Maybe your only experience with sherry was when Nana sent you to the store for “milk and eggs, dearie…and don’t forget the sherry.” And perhaps Shaw is the last place you’d expect to find that old-school wine with chest hair... but didn’t you know? Sherry is cool again, son.
The husband-and-wife team behind Mockingbird Hill is here to resurrect what, until now, only conjured images of old ladies with blue hair and Christmas fruitcake. That's right, it's a veritable shrine to sherry and ham–two of our favorite edibles. In preparation, Derek Brown, owner of The Passenger, Columbia Room and recently-opened Eat the Rich; and Chantal Tseng, who recently left a long tenure at The Tabard Inn, have drank a lot of sherry. A lot. “We love it,” says Brown. “All we do is find what we love and try to share it with people. We want [Mockingbird Hill] to be a place where curious people can come and try amazing sherries from all around the world.”
Let’s face it, you have to graduate from that wine with a kangaroo on the bottle sometime. “Especially when sherry is so unique and has so much history to it,” says Brown–we say it tastes mighty fine, too.
From the Phoenicians to the Spaniards to the Brits, sherry has 3,000 years of colorful history. “Sherry’s always been a part of American culture,” says Brown. “Christopher Columbus had sherry on board. Magellan sailed around the world with sherry, and spent more money on it than his food and crew. In colonial America, they drank sherry all the time.”
A fortified wine, made only in the “Sherry Triangle” towns of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain, sherry begins life as an ordinary table wine made from pale green palomino grapes grown in soil so chalky white, it might give Michael Kenneth Williams pause.
Then the fun begins. After fermentation, sherry is aged in barrels called sherry butts, where spirits are added to stabilize it—and more importantly—increase the alcohol content. A necessary step seeing as there were no refrigerators during the Age of Discovery (or, more recently, on that fixed-gear bike). The journeys were so long in fact, that sherry would be aged in sherry butts while at sea.
Some popular types of sherry to explore on your own? Fino, which is crisp, delicate and dry, or Oloroso, which is aged the longest at ten or more years, and Amontillado, which is the best of both worlds. “Amontillado has beautiful confectionery notes then finishes bone dry,” says Tseng. “It’s great with meats, cheeses and miso soup.” Miso soup? No arguments here. “Amontillado is a slam dunk with Asian foods,” added Brown, “especially anything with soy or fish sauces, because it shares a lot of the same umami flavor.”
And somewhere between Finos and Amontillados lives Palo Cortado which, while considered dry, is rich and nutty from all that barrel-aging. Great with Manchego, a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese, it's equal parts rich and nutty.
If you like Moscato, dessert wines (or even Arbor Mist), try a sweet cream sherry or the even sweeter Pedro Ximénez. Dessert sherries start with dried grapes to concentrate the sugar before fermenting. “Cream sherries are barrel-aged too,” says Tseng, “and are great with rich, fatty meat dishes, foie gras or walnuts.”
Since food and sherry go hand in hand like, well, a hand in another hand, Mockingbird Hill stocks over 50 different sherries right alongside a slew of Spanish hams like Bellota and Serrano, plus great local hams from Cured DC and Red Apron Butchery. Look for Edwards & Sons’ Surryano ham from Surrey, Virginia, aged for 400 days then cold-smoked for eight. “Sherry is meant to be paired with food,” says Brown. “It changes the whole nature of it.” That’s why you get Manzanilla olives, peanuts or walnut brittle to pair with your sherry of choice.
“When you sip sherry, you might not like it,” says Brown. “But you can’t dismiss it. It’s a beautiful, complex and enticing spirit with a great community behind it.”
Mockingbird Hill offers free classes on sherry every Tuesday from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., and classes on ham Wednesdays from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Classes are first come, first served, so come early or risk being banished to the back of the class.