Purists will likely balk at the notion, but like it or not, many of sherry’s greatest American moments have been spent on crushed ice. That’s not to say it has not been sipped on its own plenty. But the connoisseurship of sherry—and wine in general—was inherited from the English. The seemingly vulgar penchant for mixing wines and spirits, tossing them in a glass, and turning it into entertainment—that’s ours.
From sangarees to punches to flips and cobblers, during the 18th century and on through the cocktail’s late-19th-century Golden Age, sherry was an integral part of the barman’s repertoire.
The 1880s and 1890s were cocktail boom times and saw the creation of two of the most enduring sherry aperitif drinks—the Adonis and the Bamboo. The latter originated in the 1890s at Grand Hotel in Yokohoma, Japan, and by 1900, it was a regular fixture on American menus, finding enough fame that it was eventually sold in premixed bottles across the country. The Adonis is essentially a variation on the same composition (as many of the drinks of this time were), with Italian vermouth moonlighting for French. By the first two decades of the 20th century, sherry had evolved from being an ingredient in simple drinks that combined fortified wines and bitters to being either a base or a modifier in drinks that contained everything from crème de roses to cracked pepper.
All three of these lesser-known classic cocktails were born during this period. The oldest of them—and the only American drink—is the Up-To-Date Cocktail, a Manhattanesque drink that first appears in Hugo Ensslin’s famous Recipes for Mixed Drinks, which is credited as the last snapshot of New York bartending before Prohibition. The passing of the 18th amendment effectively killed all motivation to smuggle in anything that wasn’t overproof and sherry’s presence in drinks became a rarity. But across the Atlantic the English had already taken up where we’d left off.
Both the Artist’s Special and the Dunhill are Prohibition-era European drinks. The Artist’s Special, a sherry and redcurrant-infused riff on the Whiskey Sour has its roots in 1920s Paris, where it was apparently invented at Fred Payne’s Bar (aka The Artist’s Bar), a famous hangout for poets and jazz musicians through the Beat Era. And the Dunhill, which drinks like a mellower take on the Negroni, is a London cocktail, born sometime before 1925 at Hatchett’s Bar in Piccadilly.
Post-prohibition, these drinks never quite made it across the pond, as sherry struggled to reenter the market anew. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that sherry began to wake up from nearly a century of slumber. But in just ten years time, it has found a place on the menus of almost every major craft cocktail bar in America.
Many of the drinks that have inspired the revival of sherry in cocktails are classic 19th-century drinks. The Sherry Cobbler has returned to its proper place among the most revered—and American—of classic cocktails. And the Bamboo and the Adonis have both been riffed on and supplanted on lists like Leo Robitschek’s at the NoMad and Joaquín Simó’s at Pouring Ribbons. But it’s only a matter of time before drinks like the Dunhill, the Artist’s Special and the Up-To-Date Cocktail—and a slew of other lesser-known classics hat have long lurked in the shadows—find their way into the spotlight once again.
A portion of this article was reprinted with permission from Sherry, by Talia Baiocchi, copyright © 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC.