Sherry on Top: Can Derek Brown Help Make Sherry Cool?
In the world of booze, there is good, and there is evil.
Whipped cream-flavored vodka is evil, if you ask Derek Brown of The Passenger and Columbia Room. “Pure nihilism is why you would drink something like that, because you want the end of the world to come about quickly,” he says.
But then there are spirits that are about people, culture, coming together, and food—all the things that Brown thinks make life better. One such force for good is… sherry.
Wait, the sweet stuff your grandmother drinks?
“If your grandmother drank some of the [Pedro Ximénez sherries] we have that have been aged for 30 years—they’re extremely rich and complex going from raisins to leather and cocoa nibs—then your grandmother would be fucking cool,” Brown says. “And I would want to hang out with your grandmother and party with her.”
Brown is on a mission to turn people into sherry believers. And now he finally has a temple. Last week, he and partner Angie Salame opened Mockingbird Hill, a sherry and ham bar in Shaw named after a lyric from the Clash song “Spanish Bombs.” Head bartender Chantal Tseng, Brown’s wife, has assembled a menu with 54 varieties of the Spanish wine. But they have their work cut out for them in converting the Yellow Tail-drinking masses. At a pre-opening party last Wednesday, Brown admitted to the crowd, “You’ve got to be a crazy motherfucker to open a sherry bar.”
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Everybody knows sherry, but most Americans don’t know exactly what it is. For starters, a lot of people think all sherry is sweet. In fact, 90 percent is dry, Brown says. Others only know cooking sherry, a low-grade bastardization of the real deal with salt added to improve its shelf life.
So what is sherry? True sherry comes exclusively from a specific area in the Cádiz province of Spain. The wine is fortified, meaning alcohol is added, and aged and blended using a solera system, in which wine rotates through a series of older and older barrels. Some dry varieties, like fino and manzanilla, age under a layer of flor, a yeast that naturally forms in the barrels. Sherries with higher alcohol content don’t develop flor, exposing the wine to the air, darkening its color, and deepening its flavor.
The end products are boozier and more complex than most wines. Wine aficionados consider it a great food-pairing drink. At Mockingbird Hill, every glass comes with a little snack—walnuts, olives, chocolate—that complements and brings out the flavors. The sherry most people know is called cream sherry, a blend of sweet and dry varieties which Brown says can be good, but the many cheap imitations have given it a bad name. (And no, there’s no cream in it.)
More than grandmothers, Brown associates sherry with pirates. Sherry became wildly popular in England after sea captain Francis Drake raided thousands of barrels from the Spanish Armada in the 16th century. In the U.S., sherry hasn’t always had a lousy reputation. The first wine to come to the “New World” was sherry: Christopher Columbus brought it, and it was popular in colonial days. The Spanish wine was also a key ingredient in many early American cocktails and punches. “You can’t know classic cocktails and not know about sherry,” says Brown.
For Brown, falling in love with sherry was gradual. The first time he tried it, he thought it was good, but nothing special. He later tried it in an “awesome” Adonis cocktail, which includes dry sherry, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters. From there, he started pairing it with food and sampling the full range of sherries—from bone dry to syrupy sweet. “I realized, holy crap, this is really dynamic,” he says. “It’s like one of those things where you catch a song for the first time, you hear a piece of it, and you’re like, ‘That’s cool.’ And then later you keep humming it in your head. And that’s, I think, what happened with sherry.”
Tseng went through a similar conversion. She admits she didn’t like sherry the first time she tried it; now, she calls it her “spirit drink.” “I want it with all my meals…There’s so much history. There’s so much I get every time I sip it,” she says. “It’s transportive.”
Brown and Tseng had traveled to Spain before, but in 2011, they made their first trip to Jerez, where they visited sherry bodegas. Just a few months later, they committed to opening a sherry and ham bar. Brown wanted to do something bold, not another iteration of his cocktail bars. The ham, a quintessential Spanish pairing, partnered naturally with the wine. Mockingbird Hill offers four local varieties of ham plus Spanish serrano, which is carved in front of guests at a station at the end of the bar.
Despite the Spanish inspiration, Brown does not consider Mockingbird Hill a Spanish bar. There’s nothing particularly Spanish-looking about the simple space, which consists of a long bar lined with metal-and-wood stools and white-painted exposed brick walls. He didn’t want to create some insincere Disneyfied simulacra; the idea was to take things he loves about Spain, sherry, and ham, and translate them into a D.C. bar.
Mockingbird Hill isn’t alone in pushing a sherry revival. The wine is a beloved underdog among sommeliers and bar industry folks.
“Personally, I think it’s one of the great values in wine in the world, because of the complexity,” says Estadio wine director Max Kuller. Sherries aged 10 or more years sometimes cost as little as $12 to $15 retail, Kuller says. “The amount of labor that goes into making those wines and the cost of aging the wines for that length of time, it’s just not done anywhere,” he says. “Even if you doubled contemporary prices on some of these sherries, they’re still incredible values.” The relative under-the-radar status has helped keep prices low.
Even many restaurants don’t understand the wine. Kuller says he often sees all sherries lumped together on the after-dinner drink menu, when many are more akin to white wines and best paired with a meal. “There is kind of this stigma,” he says.
Mockingbird Hill is part of a movement to change that stigma, Kuller says. He credits Spanish and French wine importer De Maison Selections, based in Chapel Hill, N.C., for helping lead sherry’s comeback. (De Maison also supplies some wines to Mockingbird Hill.) The company has a seven-part manifesto, T-shirts, and a hashtag (#sherryrevolution).
Sherry is getting “hot” in New York and San Francisco. But D.C.? The Red Hen co-owner and beverage director Sebastian Zutant says his initial reaction to Mockingbird Hill was twofold: 1) It was awesome 2) It was concerning: “I hope the city is ready for it.”
But if anyone could get away with running a successful sherry bar in D.C., it’s Brown, nationally recognized for his cocktail expertise. “It had to be somebody with a big enough name to swing it,” Zutant says.
Kuller says Estadio’s sherry sales saw a bump just after Brown announced plans for the bar. “I think they’ll be able to convert a lot of people,” Kuller says. “We have too.”
But Brown realizes it’s going to require some education. The team will hold free classes every Tuesday from 5 to 6 p.m. Meanwhile, the menu is broken down by different types of sherry, with entire paragraphs describing how each is made and what it tastes like.
Brown says Mockingbird Hill is like “14-year-old Derek shaking 30-year-old Derek’s hand.” As a teenager, Brown eschewed stadium concerts for small punk and hardcore shows where he could meet the people on stage. “Fourteen-year-old Derek is still saying something like, ‘You know what? Open a place that connects to people with products that aren’t in everyone’s gaze…and you’re doing right by the world.’”
Mockingbird Hill is his attempt to help good booze conquer evil. “We’re not the type of people not to take sides,” says Brown. He twists on the barstool to point to the bold letters printed on the front window. “It says Drink More Sherry, Eat More Ham. It’s kind of unequivocal.”
Mockingbird Hill, 1843 7th St. NW; (202) 316-9396; drinkmoresherry.com
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery