Back in 2009, when Richard Bigg first had the idea of opening the small-but-perfectly-formed Bar Pepito in King’s Cross, there were those who thought he’d had a tad too much oloroso. Surely sherry, with its fusty and antiquated image, was hardly the drink of choice for London’s hedonistic hipsters. Yet the Camino Group restaurateur couldn’t have timed it better.
“Serious wine lovers have always known about sherry’s incredible complexity, quality and value,” says Bigg. “But I wanted to attract a younger, cooler crowd who weren’t familiar with sherry and didn’t have any hang-ups about it. I thought that maybe this was a way of introducing sherry’s unique styles and flavours to them. Also, I knew how popular the drink was in Andalusia and how well it went with food. Above all, it felt like a risk worth taking.”
Rather than bamboozle neophyte drinkers with dozens of different sherries, Bigg began with no more than 15 on Bar Pepito’s list. “Most of what we sell are the classic, racy, aperitif styles – fino and manzanilla – served ‘champagne cold’ as they are in Seville.”
He offered more challenging sherries, too – dry olorosos and amontillados, exquisite palo cortados, sweet Moscatels and lusciously sticky PXs. Then he paired all of the above with some mouthwatering tapas variadas, including roasted Marcona almonds, Gordal olives, cecina de León, bistec tártaro and caballa en escabeche.
Furthermore, he was determined to make the look and feel of the bar 100 per cent authentic. Hence, the knowledgeable Spanish staff, the sherry-butt tables and the pata negra hams that hang from the ceiling. On the walls are vintage flamenco posters and straw mats used for drying the region’s Pedro Ximénez grapes. And underfoot is a riot of colour provided by the spectacular azulejo tiles. In short, it’s an homage to Andalusia. Were it not for the weather, you could be in Cádiz.
Right off the bat, Bar Pepito was a roaring success and scooped the Time Out Bar of the Year Award in 2010. Now, of course, the former storage shed is packed out night after night. In the summer, drinkers spill into the courtyard as it catches the late-afternoon sun.
Yet Bar Pepito is by no means the first or the last sherry bar to open in London in recent times. Following on from the success of their stylish Fino tapas restaurant in Fitzrovia, Sam and Eddie Hart, of Quo Vadis fame, went on to launch Barrafina in Soho back in 2007.
Significantly, Fino has just celebrated its 10th birthday, while Barrafina is busier than ever. “We sell sherry by the crate-load at both places, mainly because it’s delicious and people love it, especially with food,” says Sam Hart. “When we first started, there were concerns that sherry wasn’t fashionable or cool enough. But interestingly, no one is saying that now.”
Not least because there’s now a clutch of top-class sherry and tapas bars flourishing across the capital, such as Tim Luther’s brilliant Copita on D’Arblay Street in Soho, Barrica on Goodge Street, Morito in Exmouth Market, Rosita in Battersea and Donostia in Marylebone. Throw in Simon Mullins’s and Sanja Morris’s West End tapas trio, of Opera Tavern, Salt Yard and Dehesa, and you have a mini-gastro-trend with legs.
Perhaps what’s most noticeable about the above is just how popular they are. Take José on Bermondsey Street; owned and run by José Pizarro, the renowned Spanish chef and restaurateur, it too has been chock‑full since it opened in 2011.
“Obviously, some good reviews have helped, but most of it is word of mouth among the locals,” says Pizarro. “Some come for one quick tapa and a fino. But lots of people will come and graze for lunch or dinner. Once, I saw someone parked from opening to closing. The only complaint we’ve had is that we’re always too full and people can’t get a seat straight away.”
There has been some irritation that many of the new bars don’t take bookings, which is the norm in Seville, but sometimes doesn’t go down quite so well in Central London. However, it’s all part of the experience. And if you have to wait for a table or a seat at the bar there’s always a glass of fino to ease the pain.
The bars are nothing if not atmospheric and intimate. As at Barrafina, the kitchen at José isn’t simply open, it’s so close, you could almost serve yourself. “It gives the place a great vibe,” says Pizarro in his unreconstructed Spanish twang. “It’s very personal. And you can see what you are eating.”
