Sherry has unfortunately gained a bit of reputation as an old person drink. But there’s more to the fortified wine than the sticky sweet stuff your grandmother sips while watching Matlock. Sherry comes in a range of styles, from briny Manzanilla to funky umami-packed amontillado to decadently rich oloroso. Plus, it’s not just for sipping. Sherry is a fantastic way to put a twist on classic cocktails too. So forget everything you thought you knew about sherry from all those Frasier episodes and get to know the real thing.
The History of Sherry
Spain (or what came to be Spain) has been a center for winemaking for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the 13th century that something starting to resemble sherry was first created, thanks to the introduction of the Moorish art of distillation. Even then, sherry or “sack” as the British called it, wasn’t at all like it is today. In the 17th century sherry evolved into something a bit more familiar when winemakers saw just how well palomino grapes did in the region’s chalky soil. They called the wine “fino” because it was incredibly bright, crisp and delicate. Producers also started to really play with yeast and noticed how transformative the ingredient could be.
In the early 19th century, port became the sweetened fortified wine of choice, and sherry sales began to decline. Though it didn’t seem it at the time, it was a stroke of good luck for sherry producers, who were forced to sit on their stock of barrels, unintentionally aging it. As people bought a few bottles here and there, the producers would top the barrels off with new sherry, inadvertently employing the now signature solera method. Another benefit of the port boom: Sherry producers were inspired to fortify their wines even more, creating oloroso sherry.
Forget everything you thought you knew about sherry from all those Frasier episodes.
Things were starting to look up for the sherry producers until the late 19th century when the phylloxera plague (an invasion of grapevine-decimating aphids) killed entire vineyards. Eventually, though, sherry producers worked to repair their vineyards and, in 1935, Jerez attained Denominacion de Origen status.
Though sherry was out of fashion for years and years, it is finally starting to come back into style thanks to pioneering bartenders, restaurateurs and fearless drinks journalists.
Where Is Sherry Made?
Sherry is made in the province of Andalucía in Southern Spain, primarily from three towns (Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda), which form the Andalucían Triangle. Palomino grapes — the principal varietal used to make sherry — thrive in the heat and humidity of Southern Spain and grow in white, chalky soil known as albariza. The other two soil types important to sherry-making grapes are barros (which is very high in clay) and arenas (a sandy soil). The region’s incredibly dry and sunny climate, as well as coastal breezes off the Atlantic Ocean, also contributes to the well-being of the grapes.
Sherry comes in a variety of styles that all start with similar grapes. Most styles of sherry are made from palomino grapes. Occasionally, moscatel and pedro ximenez grapes are added too. Dry sherries such as manzanilla and fino are made from the first pressing of ripened palomino grapes. Sherry makers ferment the juice in stainless steel until it reaches 11 to 12% ABV, then pour it into casks and fortify with destilado, a neutral spirit distilled from grapes.
Sweet sherries, on the other hand, are made from moscatel and pedro ximenez grapes, which growers leave on the vine to raisin and develop high concentrations of sugar. Sherry makers juice these raisins to create a rich, dark liquid, which they let ferment briefly before fortifying it and aging it in casks, much like dry sherries.
When producers barrel a sherry, they leave space between the wine and the top of the barrel to allow oxygenation. Some sherry barrels are “bunged,” left open to the elements to invite strains of wild yeast to join in the mix. The wild yeasts aid with the final stages of fermentation and, as they die, float to the top of the wine to form a cap that protects against further oxidation. This protective cap is known as the flor (or “flower”). The flor is in part responsible for sherry’s signature flavor of nutty, freshly baked bread.
Sherry is barrel-aged by the solera system. Producers stack barrels of sherry in a pyramid structure, with the younger sherries on the top of the stack and the older sherries at the bottom. When sherry makers bottle, they use samples from the entire pyramid of barrels, creating a multi-vintage blend. They then top the older barrels off with newer sherry.
Styles of Sherry
There are five major styles of sherry. The flor is primarily responsible for each style’s distinct characteristics.
Fino: A bone-dry style of sherry with high acidity and almost briny flavor. The flor is left intact while the sherry is aging in the barrel, protecting the wine from oxygenation. This style of sherry is usually between 15 and 16% ABV. Fino sherries are a great starting point for anyone unfamiliar with unsweetened, traditional Spanish sherry, and they are very food friendly.
Manzanilla: Though they are produced similarly to fino sherries, manzanilla sherries are specifically made near the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda. The grapes are constantly exposed to humid, coastal air, giving this style of sherry extra oceanic flavors. Think raw seafood or mackerel sashimi.
Amontillado: One of the more unique styles of sherry on the market. Producers purposefully disturb the flor during barrel-aging to promote exposure to oxygen, resulting in a deep, rich brown hue and umami-rich flavors reminiscent of sautéed mushrooms, burger drippings and almonds. Amontillado style sherries are delicious with spicy food and great in cocktails.
Oloroso: Producers fortify the wine for oloroso sherry earlier than for other varieties, killing off any existing flor and causing the wine to oxidize as it ages. Not only are oloroso sherries fortified before other sherries, they are also fortified to a higher ABV, around 17 or 18%. The higher alcohol allows the sherry to stand up to decades of barrel-aging, which results in dark, extra-rich flavors. Older oloroso sherries are some of the most expensive and sought after sherries on the market.
Jerez Dulce: Sweet sherries are made with either vine-dried pedro ximenez grapes or moscatel grapes. Cream sherries also fall into this category. They are typically made with a blend of oloroso sherry and sherry made from pedro ximenez.
How Do I Drink Sherry?
Dry sherries can be served neat and chilled as an aperitif, either before a meal or with a wide variety of foods (beyond Spanish meats, cheeses and olives, though those are particularly good with a nice fino). Served at room temperature, sweet sherry is delicious as a digestif after a meal. If you don’t happen to have a traditional sherry glass around, a white wine glass will do the trick.
Sherry also works excellent as a substitute for vermouth. Dry sherries work well in tiki drinks and Martinis, while the sweeter sherries can be used in boozy, stirred drinks like Manhattans.
Flor de Jerez: A modern classic from NYC speakeasy Death & Co, this cocktail is a perfect example of sherry’s versatility. Plus, you can never go wrong with Appleton rum and a good apricot liqueur, both included here.
Sherry Cobbler: Cocktail historian David Wondrich did wonders (pun intended) bringing this lost classic back from the dead. Not only is it ridiculously simple to construct—just shake amontillado sherry with sugar and citrus—it is most refreshing when you use seasonal fruit from your local farmer’s market.
The Dunhill: Brought back from the dead (thankfully) in Talia Baiochhi’s Sherry Cocktail Book, this cocktail is a variation on the classic Negroni that calls for dry curaçao and Lustau’s East India sherry (which tastes like dairy-free rum raisin ice cream).
The Japanese Cocktail: Equal parts easy and delicious, this classic combines dry fino sherry and orgeat, an almond syrup common in tiki drinks.
Sherry in Culture
- Part of sherry’s pretension and association with snobbery stems from its portrayal in the show Fraiser, in which it was the Crane brothers’ drink of choice after a hard day of opera antics and wine club drama.
- In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Cask of Amontillado,” a man takes revenge on his friend by luring him to his death with the promise of an extraordinarily rare vintage of amontillado sherry.
- “I drink sherry and wine by myself because I like it and I get the sensuous feeling of indulgence…luxury, bliss, the erotic tinged.” —Sylvia Plath
- “Dad Loves Sherry, the Boys Just Whine” —Title of episode 81 of Fraiser