Reaching for the Sherry
It is difficult to pinpoint when sherry went from a bottle that was found behind every bar and in every respectable wine collection to a strange liquor that was relegated to cooking quality or a staple of VFW halls around the country. The history of this fortified wine is heavily influenced by the history of Europe, from the Phoenicians establishing colonies in the Cadiz area in the 11th century B.C. to Spain reclaiming the sherry heritage from other pretenders in 1996 when the European Union added a little extra enforcement of the existing Denominación de Origen. What is sherry, and what happened to precipitate its fall?
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It is difficult to pinpoint when sherry went from a bottle that was found behind every bar and in every respectable wine collection to a strange liquor that was relegated to cooking quality or a staple of VFW halls around the country.
The history of this fortified wine is heavily influenced by the history of Europe, from the Phoenicians establishing colonies in the Cadiz area in the 11th century B.C. to Spain reclaiming the sherry heritage from other pretenders in 1996 when the European Union added a little extra enforcement of the existing Denominación de Origen.
A Bit of Sherry
“If penicillin can cure those that are ill, Spanish sherry can bring the dead back to life.” – Sir Alexander Fleming
It was in the holds of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan as they explored the world, and in the stories of William Shakespeare as he changed literature.
Thomas Jefferson always had a little dry Fino sherry in his well-stocked wine cellar. It was in favor as late as the 1930s, causing the inventor of penicillin, Sir Alexander Fleming, to comment that “If penicillin can cure those that are ill, Spanish sherry can bring the dead back to life.” What is sherry, and what happened to precipitate its fall?
Sherry is a fortified wine created in the very south of Spain, in a triangle that was first defined in 1933 as being between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa Maria.
This area of Spain has been hotly contested since the 11th century B.C.E., founded by the Phoenicians (who named it Xera) and then claimed by the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, and the Moors over the centuries. The Greeks used the grapes of the region to create arrope, a syrup used to sweeten wine.
The Romans changed the name of the region to Ceret and maintained what the Greeks had started. Sherry also began its slow ascent to fame with the upper class when the Romans created a high demand for the sweet wine.
The Moors moved in when Rome fell, bringing distillation to the area in the eight century.
They also changed the name of the area from Ceret to Sherish, bringing what we now know as sherry a little closer to its final look. The Muslims maintained the vineyards of the area, continuing to produce wine and raisins. The raisins were given to their troops as food, and the wine was traded to foreign countries or used as medicine. It was not all smooth sailing for the wine trade in the Muslim-held land.
Around the end of the first millennium, Caliph Al-Hakam II had one third of the vineyards destroyed. It would have been more, but he was persuaded to save most of it for food. It was not until the Spanish claimed the land in 1264 that the area truly began to evolve into the sherry producing region we know today.
Supply and Demand
When Alfonso X of Castile took Sherish for Spain, the name was once again changed.
It became Jerez de la Frontera, the border town between the Spanish and the Moors. The Spanish took up all the inventions and machinery left by the Moors and put the production of the region’s wine into high gear. It spread as the power of Spain spread, becoming one of the most sought after wines in the world.
In England, they could not get the French wines they loved due to the perpetually strained relations between the two countries. The rest of Europe had amazing access to French wine, but not the sweet wines they enjoyed that were imported from the Mediterranean.
Spanish sherry, known at the time as “sack” or “Sherris sack” (from the Spanish word sacar, “to draw out”), became the right fit at the right time.
Even as English and Spanish relations grew ever more strained, sherry maintained its popularity. England’s access to the sweet wine never waned, mainly because privateers would bring home casks of it they stole from Spanish merchant ships. Sir Francis Drake, in a preemptive attack on Cadiz to disrupt the Spanish Armada in 1587, stole nearly 3,000 barrels to bring back to thirsty Londoners.
The biggest changes in the development of sherry happened in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The continent was thrown into turmoil when the Spanish king, Charles II, died without an heir. Not long after the fallout of that war was cleaned up, Napoleon sought to further spread the power of France. Because of all the military disruption, and the rise of the fortified Port as a wine of choice, barrels of sherry languished in stock rooms and cellars. Instead of sending out wholesale barrels, they would simply remove what was needed from one barrel and replace it with sherry from a younger barrel.
This solera (prop or support in Spanish) system was unique to sherry, and has been adopted by other spirits.
The system involves stacked barrels, oldest on the bottom to the youngest on top.
As the wine is drawn from the oldest barrels, it is replaced with wine from younger barrels. The date on any bottle of sherry is not the date of the wine; it is the date when the solera was started.
This blending creates a wide variety of flavors, more than you would find with using only the various techniques for distillation and aging. The popularity of Port also pushed sherry manufacturers to fortify their wines as well. They added the brandy, distilled with the technology the Moors left. This added a little extra mouthfeel, not to mention sweetness and alcohol content.
There was also a greater understanding of the yeasty film that develops on the top of sherry as it is fermenting, known as the flor.
Vintners who make sherry usually leave “the space of two fists” of each cask empty to encourage the growth of the flor. This keeps oxygen from interacting with the wine below, keeping the product drier than it normally would be. Some styles, such as Oloroso and Amontillado, break the flor to allow oxidation, providing a nutty, burnt sugar note to the wine.
There were many experiments with grape varietals in the beginning, but the best grapes to make sherry were found to be Palomino for drier sherries, and Moscatel or Pedro Ximénez for sweeter sherries.
