Sherry 101: Your Ultimate Sherry Cheat Sheet

Everything you need to know about sherry

If it seems like every bartender is rhapsodizing about sherry these days, it's not your imagination. Over the past few years, sherry has morphed from off-the-radar to menu mainstay. Is it too late to start asking questions now? Not at all—we've got you covered.

What is sherry? At heart, it's just wine. But it's wine that's been fortified with spirits and is aged via the solera method, a complex approach to blending liquids of different ages. As a result, every bottle of sherry contains a mix of old (sometimes very old) and younger wines. Some types are allowed to oxidize, and that exposure to air creates gorgeous nutty or dried fruit characteristics.

Where does it come from? Spain—specifically, from white grapes that are grown near the town of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia. "Sherry" is an Anglicized version of "Jerez."

What kinds of sherry are out there? Fino is dry and saline, a perfect pairing for salty snacks; so is light and fresh manzanilla, which goes well with seafood. If you can find it, look for Tio Pepe Fino En Rama—a new vintage is issued each year; it's cloudy, tangy and refreshing.

Amontillado is oxidized and has a nutty, caramel-like flavor that some compare to lighter red wines. Full-bodied oloroso, which is also oxidized, can be sweet or dry, depending on which grapes are used to make it. Palo cortado is made differently from oloroso, though its flavor is often similar.

Finally, cream sherries are the sweet sherry that your grandma might have sipped—and no, they aren't creamy. Pedro Ximenez (PX for short) is one example, and it can be viscous, molasses-dark and sweet.

Why do bartenders like it so much? Most sherry fans cite the astonishing variety of flavors, from the briny, delicate acidity of fino and manzanilla, to the sweet, raisin-like richness of PX, which bartenders often sub for simple syrup or other sweeteners.

Because sherry works so well in cocktails, bars or restaurants that don't have a full liquor license often use sherry to concoct legal libations. For example, at Donostia in New York, look for the refreshing La Gallega, which mixes fino sherry with grapefruit, lemon, sweet vermouth, honey syrup and black pepper.

Finally, since the alcohol levels are close to wine, sherry plays well with food, so chefs enjoy using it for food pairings, too (head to DC's Mockingbird Hill, for example, to sip sherries alongside fresh-cut ham or plump, buttery Castelvetrano olives).

Okay, I'm ready. How and where do I drink it? Purists sip sherry straight via wine glasses. Manzanilla and fino resemble white wines and are refreshing served slightly chilled as a summer sipper, especially if paired with nuts, cheeses or charcuterie like Spanish jamon. The more oxidized varieties (amontillado, oloroso) are suitable for heartier fare like pork or chicken dishes. Meanwhile, save sweet, rich PX for dessert.

And then there are the multitudes of sherry cocktails. History-minded barkeeps in particular appreciate the role that sherry played in the evolution of cocktails: New Orleans's Bellocq offers a sherry cobbler modeled after the late 1800s classic: sugar, sherry and "cobblestone ice" (hence the drink name), topped with a fancy, ostentatious fruit garnish.