As a wine, as a beverage, even, fino sherry seems like it comes from a place that time forgot. The lightest and driest of all sherries, it's as if that strange, inimitable beverage from a hot corner of Spain has been created miles from any other wine or spirit, bred in isolation until it bears no resemblance to any other drink. There's nothing quite like it.
Fino sherry is made from the Palomino, Pedro Ximenez and muscat grapes in Jerez, Andalucia, Spain, not far from Seville. After harvest, the finished wine is fortified, and the casks left partly unfilled to allow a film of yeast to form on the surface of the wine, known as flor, which protects the wine as it irrevocably alters it.
If you associate wine with fruit, you might be a little thrown off by sherry. It has none. It is oddly vague at first sip -- parching, salty, hazily nutty, biting as lemon but not lemony, with a cut and texture that reminds me, weirdly, of the acid found in very good Parmesan cheese. And like Parmesan it's almost a pure shot of umami, that savory, elusive fifth taste associated with everything from mushrooms and truffles to miso and sun-dried tomatoes, a flavor that's not altogether a flavor.
For all that mystery, sherry can be quite heady stuff -- its euphoric properties never better captured than by Falstaff, Shakespeare's immortal inebriate, in Henry IV, Part 2.
In a tavern surrounded by his friends, Falstaff describes the effect of "sherri-sack," or dry sherry: "It ascends me into the brain," he begins, and "dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapors which environ it; makes it apprehensive, quick forgetive, full of nimble, fiery and delectable shapes."
So delivered to the tongue, "It becomes excellent wit."
Sherries come in various degrees of aging and sweetness, and many of these other versions -- creams, olorosos, amontillados and the like -- have for more than a century been used in taverns as bases for a variety of punches, cobblers, flips and sangarees, most of them sweet and palliative. But fino's absolute dryness, its subtle nuttiness and salinity, renders it an almost culinary element in many new cocktails, giving a mineral periphery to drinks made with bourbon and rye, heightening citrus notes, sharpening the edge of an aged rhum agricole.
With the season easing into autumn, Julian Cox at Rivera is employing fino in four of the cocktails on his fall menu, including the Jane's Addiction, a mix of vodka and fino sherry, muddled orange, lemon syrup, seltzer and a dash of bitters; and the Vote 4 Pedro, a bracing dose of medicine made with bourbon, fino, Aperol and Spanish bitters.
Meanwhile, at the Library Bar in Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel, Matthew Biancaniello employs fino in an ingenious tease served to guests before they've even had a drink. He infuses Tio Pepe sherry with a selection of seasonal fruits that, taken together, sound pretty much like a herald of fall: Asian pears, Bartlett pears, passion fruit and, soon as it's in season, persimmon. These he strains and serves as thirst-inducing amuse-bouches for his guests, a salty, fruity enticement, a calling card for one of the world's most inimitable and irresistible beverages.