Scott Suchman
Mockingbird Hill allows Chantal Tseng and Derek Brown to express their passion for Sherry.
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Mr. Jerez Comes to Washington

Juliet Glass - March 2014

Can Washington, D.C., become the best place in the world to drink Sherry? With their Sherry bar Mockingbird Hill, this couple could turn the fortified wine into the power potable of the Capitol.

Washington, D.C., is disproportionately populated with Type-A overachievers. Go to an intimate dinner party and you might meet not one but several polyglot corporate lawyers who moonlight as professional concert pianists. The city’s culinary tastemakers are an equally ambitious lot. Take the James Beard award–nominated Derek Brown. Having put Washington, D.C., on the national map for craft cocktails with his award-winning The Passenger and its bar-within-a-bar, The Columbia Room, Brown next set his sights on a really tough nut to crack: making D.C. one of the best places in the world to drink Sherry, Spain’s fortified wine, which is, outside of Spain, widely misunderstood. And if you ask Brown, it’s also vastly underappreciated.

Protected by a Designation of Origin, to be called Sherry (Jerez in Spanish), the wine must be made in Cadiz Province’s Sherry Triangle (formed by Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María). Most Sherry is made exclusively from Palomino grapes. But depending on how long the wine ages under flor and/or oxidizes in a barrel, Sherry runs the gamut from light and dry finos and manzanillas to amber and sweet palo cortados and olorosos.

The District has a good showing of high profile Iberian-focused eateries. Taberna de Alabardero, Jaleo, and Estadio lead the pack, each offering anywhere from a half to two dozen different Sher­ries. But a District bar offering upwards of 90 different Sherries, almost all by the glass? That’s another story entirely, and one that Brown and co-owner Angie Salame hope to tell at Mockingbird Hill, which opened last summer in Shaw (1843 Seventh Street NW), one of D.C.’s fast-gentrifying-but-still-rough-around-the-edges nighborhoods.

Supporting the bar’s mind-boggling wine list is a tightly cu­rated selection of hams, mostly American, including S. Wallace Edwards & Son’s complete smoky Surryano ($5 a plate) and the sweet and clean La Quercia Prosciutto Americano ($7 a plate), with Fermín Jamón Serrano ($8 a plate) thrown in for good measure, along with a nontraditional “ham” (duck prosciutto). A handful of hot and cold plates, snacks, and sweets round out the food offerings. For head bartender, Brown recruited wife Chantal Tseng, a certified sommelier who, until recently, was head mixologist and bar manager at the storied Tabard Inn. Tseng loves all things liquid, but above all Sherry. “As a sommelier, I felt restricted with lots of wine—I’m not at all restricted with Sherry,” explains Tseng gleefully about her new post.

“Sherry is like a song that gets stuck in your head,” notes Brown, who first became seriously interested in the wine in 2006 while he was sommelier at Citronelle, where he started playing with food and Sherry pairings. He continued his Sherry education at Komi restaurant as general manager/sommelier, playing with more food pairings and doing a Sherry dinner. Sherry, with its diverse flavor profiles, goes swimmingly in cocktails; you’ll find it added to drinks at both The Passenger and The Columbia Room.

A few years ago, when Brown hatched his plan to open a Sherry bar, he says that it wasn’t difficult to find backers. “People knew it was a risky decision, but we really want to add to the food landscape in D.C. We didn’t want to open something similar to the last venture. Our backers understand that we’re raising a flag and wanted to stand behind it.”

Although Mockingbird Hill focuses on Spain’s most iconic wine, Brown is emphatic that it is not a Spanish bar. The long and narrow space is decidedly lacking in Old World ambience. The bar takes its name from “Spanish Bombs,” a song by The Clash; rock music is heard in all its guises—and quite loudly, as sound bounces off the space’s exposed brick walls and concrete floors. Aside from a few hams dangling near the minimal kitchen and the packed wine rack behind the bar, there is little in the way of decoration. It seats 51 guests; most seats are at the bar, though there is a duo of worn wooden tables, one tucked into the front bay window and a second, larger one in back.

Beverage insiders love Sherry, but most of the drinking population thinks of it as cloyingly sweet, when, in fact, the vast majority of Sherry is dry. Even for serious wine drinkers, Sherry can be daunting. “At the end of the day, people don’t know anything about Sherry, and won’t come in here unless they’re naturally curious,” concedes Brown. “We need a draw.” He toyed with the idea of doing a free happy hour, but couldn’t make the numbers work. Instead, for the first several months it was open, Mockingbird Hill offered free Sherry classes every Tuesday (5 to 6 p.m.), led either by Brown or Tseng, with the goal, explains Brown, “of creating passionate consumers.”

The classes ranged from an intimate gathering of less than 10 people to up to 20, with up to two bottles poured gratis—a worthwhile investment. “Ninety percent of those who came stayed after the class and ordered a ton of food,” says Brown. It’s unclear if they liked what they were drinking, or if they were just charmed beyond belief by their knowledgeable teachers.

At a class led by Tseng the focus was amontillado, fino or manzanilla Sherry that begins under flor (a type of yeast that develops on the surface of fino Sherry, protecting it from oxidation) and then is aged longer without flor in the Solera cask system. After passing around little dishes of olives, toasted almonds, peanuts, and generous tasting pours of Gonzalez-Byass Viña AB Fino Amontillado, the wine became alive as she described it: “This wine started out as a fino and spent its early life under flor, and you can taste it as it was in its youth as a young fino. It’s very romantic.” We moved on to Alexandro Amontillado, a wine aged in very old casks (and whose owner lives in D.C., which is why D.C. is one of the few places stateside where you can get it). “You nose it, and right off the bat you can tell it’s different.” We all naturally dipped our noses for a whiff, as Tseng waxed poetic on the wine’s thicker texture and dried fruit overtones. We finished with a Lustau Los Arcos Amontillado, which spends even more time in barrel. “This is the Sherry that made me fall in love with Sherry,” confessed Tseng wistfully.She first tried it in an Adonis, a classic Sherry cocktail: “It wasn’t the cocktail that I loved, it was the amontillado.”

