics of drinks writing, along with the Return of Riesling or the Year of Rum. One of the first articles I wrote, back in 2010, was about how sherry was now cool for the first time since about 1920.

The hook was the arrival of London restaurants like Fino and Barrafina – proper Spanish restaurants, rather than the earthenware-and-microwave joints that typified most tapas places in England. Unfortunately, the great sherry revival never really went beyond the features pages of The Observer; even in these trendy new Spanish restaurants most people were drinking Albariño or Rioja. Sherry continued to decline and wine writers continued to lament that nobody was drinking it. 

Since 2020, however, British consumption has increased. We seem to have rediscovered the joys of sherry, especially during lockdown. This was put down to the 'tapas effect', people wanting to recreate the tapas experience in their own homes. There's definitely something in this, but I think the answer is a bit more complicated.

The received opinion of the trade has always been that if you treat sherry like a table wine, serve it chilled in big glasses and make sure it's in the wine section of the menu, then people who love Verdejo or Godello will convert. But it’s a giant leap from the fruitiness of a modern wines to the peculiar charms of sherry. I remember my first taste of a Barbadillo manzanilla. I almost took the bottle back to Oddbins because I thought there was something wrong with it

Sherry might taste peculiar for palates brought up on New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc but if you're a whisky, vermouth or cocktail drinker, then it doesn't taste strange at all. Chef and restaurateur José Pizarro told me that younger customers are more open-minded about sherry, perhaps because they drink more spirits.

I've noticed that whisky fans tend to be particularly receptive, partly because whisky is often aged in old sherry casks, so learning about it involves learning about sherry. The two drinks share other similarities. Darker sherries like amontillados and olorosos often have flavours of nuts, dried fruit, orange peel, brown sugar and toffee, just like a good whisky.

The spirits comparison is also useful for thinking about the time to drink sherry. While it is indeed a great food wine, it's also an excellent aperitif, after-dinner sipper and indeed cocktail ingredient.

Nate Brown, who runs Soda & Friends in London, describes sherry as ‘bartender’s ketchup’. Just a little dab can add interest and complexity to a cocktail. González Byass runs the annual Tío Pepe Challenge to encourage barmen to make sherry-based cocktails. I’ve been having a lot of fun with its Leonor palo cortado. With its dry flavour profile combined with a certain sweetness, I thought it might work instead of vermouth in a Martini. I like my Martinis very wet so I’m always on the lookout for different vermouths. After a bit of fiddling around, I came up with the perfect ratio, three parts of gin to one part sherry. It still needed a little something bitter so I added a dash of orange bitters. Bang!

While the Palo Portado Martini, as I’m calling it, works brilliantly with a London dry gin, it’s dynamite with a barrel-aged gin. In fact any kind of woody spirit loves sherry. If I’m making an Old Fashioned I now always use Pedro Ximénez to sweeten it rather than sugar syrup. If you’ve never had a Speyside single malt mixed in an Old Fashioned with sweet sherry, you’re in for a treat.

I’ve got so into mixing palo cortado that I even added a dash to a slightly indifferent sparkling wine. It was transformed into a much-prized grower champagne with a heady, nutty and slightly oxidative flavour. That’s the magic of sherry.

Lastly, there’s an all-wine cocktail called a Bamboo that Brown recommends. Just stir a measure of amontillado (palo cortado would work too, or even a richer fino) sherry with a measure of dry vermouth with ice and a dash of bitters. Strain into a glass and raise a toast to the great sherry revival.

Henry Jeffreys worked in the wine trade and publishing before becoming a writer. He is features editor for the Master of Malt blog, contributor to BBC Good Food, wine columnist for The Critic magazine, and has appeared on radio and TV. He won Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year in 2022 and is the author of three books including Empire of Booze and Vines in a Cold Climate.

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