The beagle is restaurateur Matt Piacentini’s latest New York City venture, a pre-Prohibition style cocktail lounge lined with blueberry and cream-patterned wallpaper. It is warm and familiar, decorated with framed vintage etiquette columns, winking at a more formal time and entreating you to put on pearls or a top hat.
And what’s wrong with that? There is much to be gained from revisiting the past, not least of which are long-lost recipes for tipple. Bar manager Dan Greenbaum is one of a handful of mixologists across the country reviving classic sherry cocktails to the delight of serious drinkers in the East Village.
“Sherry?” says Greenbaum, feigning the look of confusion on a guest’s face. “There are so many reasons why it should be more popular than it is.”
Long shackled with a reputation as a cloying dessert wine your Nana might drink before bed, sherry is produced in the Jerez de la Frontera region of Spain. But contrary to its bad rap, the majority of sherries are dry, made from the Palomino grape and fortified with brandy after the fermentation process. (Sweeter variations generally come from Pedro Ximénez or sometimes Moscatel.) Flavors can range from a cool and crisp Manzanilla to nutty Amontillado or creamy Oloroso. As a result, they are a unique foil for other spirits.
“Sherry can be challenging in that it’s oxidized, it’s stronger, and the flavor is going to be, for lack of a better word, intense,” says Greenbaum. “But people who like funkier rum or whiskies and aren’t afraid of different flavors are generally into sherry. It kind of has a cultish following.”
After consulting historical bar books such as The Savoy Cocktail Book, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, and The Stork Club Bar Book, Greenbaum concocted a rotating series of sherry drinks for The Beagle’s menu, such as his version of the Sherry Cobbler (2 glasses of sherry, 1 tablespoon sugar, 2-3 slices of orange), which dates back to the mid-19th century.
“It was the most popular drink through the early part of the 1900s, due in part because it was the first cocktail to be consumed with a straw,” he explains. “Mine pairs well with our pork rillette because it’s very rich and fatty and the Manzanilla sherry we use is very crisp.”
Owen Thomson, lead bartender for Chef José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup (The Bazaar in Los Angeles; America Eats Tavern in D.C.) concurs. “Because sherry is so food-friendly, a lot of the cocktails that I make up are designed to pair with dishes,” says Thomson. “The diverse styles are what really make sherry fun to work with. Even amongst the categories there can be a great difference in flavor profile from producer to producer, which leads to even more fun for mixing.”
Versatility, you will hear over and over again, is what makes sherry so intoxicating to its fans. “It can be caramel and fig notes—it can be nutty, dry or sweet,” says Patrick Cappiello, wine director of Manhattan’s GILT restaurant. “It spans the same scale as vermouth, but is more complex and interesting.”
His colleague, bar manager Robert Honeycutt, agrees: “It’s definitely a time when people are looking for something different,” he says. “With sherry, you can take something old and make it new again.” Their Smoky Mountain Manhattan features smoked PX sherry, combined with Jack Daniel’s that has been infused with blood orange and vanilla bean.
Award-winning mixologist and bar manager at Portland, Oregon’s Clyde Common, Jeffrey Morgenthaler likes to get more conceptual with his sherry cocktails. For the Andalusian Buck, he was “riffing on what I thought would be a very popular drink in Spain,” says Morgenthaler. “Most people don’t know this but Spain is one of the biggest gin-drinking countries in the world. And we have this really beautiful ginger beer that we brew in-house. It’s a really dry ginger beer, and it just sets up so beautifully with the nutty sherry and the strength of the botanicals of the gin.”
And in the Land of the Microbrew, are customers receptive to that whimsy? “We have a pretty sophisticated clientele here in Portland,” Morgenthaler replies. “It doesn’t freak people out.”
Back at The Beagle, Matt Piacentini gets the most pleasure out of introducing newcomers. “It’s so cool to see when we’ve turned someone on to something new,” he says. “You can see their eyes light up like, ‘Oh this is actually really good!’”
And, as long as sherry remains relatively under the radar, Greenbaum adds, “It’s also fairly inexpensive.” Cheers to that.