Psst! I've got a secret and, boy, am I eager to share it with you. It's one word, six letters.
Yep, sherry. And I'm not just talking about that cream stuff your grandmother sips daintily out of a wee glass cup. I'm talking sherry in all its various guises, from dryly crisp to richly nutty to, OK, seductively sweet. Enjoyed in Spain for centuries, sherry has a place at the table (and the party) today, whether you are noshing on olives, ham and nuts before dinner or forking down a decadent chocolate cake afterward.
Trouble is, most Americans don't realize all the possibilities sherry offers. That's why the Secret Sherry Society was formed (secretsherrysociety.com).
The society delivers the serious goods about sherry with the help of high-wattage stars like chef Wylie Dufresne of New York's famed WD-50 restaurant and mixologist Nate Dumas of Brooklyn's Clover Club. But it's all done with tongue firmly in cheek; the Web site is stocked with fun stuff like "exploding" videos, not-so-secret passwords, cyber blindfolds and portraits that move mysteriously inside their frames.
"Sherry is relatively unknown and undervalued in this country, so to get it on the radar screen of American wine drinkers, we had to do something fun with it and make it more accessible," said Lisa Mendelson, a spokeswoman for the Sherry Council of America, the Washington, D.C., sponsor of the Secret Sherry Society.
Mendelson said sherry does have its base of fans, many of the older generation. But she said younger people are beginning to drink sherry, too, especially in cocktails whipped up by inventive mixologists.
One such mixologist is Charles Joly of The Drawing Room in Chicago. Nationally known for his creative cocktail concoctions, Joly entered and won a prestigious council-sponsored contest to create the top sherry cocktail. His Bread & Wine incorporated a dry oloroso sherry, scotch and absinthe with lemon juice and a touch of maple syrup. For Joly, the appeal of sherry lies in its diversity as well as its flavor.
"You can take a dry sherry like a fino, and at the other end of the spectrum there's a Pedro Ximenez that you'd barely think was in the same category. That's a beautiful thing," he said. "The younger generation needs to try it. And if cocktails serve as an introduction, maybe they'll think it's something they can drink straight."
Joly encounters a number of people reluctant to try sherry because they mistakenly fear it's too sweet. He said the best way to learn about sherry might just be asking your friendly neighborhood mixologist to measure out some pours of various sherries and pair them with food.
"Get out there and try different things," he said. "Maybe instead of a glass of wine or sparkling wine, have a sherry. Experiment."
Portraits of 'The Eight Unknown'
Sherry is a fortified wine, dosed with brandy to bring the alcohol content up to 18 percent, depending on the type of sherry being made. There are two broad divisions between sherries that basically come down to whether the sherry develops a yeast film, called flor, during creation. The flor keeps out oxygen, which is why fino and manzanilla sherries are so pale. Sherries without the flor, like oloroso, are exposed to air and develop a brown color and nutty flavor.
The Secret Sherry Society offers fun, useful descriptions of sherry varieties online with "The Eight Unknown" (secretsherrysociety.com), which playfully ascribes human features to each. Here is some of what the society has to say:
1 Fino: The palest member of the sherry family. Fino's dry, yet delicate wit is the perfect aperitif to a good meal. Serve chilled with Spanish olives, Marcona almonds or manchego cheese.
2 Manzanilla: Fino's crisp, refreshing offspring, manzanilla, gets its slightly salty characteristic from its seaside hometown of Sanlucar de Barrameda. Serve chilled with Spanish olives or Marcona almonds.
3 Amontillado: Dry, robust and just the slightest bit nutty. Pairs beautifully with chicken, cured cheeses and smoked fish. Darker than fino but lighter than oloroso.
4 Oloroso: Dark, full-bodied and smooth, with a slightly higher alcohol content than the other sherries. Pairs best with salty or spicy cured meats, like serrano ham or any red meat.
5 Palo cortado: Oloroso's lesser-known sibling, palo cortado, combines the nose of an amontillado with the flavor of an oloroso. This sherry is the perfect match for any meat or seafood.
6 Cream: When oloroso and Pedro Ximenez get together, sweet, velvety cream sherry is born. Best served over ice or paired with a butter cookie.
7 Moscatel: Sweet, soft and always ready for dessert. Delicious with a piece of dark chocolate.
8 Pedro Ximenez: Rich, dark and always has raisins in his pocket. Pairs best with dark chocolate and oranges, or served over vanilla ice cream.