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The latest spirit to make a cocktail comeback

Bartender Mike Webster mixes a Maria de Sevilla, made with many homemade ingredients, at Bar Isabel in Toronto's Little Italy, Jan. 3 , 2014.

J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

Sherry can be a tough sell, something Alec Colyer, bar manager at Cava, the long-standing Spanish restaurant in Toronto's midtown, knows only too well.

"We recently had a table of gentlemen in here who said they wanted to start with a half-bottle of sherry," Colyer recalls. "Then they all laughed. Turned out they were making a joke. There's definitely a stigma that we have to get past, but I think it's happening."

"For a lot of people, the first taste they had of sherry was from their parents' liquor cabinet and it was probably at room temperature and had been sitting there for years," says Jay Jones, executive bartender for Vancouver's Donnelly Group restaurants. "They decided it was gross and didn't need to try it again."

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But with the craft cocktail community's newfound enthusiasm for the fortified wine, sherry is turning the corner. The revival seems practically inevitable, given that bartenders are using ingredients from the pre-Prohibition and colonial eras, when sherry was much more common, and the explosion of Spanish tapas restaurants (sherry is produced in Andalusia, Spain). It's also been rediscovered as a way to sweeten drinks without refined sugar, a frequent request from health-conscious patrons.

"Sherry cocktails are one of those gateway drugs that we use to introduce people to the concept of fortified wines," says Derek Brown, owner of Mockingbird Hill in Washington, America's first dedicated sherry bar. "This draws on the American tradition, which is much more centred on the sherry cocktail than drinking it straight, something that goes back to the colonial days."

Sherry, like all wine, has a shelf life – which is why that bottle in your parents' liquor cabinet tasted foul. The fino and manzanilla varieties start to deteriorate a couple of days after opening; other varietals can last up to two months. And, while the perfect serving temperature varies between styles, all benefit from some chilling.

Figuring out the ideal way of handling each varietal has been a steep learning curve for bartenders, who have tweaked to the possibility of sweet, cream sherries that impart a rich, raisin-y base to winter warmers. Savoury fino sherries are being used to balance out tequila and mezcal cocktails in roughly the same way vermouth is used to temper gin in a martini.

According to Brown, the Sherry Cobbler (sherry, sugar, crushed ice and fruit) was one of the first popular sherry cocktails. He began seeing it on modern menus about five or six years ago. Since then, people have been experimenting with classic cocktails, swapping out liquor for sherry. This substitution works especially well with sturdy, sweet sherries, says Mike Webster, whose Jerez Fashioned, made with cream sherry, bitters and a hint of rum, is a hit on his new sherry-centric cocktail menu at Toronto's Bar Isabel. He's discovered that also it fits in well with another burgeoning trend: low-alcohol libations.

Although Webster is a veteran of the Toronto cocktail scene, he's relatively new to sherry and credits the new obsession to his recent immersion in Spanish food and drink at Bar Isabel (named best new Toronto restaurant in 2013 by The Globe and Mail).

"Since Bar Isabel is related to Spanish culture, by virtue of its decor, name and food, I felt it was my responsibility to learn more about this ancient wine," says Webster, who travelled to Jerez, Spain, taking "every opportunity" to drink as much sherry as he could. He also managed to bring back 37 bottles in his luggage.

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Although he complains about both the variety and quality of the sherry available in Canada, Webster has managed to hoard enough from LCBO special releases to design a winter menu showcasing four sherry cocktails. The Maria from Sevilla is a concoction of manzanilla, brandy, Italian bitters and lemon. He also makes a flip with East India solera sherry, an ingredient he calls a "cocktail unto itself" – it flew off LCBO shelves almost the moment it hit them.

Of course, part of the reason it sold so quickly is that half of the stock was quickly bought up and nestled away at Cava, where sherry shortages have been a problem for years.

"We're just hopeful," Cava's Colyer says, "that the cocktail community embracing sherry will continue to lead to more people importing it."

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