Wednesday, December 16, 2009

FoodTrek: The Weather Outside is Frightful, but the Sorrento is So Delightful

All I have to say about Seattle's early winter chill is, Baby, it's freakin' cold outside. I was meeting up with Mr. Wasabi to attend one of the last Night School classes at Seattle's historic Sorrento Hotel and lo and behold, I came upon a beautiful glass-like sculpture of icicles wrapped about the fountain in the entry roundabout. I thought, wow, what a smart way to decorate the hotel for the holidays. Only it wasn't decoration. It truly has been that cold in the city to pull a Mr. Freeze on the fountain and make two-foot long spindles of icicles hanging from its tiers. Holy freak-nasty, indeed. The only remedy for such a chill is to spend an evening with Night School's guest bartenders Anu Apte and Zane Harris, as they took an eager class of drink nerds on an international tour of sherries.

Sherry Baby at the Sorrento on a cold winter, er, fall night - Photos by Wasabi Prime

I've mentioned it many times before and you'll forgive me for sounding like a broken record, but we really are blessed to have the Sorrento celebrate its centennial with events like Night School, and twice as blessed that this series will continue into the new year (woo-hoo!). Partnering with One Pot has been a unique way to present cultural events that truly enrich as well as educate. This latest session was no exception, as it was a festive way to showcase the bartending talents of Rob Roy owners, Anu and Zane. This dynamic duo has a long history of spirited excellence in Seattle and if you're lucky enough to have them mix you a drink, you'd be wise to let them take the wheel and tell you what to have, as they truly know best. The Prime was fortunate to meet Anu a few months back when she was a guest at Chantanee's Naga for a night of fabulous celebratory cocktails, so it was well-assured it would be a grand evening.

Old Fashioned with sherry, care of Anu Apte and Zane Harris - Photos by Wasabi Prime

So what do we know about sherry, other than its Spanish origins? Like port, vermouth and Madeira, it is a fortified wine, that is to say it's a wine that has a distilled spirit like brandy introduced to it to stop the fermentation process, preserving it. Most of us have a dusty bottle of sherry sitting in the pantry that gets pulled out to deglaze a pan every once in a while. We don't think about drinking it, probably because, as Zane explains, if we've only known less than stellar experiences with a drink, we tend not to explore it much further. That would be a shame, as much like the wide range of flavors in other spirits and wines, sherries are no less complex in flavor and usage.

The first lesson in sherries started with one of the younger varieties, a Fino. Crystal-clear and dry in flavor, Finos were a happy accident discovered in the mid 19th century by winemakers when a particular type of yeast grew in barrels having more leftover space for the air-thriving strain to develop. The blanket of yeast, or flor, provided a protective airtight seal for the sherry to develop a lighter, crisp flavor. It also makes the Fino one of the more delicate sherries, and should be consumed shortly after the bottle is opened, as the careful nature of its creation mirrors its fragile state of freshness.

Fino Vesper, stirred, not shaken - Photos by Wasabi Prime

The spirit of 007 himself visited us on this night in the form of a Vesper cocktail. Made with the refreshing Fino instead of the traditional vodka, Zane peppered the drink mixing with quotes from Ian Flemming's original 1953 novel, Casino Royale. A cocktail taking on hints of love gained and lost, the traditional drink combines gin, vodka and Lillet (Kina Lillet, to be persnickety), but the swap of the Fino with the vodka produced no less of a cool, winter-crisp cocktail that even Bond himself wouldn't be able to resist.

The bar discussion couldn't resist lingering on the communal love of 007 when the discussion of shaken versus stirred was brought up. Bartenders know best that when a drink is shaken with ice, it can add up to thirty percent of water to a cocktail. To stay on top of his superspy game, Bond of course would be aware of this fact, and that's probably why he preferred his drinks slightly watered down to ensure his deadly aim and razor-sharp wit rang true. However, unless any of us attain International Man/Woman of Mystery status, ask for the drinks to be stirred, not shaken.

