How Sherry Became a Modern Tiki Staple

Largely absent from the genre’s golden age, sherry has become the unexpected hero of the tiki revival.

Sherry has benefitted greatly from the modern cocktail renaissance. With each unearthed classic, from the Bamboo to the Sherry Cobbler, the once-derided Spanish fortified wine continues to cement its status as a trusty bartender standby. Less has been said, however, of sherry’s subsequent role in the evolution of modern tiki. 

Sherry’s absence in the tiki conversation is perhaps unsurprising given the genre’s rootedness in the past. Most tiki menus concern themselves first and foremost with resurrecting and reworking lost recipes, of which only one, Trader Vic’s Fog Cutter from the 1940s, features sherry—and then only as a float. “Sherry wasn’t on anyone’s cocktail radar back when Vic created the Fog Cutter,” says bar owner and tiki historian, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, of the 1940s Trader Vic classic. The drink, which incorporates sherry as a float on top of a mixture of three types of spirit, two types of citrus and orgeat, is the only classic to call on it. “It was seen as a dainty, quaint drink for little old ladies, served in tiny pony glasses.”

That it appears at all owes only to Vic’s precociousness, explains Berry. “Trader Vic was truly ahead of his time and, as an accomplished chef with a trained palate, he experimented with many ingredients that never found their way into tropical cocktails before he introduced them,” he says. “Besides sherry in the Fog Cutter, he put Italian vermouth in his Tortuga, Cognac in his Scorpion and French orgeat in his Mai Tai.”

While sherry was nearly absent from tiki’s first golden age, it has become a staple of its second. At Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance, which hosts a weekly tiki night, owner St. John Frizell estimates that half of their original tiki drinks incorporate sherry to some degree. Likewise, at Chicago’s Lost Lake, co-owner Paul McGee recalls featuring at least a dozen sherry tiki drinks in under four years of operation.

For Will Peet, who bartends at Manhatta and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, sherry’s creep into tiki was inevitable. “It was very easy for a lot of bartenders to look at tiki, which is fun and kitschy and fucking weird and all that and say… ‘How do we play the Mr. Potato head game in that realm?,’” says Peet, in reference to the practice of taking a drink apart and putting it back together again. To that end, he sees his sherry-based riff on the Zombie, The Mauser, as a natural evolution of that drink’s blueprint, which began with Brian Miller‘s gin-based take, the Winchester, and continued with Jon Armstrong’s overproof whiskey version, the Matchlock. “As a category sherry lends to so many tiki flavors so naturally,” he says.

Indeed, in traditional tiki formulas, like the Daiquiri, it can boost existing characteristics. “In the instance of using a fino or a manzanilla, I’m doing it to get a little bit more acid, maybe a little bit of salinity, and also give [the drink] a little more complexity so it’s not just one-note lime or lemon,” says McGee. “For drinks that use orgeat or coconut I really like to use amontillado and oloroso to kind of mimic or enhance some of the nutty flavors,” a pairing he employs in his modernized Fog Cutter, which swaps the traditional cream sherry for amontillado.

Sherry’s flavor profile—saline, savory—can also bring tiki flavors outside of the typical rum-based blueprints. Perhaps most significant, however, is that sherry has enabled a genre typified by hard-hitting recipes to keep in step with the the growing demand for lower ABV drinks. “Tiki drinks get a bad rap for two reasons: They’re too sweet and they’re too strong,” says McGee, who, along with the team at Lost Lake, introduced a “Low Tipple Tiki” section to the menu earlier this year. It features drinks like the Sherry No-No, which builds on a base of fino and amontillado sherry along with Cocchi Americano, pineapple vinegar and fresh pineapple, all topped with crushed ice. 

“We’re a tropical bar that makes tropical drinks—rum drinks mainly—and we have nine to ten bottles of open sherry in our refrigerator,” says McGee. “That’s something that five years ago you just didn’t do.”

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