Anyone Know What’s in the Adonis?

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Bartender Adam Bernbach loves the Adonis cocktail. The pre-Prohibition mixture of sherry, sweet vermouth and bitters has been his favorite drink since the late aughts, when he spent a lot of time digging around for lost minor-classic cocktails that he could serve to his guests. Since then, he has spent many hours whipping up various renditions of the drink, experimenting with various combinations of different sherries and vermouths.

That devotion notwithstanding, Bernbach rarely orders the drink, except when at bars he trusts and frequents regularly. Why? Because everybody makes the drink with fino sherry.

“The Adonis made with oxidative sherry is waaaaay tastier than one made with the flor sherry,” he declares, defining oxidative sherry as dry sherries that spend at least some time aging with exposure to oxygen after the flor has died off (including amontillado and palo cortado styles), or have never aged under flor at all (such as oloroso). By contrast, fino and manzanilla (a type of fino made in the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda) are aged entirely under flor, a layer of yeast that consumes sugar and alcohol, and are typified by their bracing salinity and dryness. Oxidative sherries, which have been exposed to oxygen, are darker in color and are characterized by a nutty, spicy flavor, which Bernbach believes brings much more to the mixing glass. And yet, nearly every online recipe for the Adonis seems to call for fino or manzanilla. When did those two styles become the de facto companion to sweet vermouth in the Adonis?

It’s a good question. Historical recipes for the Adonis—which was invented in 1884 and named after an early Broadway musical—do not specify what type of sherry wine should be used in the cocktail. They simply call for “sherry” or “dry sherry.” And, since the Adonis was all but forgotten during the latter half of the 20th century, that meant modern mixologists had to do some guesswork when they revived the drink in the aughts. Most, it turned out, guessed that the right sherry for the Adonis was fino.

“I think that now we use fino because it is a great excuse to use fino as a base,” theorizes Steve Olson, a spirits expert who did a great deal of evangelizing on the part of sherry during the early years of the cocktail revival. Derek Brown, who owned the sherry bar Mockingbird Hill in Washington, D.C., for a few years beginning in 2013, agrees. He never considered fino the ideal choice for the base of the Adonis, but he understands why other bartenders did. “I suspect that bartenders just started going for the absolute driest sherry,” he says. “Bartenders tend to lean to more dry and bitter things.”

There might be a sort of practical bias at play. Abigail Gullo, a Seattle-based bartender who counts the Adonis among her favorite drinks, tends to make the cocktail as a 50/50 split, employing an amontillado to lend a whisper of oxidative flavor to the mix. However, she suspects that most bartenders “are terrified of making a drink too sweet, so they err on the side of a fino,” she says, even though amontillado, palo cortado and oloroso sherries are also dry. Beyond that, fino offers a perceived tension and contrast to the nutty, oxidative quality that sweet vermouth also possesses. In other words, it’s not a leap to see how a bartender might automatically assume fino would lead to a more complex drink before even tossing it into the mixing glass with sweet vermouth.

Whatever the explanation, there’s little disputing that fino has become the sherry of choice for many bartenders. Historically, however, fino probably never enjoyed that role. Some educated sleuthing all but eliminates the possibility that the sherry in question was fino, simply because at the time the Adonis was introduced, barrels of the Spanish wine would have had to come to the United States via ship, and fragile fino, while aging in casks under flor, does not do well on long ocean journeys.

“None of the old recipes I’ve found for the Bamboo/Adonis specify what kind of Sherry,” wrote David Wondrich on the cocktail chat site spiritsandcocktails.community, referencing the Adonis’ dryly elegant, and far more famous, sister drink. “Fino is possible, but the sherry you see advertised most is blended or oloroso or amontillado; the stuff that keeps and travels well.”

Olson agreed that it was highly unlikely that much of the sherry that reached New York Harbor in the late 19th century was fino. And, even if some fino did find its way to the city, the wine would have aged considerably during the voyage, ultimately adding an oxidized character to any cocktail in which the liquid landed.

Even with this knowledge, Bernbach doesn’t expect the Adonis to shake its modern association with fino anytime soon. Once a piece of accepted wisdom gets thoroughly chewed over by the cocktail community, it tends to stick to the bar world’s collective shoe.

“It’s like that lyric from ‘The Rainbow Connection,’” says Bernbach. “Somebody thought of that, and someone believed it.”

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