Sherry or vermouth?
“Both” is an increasingly common answer, and not the indecisive “both,” or the more-is-more, ready-for-the-party kind of “both.” “Both,” as in two in one, or vermouth made from sherry.
While it might seem like an invention perfectly calibrated to today’s drink-nerd culture, sherry vermouth (Vermut de Jerez) is not new. From the late 1800s through the mid-20th century, the Sherry Triangle’s bodegas used sherry as a base for a range of aromatized products, from vermouth to quinquina wines (Jerez Quinado), to compete not just with homegrown Catalonian vermouth, but the already well-established vermouth di Torino and the myriad quinine-based aperitif wines that France was (and still is) busy churning out.
Not even sherry vermouth’s modern revival is new. Luke Sykora, writing for PUNCH in 2017, identified three key bottlings of sweet sherry vermouths available in the United States from Gonzalez Byass, Lustau and Rey Fernando de Castilla. Before making it stateside, several had been available in Spain for the better part of a decade, launched with the hope of being swept up in the country’s vermouth craze. Since then, both Gonzalez Byass and Lustau have introduced additional styles to their lines, from a sweet blanco to a thoroughly modern rosé. New producers have also entered the field with expressions that are either based on old recipes or made from old stocks of vermouth blended with new wine; others, in a region bound by history and pedigree, have taken the rare opportunity to create something completely unbound by such tradition.
The question, of course, is whether we really need new entrants into a subcategory of the already crowded category of vermouth. Why not just drink sherry, which is complex, interesting and varied enough as it is, and drink vermouth from someplace else—like, say, Torino or Chambéry, two time-honored regions that already have enough diversity in profiles and producers to satisfy?
The U.S. release of Gonzalez Byass’ La Copa Blanco Vermouth Extra Dry, in the fall of 2019 (it’s only just becoming more widely available), is a clue to how sherry vermouth might become a classic category unto itself. Unlike the sweet vermouths of Jerez, which are based on oxidative styles of sherry (generally oloroso sweetened with moscatel or PX), La Copa is built on fino, and is drier than most dry vermouth. “We’re known for Tio Pepe, so we wanted something dry—something based on fino,” says Claire Henderson, senior brand manager for Gonzalez Byass. “Something where you could really taste the sherry.”
For many, myself included, La Copa Extra Dry does what Chambéry or Torino or Marseille, or really any other vermouth-producing locale on the planet can’t: It combines the yeasty, saline flavors of biologically aged, non-oxidative sherry—that is, fino or manzanilla—with aromatics and a slightly higher alcoholic backbone that defines vermouth, and without masking it with too much added sweetness. It tastes both new and yet not so fringe in its profile that it can’t immediately slot into classic drinks. It suggests that perhaps the best path for sherry vermouth is not in resurrecting the sweet styles of the past, but in the wholly new introduction of dry sherry vermouth.
It makes a salty, complex 50-50 Martini, but it’s also so refined as a standalone product that it’s hard to want to mix it—or frankly, even put it on ice. It drinks like wine. “I keep a bottle in the fridge at my house and pour it like it’s sherry and drink it without ice,” says Sarah Morrissey, the head bartender at New York’s Ernesto’s, where she’s assembled a cocktail list entirely from low-ABV ingredients. She also uses it in number of classic cocktails, like the restaurant’s standout take on the Bamboo. “My back bar [at Ernesto’s] is mainly vermouth—I would say at least 40 bottles—and this is my No. 1,” she says. “It blends with all spirits and wines but is still unique that it doesn’t get lost.”
The Extra Dry relies on the same six botanicals—including cinnamon, nutmeg, orange peel and savory—that go into the sweet expression, which are macerated at different intervals over the course of one year in three-year-old fino sherry that is fortified before maceration to 17.5 percent ABV. The only sweetness comes by way of concentrated grape must, but it’s an extremely modest 28 grams per liter. “We wanted to be different than the Italians and the French,” says Henderson of both the dryness and wine-forward character of the La Copa line.
It’s that bracing dryness and deliberate subtlety that has made the bottling such a sleeper hit—the perfect vermouth for a growing class of drinks that aim for nuance, and a bartending culture that has made mastering a drink as wine-forward as the Bamboo a symbol of prowess. “[It’s] subtle but strong,” says Morrissey. “It’s almost like the most perfect backup singer of all time.”