Much like the Fino, other sherries can be replaced for distilled spirits in cocktails. We were treated to a finely-made Old Fashioned, with a darker, richer Amontillado used in place of the traditional whisky. Anu used a honey syrup, explaining how it provides a nice rich, deep flavor versus the more commonly used simple syrup. The resulting drink with the same dashes of Angostura bitters and the natural oils of a fresh orange peel produced a smooth, warm comfort that made one wonder how the cocktail could be made any other way. A great note about replacing distilled spirits with sherries is the fact that sherry has a lower alcohol content. This is a helpful hint for cocktail parties where both hosts and guests can keep the holidays jolly, but not flat-on-their-face hammered.

Oloroso sour holiday magic - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Anu and Zane truly decked the halls with holiday magic with their Oloroso Sour cocktail. Using the darker, nuttier flavored Oloroso sherry, this Boston-style sour featured a lovely froth of eggwhite on the top, with dashes of bitters to provide both aromatic and flavor complexity. Pleasantly sweet, balanced with the tartness of fresh lemon juice, and the creamy finish of the dense foam, this was probably the crowd favorite. People who had not experienced the divine magic that is eggwhite cocktails were clearly charmed by this alcoholic version of a protein shake. While not as simple or quick as pouring a bit of Scotch over some ice, this cocktail is a beautiful reminder that the artful method behind making a well-crafted drink is as important as taking the time to really savor it. Zane and Anu shared their anecdotes of bartender wisdom, how more than once they have had the chance to "save" the drinker from truly terrifying concoctions. After having a creation like the elegantly festive Oloroso Sour, it's hard to think of anyone not wanting to embrace this conversion to a new gospel of cocktails.

The final sherry of the evening had no mixed drink accompaniment, as its deeply rich flavor took center stage. The caramel-colored Pedro Ximenez swirled in the small cordial glass, releasing a heady aroma that spoke of sun-dried grapes sitting out in the arid heat of a Spanish afternoon. A concentrated sweetness of raisins and molasses resides in the sherry, making it ideal to savor with a square of good chocolate or at least a cozy spot by the fireplace. Its complex solera aging process makes it a rare delight, requiring up to eight barrels of fractioned ages to make a single barrel. An extremely time consuming method, it creates a truly unique flavor that combines sherries of varying ages, from one to eight years old.

Holiday cheers with PX to keep us warm during the chilly nights - Photos by Wasabi Prime

I have to say I had not thought much of sherries before, which was why I was excited to have my eyes and palate opened to more possibilities with this truly delightful and accommodating drink. Having it work so well in traditional distilled spirit cocktails was just as much of a treat as experiencing it on its own to really appreciate the intricacies of its flavor. Head over to Foodista to read their posts over this event and find recipes for the drinks served at this event. Much thanks to the very talented duo of Anu Apte and Zane Harris. Seattle is fortunate to have their skills behind the bar at Rob Roy. Thanks also to the fabulous Sorrento Hotel for stoking the cultural fires in Seattle to keep us warm on these chilly winter nights.

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  1. Thanks so much for sharing! Wow, I can't believe how cold it is in WA! I thought it never went below freezing there.

    My husband recently discovered that he really likes sherry. These recipes look fantastic! I think I'm gonna try to make the Oloroso Sour. We recently tried a flip (cocktail made with a whole egg) and we loved it. This looks pretty good too. :)

  2. oh how i love seattle. i love cozying in...and you seemed to have found the perfect place and activity for snuggling in and warming soul!!

  3. Hmm, I don't know whether to trust you, or the random dude at Total Wine & More who must have had a "less than stellar experience" and scoffed to me that sherry isn't for drinking... just kidding, most of us Southern foodies aren't THAT ignorant ;) Thanks as always for the beautiful post, and apologies for my long absence from the blogosphere!

  4. I didn't realize that sherry is considered a fortified wine. Very interesting. So much to know about Sherry. the oloroso sour looks so beautiful. Love the design motif on top.

  5. Ooh, sherry would be the perfect way to warm up in the cold weather.

  6. I love sours, and the Oloroso Sour looks like something I'd really enjoy. I also love a good PX after dinner--much tastier than port, in my opinion!

  7. What an interesting post. It sounds like you guys had a lot of fun. Cheers to Seattle and cozy nights!

  8. Thanks for the interesting post. I may be living in a tropical country that everyone wants to visit but I actually Seattle even if I've been there twice only. :D The only time I used sherry was in cooking. I should drink more. :D


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