“I’m from Mexico, and I grew up drinking mezcal instead of milk,” Miguel tells me. Standing behind the archipelago of small white counters that separate mixologists from patrons at Jose Andrés’ Barmini, he holds a hand over his head to draw attention to his less than imposing height. “That’s why I ended up like this.”
Spend some time at Barmini, and you’ll quickly realize that each bartender has his or her own fascinations, passions, and pet projects, and those things have a way of popping up in the big silver tome of cocktails at the upscale watering hole.
For Miguel, a native of Puebla, that passion is mezcal. And since a cocktail at Barmini often comes with a personal explanation from the person who devised the recipe, Miguel spends a lot of time discussing mezcal with strangers.
On this particular night, Miguel is talking mezcal in the context of 1519, a cocktail where the distilled maguey plant meets sherry.
“I tried to find a way to combine Mexico and Spain, and I learned that there’s a lot of history,” he says of 1519’s origins. “The Spaniards conquered the Aztec Empire in 1519, and they took back to Europe all of the gold and mescal and tequila.”
With this cocktail, Miguel has combined two kinds of sherry – oloroso and px sherry – with mezcal, added dry vermouth to balance the sweetness of the latter sherry, and topped the whole thing off with habanero bitters.
Why is Miguel bringing mezcal and sherry together? Sherry Week, a celebration of the fortified wine that was technically last week, but lives on for another few days at Barmini.
With that in mind, BYT visited Barmini with Cordial Fine Wine and Spirits owner Eric Rohleder to sample the offerings.
Sherry is no stranger to Barmini’s 100-drink menu, but while some of those offerings include sherry, according to beverage manager Jhonathan Cano, they are not “sherry-forward.”
One such beverage, Gopalito, found a home on the menu six months ago, after Jose Andrés visited the bar with a lifelong friend and challenged mixologist JP to come up with a drink in his honor.
“We made it right in the moment,” JP tells me. “Back then, I was playing with sesame oil. Every cocktail, I was adding sesame oil.”
With its savoriness and strong aroma, sesame oil can be an overpowering addition to any drink, and JP was trying to balance it with a busy mix of citrusy amontillado sherry, gin, honey, ginger, sudachi, and lemon.
“The first time I made it, I used too much sesame. I was too focused on it,” the Korean native shares. “Jose Andrés tried it and said, ‘Ah, that’s too much.'”
The Barmini head honcho tweaked the recipe, settling on a more subtle sesame presence.
“The first time, you smelled it and thought, ‘Ah, this is sesame oil!’” JP tells me. “With this one, you have to look for it.”
Currently, JP is looking for inspiration in stranger places – specifically, the nexus of fat and alcohol.
“The idea is to get all of the flavor and some of the mouthfeel from the fat,” he shares, making us promise not to reveal the details of one not-quite-ready-for-primetime fusion.
The man’s curiosity is infectious to the point where liquor infused fat actually sounds tasty.
My first exposure to sherry – or, more accurately, the existence of sherry – came when I was in the the fourth grade and my mother consumed a little too much of it one night. The next morning, when she began asking me questions about the previous evening, I was introduced to the concept of “blacking out.” Needless to say, very early in my life, I learned that sherry is an alcohol to take seriously.
Many years later, I lived with someone in the wine and spirits business. He would occasionally bring a box of half-consumed bottles – the leftovers of a particular event or tasting. On a few occasions, these spoils contained sherry, and my roommate would give me impromptu crash course in the wine. That roommate was Eric Rohleder, so it only made sense for the Cordial owner to accompany me and continue humoring my dumb questions.
“Sherry has always been a favorite of mine to sip on,” he tells me, cradling a simple mix of oloroso, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters that’s billed as the Adonis. “When I was in Spain this summer, I stayed in Cadiz, which is sherry country. It’s such a gracious place. Most of the people who make sherry are traditional families that have handed down the business from generation to generation.”
Does it surprise Rohleder that sherry’s popularity has risen to the point of swanky Sherry Week menus around town?
