I said I wasn’t a cocktail drinker. After all, my passion is researching into, tasting, and learning about wines. Especially Old World wines like the archetypal Spanish and French varietals. I said I thought the alcohol volume in spirits was too much for me to tolerate, so I’d rather stay with a red fruit expressive pinot noir, or a sharp crease offered by grüner veltliner.
My foray into cocktails was mild to say the least. I’m of British origin so no surprise, a gin and tonic was my cocktail comfort zone. I also had some really long-standing preconceived ideas of what cocktails were – a sort of rite of passage into an adult club, or proof that you could converse over drinks without getting too loud.
It’s funny, right? The things that we drag along with us, not the least of which is the notion that sherry, as a drink, should be confined to a room with a large floral couch, or worse, sensible conversation in clothes that have propriety and an afternoon nap.
Then I met Nicole Osmanski. A Laguna Beach native who is a San Diego transplant by way of the San Francisco Bay Area. Nicole became a Certified Sommelier in 2013, but her love of flavours began long before that in early childhood – on a chair in the kitchen making crepes, consuming her favourite Food Network show “Two Hot Tamales,” and absorbing Julia Child’s “Art of French Cooking.”
The world of food, inspired baking and foundational recipe definition influenced her understanding that the essential ingredients in any cocktail must lead to balance. In time, moving adroitly through the restaurant and bar business, and wine, beer, and spirits buying, Nicole developed a penchant for crafting cocktails that were often based on tried-and-true recipes, yet also had a modern flair.
Dissatisfied with the “run of the mill” process for cocktail making, Nicole set her sights on techniques for cocktail recipe creation that included an array of flavour offered by sherries – Manzanilla sherry as an inspiration for the Old Fashioned and Oloroso for her Old Spaniard recipe (below). Her understanding of wines fueled her cocktail inventiveness. Wines like German riesling, Argentinian torrontes and Italian Alto-Adige kerner continue to offer her flavour inspiration.
New World approach
Cocktails that depend exclusively on spirits tend to have a high alcohol by volume (ABV). Nicole’s skills have developed over the past 20 years to a point where she can re-imagine almost anything in a cocktail, lower its ABV by using sherry, and bring it to life using specially prepared infusions, syrups, tinctures and bitters that add nuance, texture and flavour. Some of her favourite syrups are miso-maple, truffle-honey, and juniper-citrus. Using fruit jam, she can add viscosity and a hint of acidity, or substituting verjus and yuzu in place of citrus juices.
Nicole makes craft cocktails that are in a class of their own because using sherry lets her creativity run wild! She explains that “Sherry is multilayered, it has a fresh acidity, oxidative qualities, umami, and a fruitiness and nuttiness that varies with sherry’s diverse styles.”
I asked Nicole where she diverges from the traditional approach to cocktail making. She often uses Blanc vermouth with Fino sherry because the Fino adds salinity and savoury elements while the vermouth provides structure, bitterness, and a floral quality. Indeed, by adding Fino to a barrel-aged cocktail she “…can lighten it up and make other flavours pop a little more.”
She never uses white sugar. Instead, Nicole adds flavours with sweetness, electing to use, for example, maple syrup, birch sugar, or sugar cane, and syrups made with extracts she prepares herself using organic ingredients. Nicole is a coffee aficionado, and she roasts her own coffee beans in search of a fruity, light roast that lets the flavour and tartness shine. She uses this bespoke coffee in a cocktail she crafts using Pedro Ximenez (PX) sherry as its base.
Sherry’s cocktail versatility
There are sherries for every kind of cocktail and Nicole’s knowledge coupled with her sense of adventure plays to each of their strengths. Fino goes with light flavours, other fortified wines and spirits like vodka, white rum, and gin. It has a sympatico with herbal and floral characteristics. Manzanilla is like Fino in its pairings and can be a great compliment to cocktails that include cucumber, celery or fennel.
Amontillado works really well with tequila reposado, brandy and bourbon and is a wonderful highlight showing flavours like vanilla, toffee, caramel and baking spices. Oloroso finds its niche with darker spirits such as whiskies, aged rums, añejo tequilas and brandies.
PX and Moscatel are sweet, viscous and dark showing raisin, date, figs, and walnut flavours. They also work very well with dark spirits, especially aged rums, añejo tequila and brandy. They can easily be used to craft an Old Fashioned.
Sherry can excite and challenge the palate and Nicole focuses on marrying surprising flavours that are complex and unusual. Flavours that she wants to have sing out of the glass harmoniously. She convinced me to reconsider cocktails, and you can try them for yourself using two of her most flavourful and entertaining sherry cocktail recipes.
This Manzanilla Old Fashioned showcases the signature chamomile aroma that Manzanilla was named for (Manzanilla means “chamomile” in Spanish). Saffron bitters echo the chamomile’s earthy, floral notes and a few drops of saltwater accentuate the sherry’s seaspray minerality.
- 1/3 oz chamomile-citrus syrup*
- 3 oz Manzanilla
- 4 drops saltwater (20% salt to water)
- 1 dash orange bitters
- Garnish: orange peel & saffron bitters
Add the ingredients to a mixing glass filled with ice and stir quickly to chill. Strain into a rocks glass and garnish with an expressed orange peel and a spritz (or two drops) of saffron bitters.
*Chamomile-citrus syrup: Combine 1/2 cup boiling water with 1 tablespoon of loose chamomile tea (or 3 tea bags) and 2 strips of lemon peel. Let sit for 10 minutes then strain liquid into a pot and heat over medium-low with 1 cup demerara (or granulated) sugar, stirring to dissolve sugar. Once sugar is dissolved, turn off heat then whisk in 2 tablespoons orange marmalade. Strain again if needed.
This reimagining of an Old Cuban cocktail swaps out aged rum for Oloroso, with molasses-based bitters adding rum-like notes of burnt sugar and barrel spice. Pineapple marries well with Oloroso’s dried fruit and nut flavors while lime adds refreshing lift and acidity.
- 6-8 mint leaves
- 1/2 oz lime juice
- 1 oz pineapple-lime oleo**
- 1.5 oz Oloroso
- 1 dropper Bittercube Blackstrap Bitters (or 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
- 2 oz chilled Cava (or dry Sparkling wine)
- Garnish: a mint leaf
Lightly muddle the mint leaves in a cocktail shaker. Add all of the ingredients except the Cava, then fill with ice and shake quickly and vigorously. Add Cava to shaker then double strain mixture into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a mint leaf.
**Pineapple-lime oleo: Use a micro plane zester or peeler to remove the peel of 2 limes. Muddle the peel with 1/2 cup of panela (or granulated) sugar until very fragrant. Add 1 cup diced pineapple and muddle until the sugar is dissolved and the pineapple is pulpy. Strain into a clean vessel, pressing on the solids to extract all the liquid.
Gillian Marks, MPH, Ph.D. is a Certified Sherry Wine Specialist (CSWS®) from the Wine Scholar Guild and has a Wine and Spirits Education Trust – Level 2 Certification in Wine. Her career in Nutrition, Toxicology and Risk Assessment has brought her from England to Southern California and she has lived and worked across the US, South Korea and Canada. Gillian is presently the Senior Director of Environment, Health & Safety and Risk Programs at San Diego State University, and when she is not fully engaged in keeping SDSU safe, she exercises her passion for Sherry and French wines seeking out opportunities to educate, write and learn as often as possible.