Riff Diaries: The Sherry Cobbler

The drink that made every man, woman and child go wild during the mid-to-late 19th century gets a modern updo.

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The Sherry Cobbler is an American-born cocktail by most accounts. Simply sherry, sugar and citrus, shaken, poured over crushed ice and slurped through a straw, the Cobbler is thought to have originated sometime in the 1820s or early 1830s. But like most 19th-century drinks, its origins have been debated ad nauseum.

In 1883, an article in the London Telegraph interpreted a passage in Schele de Vere’s Americanisms: The English of the New World—which suggests that Sherry Cobblers were “old favorites of our forefathers”—to support the argument that the cobbler was invented in England (blasphemy!) before being revived, decades later, “a la Americane.” One thing neither of them dispute is that the practice of drinking the Sherry Cobbler through a straw is, Schele de Vere says, “a genuine Americanism.” The Sherry Cobbler, without doubt, was the first drink to introduce it to popular consciousness.

Like the straw, ice was not a common element in cocktail anatomy prior to the Cobbler. (Neither, by the way, was shaking a drink.) The commercial ice trade did not begin in earnest until the 1830s and even in the mid-1800s, as Mark Twain recalls in his memoir Life on the Mississippi, “Ice was jewelry; none but the rich could wear it.” So, even if the Cobbler did originate in 18th century England, it likely bore little resemblance to the ice-packed Cobbler of mid-19th century America—the version that became the most popular drink of its time. 

Cocktail historian David Wondrich is credited with digging up the first-known mention of the Sherry Cobbler from the 1838 diary of Katherine Jane Ellice, a Canadian who took note of the drink while traveling in the U.S. But its great launching pad to international renown came courtesy of Charles Dickens and his The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44). In a scene now famous among cocktail dorks, Chuzzlewit, reacting to his first Sherry Cobbler, sums up the 19th-century sentiment around the drink: “Martin took the glass with an astonished look; applied his lips to the reed; and cast up his eyes once in ecstasy. He paused no more until the goblet was drained to the last drop. ‘This wonderful invention, sir,’ said Mark, tenderly patting the empty glass, ‘is called a cobbler. Sherry Cobbler when you name it long; cobbler, when you name it short.’”

Today, some 150 years after the Sherry Cobbler’s decades-long heyday, it’s being rediscovered, both as a classic and a blueprint prime for riffing. These three variations on the drink, hailing from Denver to New Orleans, add everything from amaro to mezcal. Garnish lavishly or omit the bells and whistles—just don’t forget the straw.

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