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Mastering the Sherry Cobbler With Chantal Tseng

In "Masters of X," we spotlight bartenders chasing perfection in one drink. Here, Chantal Tseng takes on the Sherry Cobbler.

Self-described “sherry ninja” Chantal Tseng has long been a champion of the storied Sherry Cobbler, an American-born, nearly two centuries-old cocktail consisting of sherry, sugar and citrus. And it’s no surprise that the classic would be her drink of choice: Tseng first earned accolades for her list at the (now closed) Mockingbird Hill, the Washington D.C. sherry bar that helped drive the wine’s recent renaissance.

Today, as a bartender at D.C.’s The Reading Room at Petworth Citizen, Tseng continues to integrate sherry into a number of her drinks, and estimates that she’s made the Sherry Cobbler, specifically, dozens—possibly even hundreds—of times in a variety of ways. But, despite having developed a number of tips and best practices, she insists that she’s never quite managed to perfect the drink.

“There are so many different variations, I don’t know if you can perfect it,” she explains. “The base is so mutable that it works with many different styles of sherry; it could be richer, sweeter sherry or one that’s drier and then sweetened.”

Tseng first tackled the drink back in 2009, inspired by references in historic cocktail books, such as Jerry Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks, and David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, which contain some of the earliest guidelines for making a Sherry Cobbler (which is famously credited as being both the first shaken drink and the first to introduce ice and the straw into the cocktail lexicon). The 1862 Thomas template is particularly simple: two wine glasses of sherry shaken with a tablespoon of sugar, orange slices and shaved ice, then “ornamented” with in-season berries.

Given the drink’s dead-simple build, among Tseng’s earliest realizations was the importance of selecting the right sherry. While she’s partial to using amontillado or oloroso sherries, she cites quality as being a primary concern: “Don’t just pick up something cheap and nondescript,” she advises, citing Valdespino Tio Diego and Hidalgo La Gitana Napoleon as go-to bottlings of amontillado, and Emilio Hidalgo Gobernador and Gutiérrez Colosía Sangre Y Trabajadero for oloroso.

Chantal Tseng Makes the Autumn Cobbler

Beyond that, Tseng likes to stick to a fairly standard ratio—about three ounces of sherry to a half-ounce of sweetener—and then tweak from there. She likes to experiment, for example, with various sweeteners beyond simple syrup, including honey, maple syrup, PX sherry and fresh fruit, and will often amplify the natural spice notes in many sherries using tea. One of her favorite tricks is to dilute her syrups with brewed chamomile or chai tea instead of hot water, “so half of your sweetener is already spiced,” she says.

Those notes of spice are certainly helpful when it comes to transforming the Sherry Cobbler, generally considered a summer drink, into one that’s pan seasonal. For Tseng’s Autumn Cobbler, for example, an oloroso-based Cobbler that’s amplified with maple-chai syrup, she calls on a fall-ready combination of nutmeg-dusted persimmon and a brandied cherry.

One thing Tseng is adamant when it comes to the Sherry Cobbler build? “No muddling!” Tseng prefers to use whole fruit and herbs only to crown the drink. “I keep it simple,” she says.

On the subject of garnishing, Tseng offers one final requisite: a bouquet of mint. While she often switches out traditional varieties in favor of more exotic chocolate mint or pineapple mint, the burst of fresh, aromatic herbs is a must-have garnish, she insists: “If you put a Cobbler I front of me with a straw and crushed ice and no garnish, I’d say that’s not a Cobbler.”

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