“A little bit. I didn’t think sherry would ever be a thing,” he responds. “But this is DC, so anything can be a thing.”
The Adonis – like the Bambu (amontillado, blanc vermouth, angostura, and orange bitters) and the Second Marriage (px sherry, bourbon, apple brandy, angostura) – is a playful, sherry-forward twist on a traditional cocktail.
As you might expect, though, Minibar’s sherry offerings aren’t afraid to get a little weirder.
The Caminito de Jerez mixes manzanilla, apple vinegar, celery bitters, pickled garlic juice, and vodka infused with chives. On paper, this sounds like something devised to repel vampires – or, more realistically, the opposite sex – but the cocktail is delightfully refreshing.
“This is a ninja drink,” Rohleder opines in what I assume is next-level industry speak. “It’s light. Very subtle. And you don’t get a lot of garlic drinks”
Barmini infuses the vodka in-house, placing the liquor and vegetable in a vacuum bag for an hour – any more and you might tip the scales of bitterness and spice.
“The bartender who created this cocktail struggled with it at first,” JP recalls. “Because there were so many unusual things, he couldn’t find the balance. Finally, he made it, and when Jose Andrés tasted, he really liked it.”
Visually, Bambu isn’t much to look at – an understated sifter with a few strands of chives taking the place of cocktail straws. Then again, maybe it’s that everything pales in comparison to the 2 Stops to Montilla.
Montilla is the region of Spain that produces amontillado – a particularly nutty variety of sherry. Outside of Spain, the two metaphorical stops the cocktail makes are Japan (with the addition of hojicha syrup) and the Netherlands (genever gin). To this itinerary, add lavender bitters and sesame oil, which combine to create the sea for a chiseled glacier topped with lavender and “gold flakes.”
The 2 Stops to Montilla is a spectacle of a drink. It is so beautiful that you don’t want to touch it. It is also on regular menu and not exclusive to Sherry Week.
“This is the most seductive drink I’ve ever seen,” Rohleder marvels.
Unsurprisingly, this golden cocktail comes at a steep price – $16 dollars. Perhaps that’s a tag you’ll balk at, which is assuredly a reasonable response.
But I will say this: I have ordered a Cogote at a certain DC hotel restaurant bar, watched the bartender spend less than ten seconds winging the preparation, and then been charged $12. In the grand scheme of sky-rocketing cocktail costs, I’m pretty OK paying four dollars more for a work of art in a glass.
Here’s another crazy concoction for you: the Leatherette. A popular staple of the brandy section, the cocktail is a swirl of oloroso, Spanish vermouth, lavender bitters, rye, and the star of the show – brandy aged in a leather satchel.
“People loooove this drink,” JP tells me. “It has a great depth and complexity.”
People also love a good story, and since a Jose Andrés establishment never skimps on presentation, the leather bag – traditionally used in Spain to store wine – makes an appearance at our table.
A little later in the evening, Jose stops by our table to share the story behind the Cartujano, a frothy and just-sweet-enough beverage made with manzanilla (a dry, salty sherry) oloroso (a more robust sherry), cognac, chamomile, egg, lime, agnostura, and house-made chicha morada.
“It was inspired by the famous horse from Heres, where the people drink sherry and eat pineapple,” the bartender shares. “We tried it with just oloroso at first, but it was too sweet and we didn’t taste enough of the sherry.”
The idea for the cocktail came to Jose after an early evening of drinking sherry was followed by a trip to China Chilcano, Andrés’ fusion of Peruvian Criollo, Chinese Chifa and Japanese Nikkei.
“I still had the sherry on my palette when I went to China Chilcano, where they have a chicha morada lemonade,” Jose says of the aha moment. ““We’re constantly looking for inspiration and tasting different spirits.”
Rohleder seems pleased with our final cocktail of the evening.
“I don’t want to call it a desert drink,” he says with a stomach full of sherry. “But it’s a nice little tart creation.”