Craft cocktail bars commonly include a drink or two that include Sherry in the mix these days. It's a slow road back for the iconic wine which once was routinely quaffed in quantity at restaurants around the world, but is now more likely sought after by whiskey makers for the barrels left behind, but cocktails have proven to be helpful in acquainting a new generation into the joys and complexities of the fortified wine.
That's especially true in the US, where the organization of Sherry producers has long engaged spirits guru Steve Olsen to help, and among other things, Olsen has orchestrated an annual Sherry cocktail competition that has attracted top flight bartenders to compete.
But one competition does not a trend make, which is why news that major producer Gonzalez Byass (owner of famed Tio Pepe, among other brands) will launch their Sherry Apprentice bartender competition in the US next year is welcome. The competition’s objective is to develop interest in Sherry as part of drinking and cocktail trends. Gonzalez Byass hopes to develop ambassadors for Sherry, inspire new talent and promote knowledge and enjoyment of Sherry in markets with great potential.
The annual finals, held this month in Jerez at the Gonzalez Byass bodega, had focused on Asia, and this year the finalists from China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore had won heats back home to get to Spain. Made up of two parts, the competition first tested participants after a master class about the variety and styles of Sherries taught by Gonzalez Byass experts, including the history of Jerez, climate, soil and grape varieties. Then on to the two part service test: skill in using a venencia (the traditional Jerezano way of serving Sherry from the barrel that involves a theatrical pour from a cup at the end of flexible shaft held above the head and poured into a Sherry glass), and creativity in creating new cocktails, using Gonzalez Byass spirits brands but with Sherry as the principle ingredient.
This year’s winner, Natalie Lau from Aqua in Hong Kong quit her job as a teacher to take up the bar trade a little more than a year ago, but her verve and accuracy in pouring sherry and her two drinks - Fragantia de Oriente (Tio Pepe fino, Mancino bianco vermouth, Aperol and ginger cinnamon oil) and Flor Revoluton (Tio Pepe, chili-infused gin, lime juice, simple syrup, and salted celery egg foam) made her the hands down best. But next year, with more nations competing, the level of skill needed to win undoubtedly will be notched higher, and there are any number of Sherry enthusiasts in the US who will start sharpening their skills the moment they know there’s an international stage awaiting them.