American drinkers are a thirsty lot: literally, figuratively and sometimes pejoratively. So ample is our polydipsia that it feels like nary a drinking leitmotif has gone unriffed. Love a highball? Here’s a hundred. Crave a gimlet? Try a dozen. Looking for a drink whose stateside song has yet to be fully sung? Well—settle in. I think we’ve found one.
The drink in question is the Rebujito, a distinctly southern Spanish cocktail with curiously little in the way of North American buzz. That should change: A refreshing, delicious and complex blend of lemon-lime soda, fino or manzanilla sherry and ice, the populist Rebujito is the stuff of Andalusian legend, fueling hot nights of summer revelry in the Sherry Triangle.
Some are convinced the Rebujito’s origin story harkens back to before the American Civil War and the dawn of the Sherry Cobbler, which is said to have been invented in the United States sometime in the 1820s, when ingredients like ice, sugar, and citrus all became widely available. The drink became a seminal, epochal cocktail, wildly influential on the development of cocktail culture (and credited with helping popularize the drinking straw), with a literary drinking history unrivaled in the 19th century; the Sherry Cobbler shows up everywhere, from Charles Dickens and Jules Verne to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James.
In what is perhaps an undertold instance of the so-called “pizza effect,” the widely popular Sherry Cobbler allegedly made its way back to Andalusia, where sherry originates. José Luis Jiménez García appears to be the first to have connected the Rebujito to the Sherry Cobbler, writing about the drinks’ shared history for a newspaper in Jerez (La Voz de Jerez, no longer publishing) in 2007. “Rebujito was a later drink, influenced by the international popularity of Sherry Cobbler,” writes Jiménez García, adding that, where the Rebujito is concerned, “Many have concluded that the drink originated here, without knowing of the previous existence of the Sherry Cobbler.”
Not everyone agrees with this take. “I’m more inclined to think of it as a simple and natural part of the highball family history,” says bartender and drinks educator Chantal Tseng. “With the advent of carbonated beverages in general, highballs rose to fame as easy-to-make and refreshing tipples including unaged [and] aged spirits as well as fortified wines.” In this way, the Rebujito’s origin is seen as less a hermeneutical feedback loop, and more a product of modern invention, particularly with the advent of mass-produced soft drinks in the 20th century.
By the 1950s, the market for soda was growing across Spain, driven by the opening of Coca-Cola’s first production facility in Spain, in 1953. The Kalimotxo (red wine with Coke over ice) rose to prominence in the north around this time. Meanwhile, in the south—Sherry country—casual drinkers began mixing light, quaffable fino and manzanilla sherries with lemon-lime soda, often finished with a sprig of fresh mint. “I think there may be a story out there about drinking manzanillas and finos that have been open for a while with sodas as a way to avoid waste,” says Tseng. “One can see a beverage program easily adapting to making Rebujitos with this in mind.”
Whether intentional or not, the Rebujito acts as a sort of carbonated approximation of a Sherry Cobbler, but with a ready-made mixture of citrus, carbonation and sugar in the form of 7UP, Sprite or Fanta. “To me, as a local, this drink is part of my heritage,” says Mario Muñoz González, a portfolio manager at Lustau. “It is something I am very proud of as it is a major element of our local culture. It’s the perfect parallel of how sherry is still evolving and adapting itself to new horizons and a new world of possibilities.”
This sense of expressiveness and pride is something I heard echoed in conversations from many working in the sherry space, all of whom were delighted to be asked about the Rebujito in the first place, given its relatively low profile in the U.S. “For many Spaniards, [a] Rebujito is a trip down memory lane,” says Antonio Flores, master blender at González Byass. “Rebujito reminds people of everything they have lived during the years. It’s linked to Spanish traditions, with the Spanish horses, flamenco dresses, music, dancing and, naturally, sherry.”
As a low-ABV, two-ingredient highball with overseas cool factor and endless riffing potential, the Rebujito is primed for a breakout, like the White Port & Tonic or the Scotch & Coconut—simple, delicious, rooted to place and endlessly customizable.
In regards to that latter trait, Jiménez García writes about canned versions of the Rebujito—including the “Sarandonga” by Espadafor, no longer in production, as well as the “Croft Twist” by González Byass, in which elderflower takes the place of traditional citrus. Bartender Dan Greenbaum describes the Rebujito model as “not something to fuss around with too much” (he offers a Tom Collins–inspired version built on manzanilla, simple syrup, lemon juice and soda water), while Tseng sees the drink as a more expansive canvas, upon which to experiment with craft sodas, coconut water or even Aperol and sparkling wine, for a “sort of a combo Rebujito and bitter spritz.”
Ever the water nerd, my perfect Rebujito involves Vichy Catalan ice cubes, Equipo Navazos La Bota 58 Amontillado (very untraditional), hecho en México Sprite and a sprig of flowering rosemary, which I can pick off the sidewalk here in Portland in late summer. I didn’t grow up chugging these on those hot summer nights at the Feria de Jerez, and that’s fine; with its affable simplicity and easygoing nature, the drink can be as personal as you desire, to be crafted thoughtfully or drunk reflexively, as the moment and the mood allow. Lustau’s Muñoz González puts it best: “The Rebujito is pure energy and it cannot be created or destroyed,” he says. “It can only be transformed.”