Pizarro’s traditional and modern tapas menu isn’t just eye-catchingly good – it’s also impeccably sourced and sensationally flavoursome. The same goes for his constantly changing and well-kept list of sherries, many of which come from benchmark producers, such as Fernando de Castilla, Lustau and Valdespino.
No one doubts that sherry’s new fan base has grown partly because Spain is currently right on trend in “foodie” London, where casual communal dining and sharing small plates is very much part of the gastronomic zeitgeist. But the tapas connection doesn’t exactly explain why so many younger drinkers have taken to sherry in quite the way they have. “Most of the 20- to 40-somethings who come to Copita work in design, video production and advertising,” says Luther. “They want something great to drink that’s different and not mainstream. So sherry ticks all the boxes. They quite like the idea that sherry is both ahead of the curve and actually a bit retro-cool.”
Arguably, sherry’s best secret weapon is its element of surprise. “The thing is that people think they know sherry, and more often than not they’re expecting something brown and sweet,” Luther continues. “So when they try a pale, bone-dry manzanilla, they’re simply blown away. You can see the scales falling from their eyes. For some, it’s quite an epiphany.”
Most of the bars also seek to educate their increasingly eager clientele by offering “flights” of sherries so they can appreciate the full vista of its vinous portfolio. Better still is when they are paired with particular dishes to bring out the best in both elements. One of the most animated of the new sherry proselytisers is the delightful Abel Lusa who owns and runs the inimitable Capote y Toros on the Old Brompton Road. Without question, it has the best and the longest sherry list in London – possibly even in Spain, if it comes to that.
Lusa is passionately evangelical. “Firstly, sherry needs food. And secondly, because sherry isn’t like champagne or white wine, people need an explanation of its unique flavours, the different names and styles, the ageing process and why it tastes the way it does. So I like to make sure people leave us having learnt something and tried something exceptional.” At Capote y Toros, that’s virtually guaranteed.
Of course, there’s one other factor in sherry’s current renaissance that can’t be ignored – its extraordinary qualité-prix. Ergo, many wine connoisseurs, not least among them the FT’s Jancis Robinson, have long regarded sherry as the world’s best-value fine wine, bar none. This doesn’t especially please the Jerezanos, who bemoan that fact that if their wines were French, they would cost several times the price.
For aficionados, though, it’s an absolute boon. It means you can buy a 100ml serving of Lustau’s complex Manzanilla Amontillada de Sanlúcar for a fraction under £10. The same goes for a recently released unfiltered Fino En Rama by Equipo Navazos or Tio Pepe’s distinguished 30-year-old Matusalem Oloroso Dulce.
Even the region’s rarest, most venerated and expensive wines max out at around £160 a bottle at Capote y Toros. For instance, that would buy you Emilio Hidalgo’s sumptuous El Tresillo 1874 Amontillado, Gutiérrez Colosia’s Palo Cortado Viejísimo or Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana’s sublime 1986 Oloroso.
Prices notwithstanding, bodega owners are more than delighted to see so many people actually enjoying sherry in London.
But it’s not for the first time. “What people have forgotten,” says Javier Hidalgo of Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, “is that sherry was extremely popular in the UK a couple of generations ago. Then it fell out of favour in the 1980s. This time around, though, I think it is different. There are so many sherry bars opening and they are really outstanding – as good as anything we have in Spain.”
Where does this renaissance go from here? Onwards and upwards it appears. The Hart brothers are to open a new Barrafina in Covent Garden later this year. Similarly, Tim Luther also has another sherry-based project up his sleeve.
“What’s so encouraging is that the competition is good and getting better,” says Sam Hart. “The growth has been quite fast, but there’s still a very long way to go before it reaches the popularity it deserves.”
Richard Bigg agrees: “I think we are very much on an upward curve right now that shows no sign of trailing off. Until recently, good Spanish cuisine and serious authentic sherry weren’t really recognised in this country. Now they are not only recognised, they’re popular, too. And that’s some turnaround.”