Light, crisp, bright, yeasty, floral, savory, full-bodied, syrupy, sweet: Sherry’s spectrum of styles is wide and varied, translating to infinite adaptability in the world of cocktails.
“Sherry itself is already like a cocktail,” said Chantal Tseng, a bartender and sommelier based in Washington, D.C. “All the elements are there. You have the complexity, you have some fruit notes, you have bitter notes, you have mineral notes and sometimes sweet notes. But when you mix it and serve it over ice, it’s this refreshing, brilliant thing.”
Sherry’s role as a shortcut to complexity is especially evident in the sherry cobbler. Popular in the 19th century, it has a simple formula of sherry, sugar and citrus, a pre-Prohibition Era combination built for modern drinkers. Served over crushed ice and sipped through a straw, it’s impressive yet easy, low in alcohol content and infinitely adaptable.
Produced in Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María, the three towns that form southwestern Spain’s Marco de Jerez or Sherry Triangle, sherry, at its most basic, is a fortified wine. That means a neutral grain spirit, such as grape brandy, is added to it, stopping fermentation and increasing its alcohol content.
On the lightest, driest end of the sherry spectrum is fino sherry, which ages biologically, developing a protective layer of yeast, known as flor, on its surface. Manzanilla, a fino aged in the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, features distinctive notes of salinity.
Next on the spectrum lies amontillado sherry, which also starts aging biologically, but, as the flor breaks up, the wine is exposed to air and begins to oxidize, giving it an amber color and nuttier, toffee-leaning flavor.
And so it goes down the rich, rounder and more full-bodied line through elegant palo cortado and deeply fragrant, exclusively oxidized oloroso. Naturally sweet sherries, such as Pedro Ximénez (known as PX sherry) and moscatel, are dried fruit-forward in flavor and plush in texture.
If you’re just starting out with cobblers, look to medium-bodied, slightly nutty, slightly sweet amontillado sherry. Combine it with simple syrup and citrus, and top it all with crushed ice and mint for a classic sherry cobbler. Then, “change it up, mix and match, choose your own adventure,” Ms. Tseng said.
Deploy a single style of sherry, combine different ones or augment with a higher-proof spirit as in the manzanilla and gin-laced Tuxedo Cobbler. Crown a finished cobbler with seasonal fruit, swap one citrus for another or use a different sweetener. Ms. Tseng often opts for a honey syrup, but simple syrup, agave or maple syrup each lend their distinct flavors to the final drink. Instead of water, Ms. Tseng sometimes uses chamomile, mint or rooibos tea to make a syrup. Or you can skip the sweetener altogether and use the sweeter-leaning Pedro Ximénez.
For those discouraged by visions of dusty bottles and stodgy drinkers, the sherry cobbler offers a highly drinkable entry point into the larger world of sherry.
“People are often confused about what sherry is,” Ms. Tseng said. “They have an idea in their head, and then they taste something like a really good cobbler, and they’re like ‘Why is this so good?’ They don’t realize that the adaptability of sherry is that magical.”