This was the sherry that made it to the United States, and into the hands of bartenders, in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Everything from dry Finos and Amontilados to sweet Cream and Pedro Ximénez were in the hands of the most knowledgeable wine drinkers in the world. It sat next to the Ports and Madeiras on the shelf, the practice of adding brandy to the sherry to increase its proof, or fortify it, now an accepted practice.
From the 1860s to just before Prohibition, there were more than a few cocktails that called for sherry, either as a featured component or in a supporting role. The difficulty in looking at the old recipes is that very few of them mention the style of sherry that should be used in the cocktails. And unless you know the styles, you could end up with a cloying sweet or bone dry cocktail.
Sherry Cocktail by Harry Craddock
Take, for example, the Sherry Cocktail mentioned in the Savoy Cocktail Book:
• 4 dashes of orange bitters
• 4 dashes of French vermouth
• 1 glass (2 oz./60 mL.) Sherry
• Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass.
Seems fairly straight forward…until you wonder which type of sherry he means. Maybe an Oloroso or Amontillado, both of which lean to the drier side of the spectrum when it comes to flavor, but not too dry.
Moving towards cream sherry would tip the cocktail to the very sweet side.
Other evidence that it was a drier sherry comes from the fact that Fino and Amontillado were more popular at the time than sweet sherry. Sherry cocktails were never very complex. Usually some berries, some sugar, and a little water was all that was added to the wine before it was served.
Sherry Cobbler (sherry, ice, and berries), Sherry and Egg, Sherry and Bitters, and the Sherry Sangree (simple syrup, sherry, water, and nutmeg) were the most common sherry cocktails through the Golden Age. And they were all incredibly simple. After World War II, sherry as a cocktail ingredient seemed to have fallen off the map. History may have intervened again in the removal of sherry from the public palate.
Rise in Power
In 1939 Francisco Franco orchestrated a military coup of Spain and became closely allied with the ideology of the Axis powers.
Many other countries in Europe considered the regime authoritarian, and Franco himself called for strong ties to the country. He did not actually ally with them, which is probably what kept the Allies from turning their guns on him. This isolated Spain, and all the delicious wine it contained.
His regime stayed in power until 1978, and the sherry started to trickle back into the minds of Europe and America. When cocktails with fresh and rare ingredients returned to the cocktail scene in the 1990s, sherry returned with it. It even played a role in the very popular sitcom Frasier, being one of the favorite drinks of one Niles Crane. Sherry crept back into bars all around the country.
Dale DeGroff mentions the Valencia in his 2008 book The Essential Cocktail, which is similar to a Martini but substitutes Fino sherry for vermouth.
• .5 oz./15 mL Fino sherry
• 2.5 oz./75 mL gin or vodka
• Garnish: Flamed orange peel
• Pour the sherry and spirit into a mixing glass over ice. Stir, then strain into a cocktail glass. Flame the orange peel over the cocktail as a garnish.
The good people at Death & Co. sing the praises of sherry in their Modern Classic Cocktails book, noting that “sherry is amazing in its variety, running the spectrum from the driest wines in the world to the richest.” And they are correct.
In their cocktail “La Viña”, they use an Oloroso sherry in place of French vermouth in a cocktail that is similar to an Old Pal.
• 1 oz./30 mL Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve Rye
• 1 oz./30 mL Amaro Nonino
• 1 oz./30 mL Lustau East India Solera Sherry
• 1 dash Regan’s Orange Bitters
• Stir all the ingredients over ice, then strain into a coupe.
Time to Experiment
Experimenting with sherry is a fascinating exercise.
The breadth of flavors and viscosity that sherry offers, from the thin and dry Fino to the raisiny, sweet, and thick Pedro Ximénez, change everything about the cocktail you are exploring. My experiment was with tequila añejo, orange juice, and sherry.
Playing with Fino, Oloroso, Cream, and Pedro Ximénez led to this cocktail.
• 2 oz./60 mL Tequila añejo
• .5 oz./15 mL Cream sherry
• .75 oz./.22 mL Fresh orange juice
• Garnish: Orange peel
• Pour the tequila, sherry, and orange juice into a metal shaker over ice. Shake well, and pour into a cocktail glass. Twist the orange peel over the cocktail, then add.
This recipe was attempted with each of the sherries mentioned above. Pedro Ximénez was too sweet, and took over the cocktail entirely. Oloroso showed through in an interesting way, adding a good amount of dryness, but not overwhelming. The Fino sherry fully dominated the cocktail, not playing well at all with any of the flavors.
The Cream sherry blended nicely with the juice and the tequila, offering some sweetness and nuttiness but allowing the richness of the añejo to shine through. This is the challenge, and interest that sherry adds to the bartender’s arsenal.
Toast to Sherry
Sherry’s complexity and wide range of styles allowed it to be showcased in cocktails for the masses as well as dinner tables of the influential.
History in a Glass
When you pour sherry, from the driest Fino to a sweet Moscatel, you are getting some history in a glass.
From the Phoenicians to the Spanish, every culture has added something to the unique flavors of sherry. Even the Moors, a civilization that wanted nothing to do with the wines produced in the Jerez de la Frontera region, helped spread sherry all over the world, as well as add a new layer of flavor to it with distillation.
Its complexity and wide range of styles allowed it to be showcased in cocktails for the masses as well as dinner tables of the influential. The next time you start to think about which special vermouth you want to add, or looking for something to sweeten your cocktail, consider reaching for sherry. The cooks and VFW halls have plenty to go around.