She went on to tell us that when she first tasted a fino, she hated it, while this particular amontillado, whose dryness is tempered by sweet aromatics and toasty overtones, makes a great starter Sherry. After six months educating drinkers and building up a customer base of Sherry enthusiasts, Brown and Tseng have weened people off weekly free classes and now offer a complimentary glass of Sherry on Tuesdays (5pm to 6pm). In response to requests for more in-depth classes, they’re developing fee-based classes that dive deep into particular Sherry topics.

Ham is not the tough sell that Sherry is—who doesn’t like its salty sweet cured goodness? But Brown started out offering free ham classes, sometimes inviting local ham makers, such as Christopher Johnson (who, in typical Washington fashion, has a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics) of Cured DC and chef Nathan Anda of Red Apron Butchery to talk about their craft and lead a tasting. With an established customer base, Brown transitioned to offering free ham tastes when you order a glass of Sherry (Wednesdays 5pm to 6pm).

The wine list is organized from light and dry to darker and sweeter wines. Each type of Sherry—fino, manzanilla, palo cortado, oloroso, and the many variations in between—has a pithy description and lots of tasting cues to guide newbies. Prices start at $6 to $7 for a three-ounce glass, many hover in the $9 to $13 range, and a few really special wines cost from $20 to $25. “We really want Mockingbird Hill to be accessible, so very few of our Sherries are sold by the bottle only,” explains Tseng. “The other night, somebody ordered a glass of the Emilio Hidalgo Fino Amontillado La Panesa Fino Especial at $24 per glass. It was unlikely we’d sell the rest of the bottle, so I put it in a Sherry flight the next day.”

With rare exceptions, most Sherry is nonvintage, and, once bottled, freshness is key, especially with finos and manzanillas. “You don’t want your Sherries to be bottled over a year ago, so you need to talk to your suppliers to make sure you’re always getting the freshest product. Certain distributors don’t know, and it’s an innocent mistake,” advises Tseng, who orders in small quantities and uses a system of color-coded stickers to track her inventory. “I’m very watchdog about it.”

Mockingbird Hill pours between 10 and 50 different types of Sherry a night, depending on flights and the rotating nightly suggested food pairings. “Typically, we always try to select a range of Sherries that allow one to see how each wine interacts differently with the food,” explains Brown. “Sherry pairings are, as Chantal says, ‘aroma parties.’ There are over 307 volatile compounds in these wines, and many of these coexist in cured meats, nuts, herbs, seafood, and other umami-rich foods.”

One suggested pairing, dubbed “Pulpo Fiction,” assembles Emilio Hidalgo La Panesa Fino Especial, Gonzalez-Byass Viña AB, and VYA Sweet Vermouth to accompany baby octopus with Red Apron chorizo, orange, herbs, and pimentón. According to Brown, “the La Panesa has great viscosity, with hints of coconut oil, while retaining much of its ocean-like minerality. It brightens the herbal and citrus notes of the dish. The Viña AB functions similarly, but it has nuttier flavor highlights that accentuate the spicier notes of the chorizo. VYA Sweet Vermouth is rich with baking spices, complementing the fresh oregano and giving the dish a long sweet, memorable finish.”

Another pairing showcases smoked trout with pickled quail egg, baby new potatoes, and trout roe. For this dish, Brown favors manzanillas: “One of our favorite memories of visiting Sanlúcar de Barrameda was enjoying seafood while sipping manzanilla on the beach in the late evening. La Cigarrera Manzanilla is consistently one of our favorites. Its apple fruit is a mix of fresh puree and lightly baked apples. The citrus is bright and cuts through the smoky trout and starchy potatoes.” Hidalgo-La Gitana Pastrana Manzanilla Pasada is a little richer, with more age under the flor: “It’s full of baked apples but finishes with a long, sweet grassiness.” Brown also chooses Barbadillo “Solear” Manzanilla En Rama, citing “a great amount of texture due to its minimal fining and filtration. The floral herbaceousness includes chamomile and lemongrass, finishing with sweet citrus from integration with barrel spices. It also cuts through the rich smoked fish and starchy potatoes.”

For guests who opt out of Sherry, Brown’s offerings are limited, yet hospitable. On tap you’ll find two beers, a Green Hat gin and apple/sage tonic, and Vya sweet vermouth. Brown views Sherry cocktails as a gateway to Sherry appreciation, so he proffers 10 choices, including two classics: the Bamboo (fino, Dolin dry vermouth, orange bitters, and a lemon peel) and the Adonis (amontillado, Cocchi Vermouth de Torino, aromatic and orange bitters, and orange peel). If pressed, the bartenders can make just about any other cocktail, but with a limited choice of spirits. Non-Sherry wine offers are spare: one bubbly, one rosé, two whites, and two reds.

Mockingbird Hill has been open for only nine months, but is already pouring more Sherry than any other place in D.C. and gaining regulars—the backbone of any successful bar. These two auspicious signs for long-term success freed up Brown to focus on two more projects (both two doors down), Eat the Rich, which he opened in October with Travis Croxton of Rappahannock River Oysters (see “With Silver Bells and Oyster Shells (and So Their Gardens Grow),” June 2013) and Southern Efficiency, which opened in December. The pitch at Eat the Rich is oysters and cocktails by the pitcher, while Southern Efficiency hones in on Southern whiskeys and eats—two concepts that should sell themselves.