On The Hunt For The New Unique

Glass of SherryBeverage folks are always on the hunt for the next new thing, hoping to be neither too early to take on an idea that still needs time to develop, nor too late to be anything more than a crowd follower. That’s why so many chain execs keep their eyes on not only the latest trends but also who is engaging in them.

And that’s why one recent opening and one soon to come are worth examining.

In the first, Washington, DC’s Mockingbird Hill, inspired by tiny Sherry bars in Spain, is an undertaking by Derek Brown, sommelier, bartender and the force behind the well-known bars The Passenger and Columbia Room. Mockingbird Hill opened in June with a list of more than 50 Sherries; I don’t know if many restaurants in the US list more, but it doesn’t matter, because Brown’s reputation among tastemakers means that at Mockingbird Hill, the Sherries won’t be dusty place holders, but instead will be well-sampled by guests who have grown to trust his instincts. The concept includes a selection of Spanish and American hams, some hand carved. Brown and co-owner Angie Salame clearly think the fascination with all the world’s beverages that has been awakened in the US, especially in novice drinkers, will bode well for Sherry, long the favorite of wine geeks and sommeliers, and only recently the bar crowd.

Brown says that his greatest inspiration is the families and Bodegas in Jerez that produce one the world's oldest and most complex beverages. “Sherry is so much more than just a drink – it belongs to a place and a community. It is delicious, first and foremost, but it's also a drink imbued with meaning and character--you can't say that about marshmallow vodka.”

The menu is tight in true Spanish Sherry bar fashion – anchovies, trout, cheese, olives, toasted bread and of course ham. But it’s the array of Sherries in 16 styles – fino, manzanilla and amontillado, of course, but also rarities (for the US) like manzanilla and fino en rama – wines bottled directly from casks, unfiltered and unfined – and limited seasonal palo cortado VOS and VORS, that will attract the Sherry nuts. Brown, who also lists some Sherry cocktails (how’s the PX Sweet Tea sound for an instant classic, made from sweet Pedro Ximenez Sherry, iced tea, fruit and mint over ice) obviously expects to make converts here. About time that Sherry was presented as the modern, vibrant and drinkable tipple it is in such a showcase.

Coincidentally, Steve Olson, who has been instrumental in spreading the word in the US about Sherry as a food-friendly drink and as a suitable tool in the modern bartender’s kit, any day now will open his new venture, Apartment 13 on NYC’s Lower East Side.

As Olson puts it, the Apartment 13 beverage program is an “extremely comprehensive yet tightly edited glimpse of the wonderfully vast world of beverages. We do not intend to be all things for all people, and we cannot possibly represent or offer to all of our guests every one of the amazing beverages we would love to show them. However, we have managed to compile a well-selected program that does indeed encompass virtually every category of everything we love to drink, and spans the world of diverse flavors and textures.”

That means a menu with suggested food pairings with beer, cocktails, wine, and sake: 13 house cocktails, 30 wines by the glass, 6 draft beers, 13 bottled, 13 house-made sodas or non-alcohol cocktails, nine sakés and 13 Sherries.

At Apartment 13, which opens sometime in late July, Olson intends to explore a user-friendly way of presenting basic suggestions for matching wine, beer, sake and cocktails with Chef John Keller’s food. “We further our efforts to create guest-friendly dining by matching a small, representative sampling of spirits, cocktails, wine and Sherry with our desserts as well,” he says.

Bars and restaurants have been plagued lately by the need to be all-inclusive, especially difficult at a time when innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit, hand-crafted and otherwise, flood the market daily with the new. As both Brown and Olson show in their new ventures, the beverage pro’s job is curator as well as salesperson – as hard as it is to establish a beverage list consisting of say, 80 spirits or 50 wines or 25 beers, try cutting that down to the self-imposed limits used at these two new establishments. Whether it’s deciding to go deep on one type of beverage, or to find the most satisfying food and beverage matches, no matter the obscurity of the choice nor the need to stock big brands, discipline in selection offers operators a rare chance to actually embody that trite restaurant and bar descriptor: unique.


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