Saving sherry

24 June, 2024

Shay Waterworth reports on the dramatic fall of the fortified and the organisations working to engineer its revival.

Sherry has every ingredient to be a hit. It has tradition, a wide range of styles from sweet to dry, it offers a low-abv aperitif, bartenders and chefs love it. Yet, in the UK – the biggest market outside Spain – sales dropped below 2019 levels in 2022. We’ve been waiting for sherry to have its moment for a long time now, so either the forecast for the category was all wrong, or brands haven’t been engaging in the right areas.

In 2016 Drinks International spoke with González Byass international sales director Nicolas Bertino, who talked of a consumer shift. “We have seen a marked change in attitudes towards sherry from people under 40 who are coming to it without any of the traditional baggage,” said Bertino. “Admittedly this is from a small base, but it is one which has gained momentum in markets around the world.” In 2024, almost a decade later, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that this momentum has continued through to today.

For context of how far the category has fallen, according to the Consejo Regulador, sherry’s governing body, since its peak at nearly 180 million litres in 1979, the category has been in a steady decline – total sales in 2022 were a shade above 27 million litres. There was a moment of renewed hope during the pandemic, when countries such as the UK experienced significant sales growth as consumers were restricted to their living rooms, but this will now appear on sales records as an anomaly.

Given this 45-year decline, it’s unlikely that consumers will spontaneously return to drinking sherry, regardless of how many great characteristics the wines possess. Brands need to think outside the box and give consumers a reason to drink it.

Cult classic

Tio Pepe is the flagbearer of sherry globally, owned by Gonzalez Byass and consistently topping Drinks International’s Brands Report as the bestselling sherry in the world’s best bars.

“We need to find new markets with potential, and the priorities are the US and Asia,” says José Argudo, brand manager for Tio Pepe. “The trade has always been saying that sherry should demand a higher price point and now we are, which is important when infiltrating new markets, particularly ones which import a lot of premium wines, such as the States.”

Despite the low sales, those who do drink sherry love it. Each year Tio Pepe en Rama is released to the market in limited quantity and it sells out fast. Having launched 15 years ago, en Rama is sherry which is taken straight from barrel to bottle without filtration or clarification.

Argudo adds: “Tio Pepe en Rama is representative of that romantic moment you have in a winery, trying wines directly from a cask. It fits nicely with the trend of sherry consumers looking for complexity and because we only produce around 20,000 bottles each year, it’s becoming a collector’s item.”

It’s great to see a product consistently generate excitement within the fan base, but it won’t attract new consumers into the sector if it gets bought by collectors or enthusiasts.

Right now, two of the biggest movements coming sherry’s way are the flourishing Spanish cuisine and a thriving tourism industry. For context, three of the top four venues in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023 were in Spain, while Spanish tourism saw more than 84 million international visitors last year who spent more than €108bn. These numbers surpassed 2019's totals by 1% and 17% respectively, according to ETIAS.

Holiday romance

Tourism is great for brand and category exposure. Visitors to Jerez can enjoy a tour of the bodegas and momentarily fall in love with sherry. But what tends to happen with most regional products, is they buy a souvenir bottle and it sits in their kitchen cupboard forgotten. However, the thriving restaurant scene poses a much more powerful opportunity for sherry because not only do chefs cook with it, they often use it for pairings on tasting menus. And this isn’t just inspiring the guests in Spain’s top restaurants, but chefs all over the world. At La Niña restaurant in Lima, Peru, Andrés Orellana is a qualified sherry educator and advocate for the Spanish fortified.

“In La Niña we offer more classic cocktails with a sherry twist, as well as the classics like Adonis or Sherry Cobbler. To cook, we change the menu seasonally and we’ve used oloroso and manzanilla in some dishes in past menus. Personally, I love sherry for pairings – a little too much maybe.”

Orellana’s influence isn’t just on his own guests, he’s previously imported brands such as Equipo Navazos into Peru and sold to Lima’s top restaurants, such as Japanese-Peruvian fusion Maido and the world’s best restaurant in 2023, Central, to use on their tasting menus. He’s also at the heart of International Sherry Week, an activation generated by Consejo Regulador De Jerez. It takes place this year from 4-10 November in Lima and Orellana will be hosting some activations and helping promote the wines in restaurants and bars across the city.

While Orellana admitted that it needs some pushing to generate interest among his pisco-drinking audience, the influence of one top chef can leave significant ripple effects.

How exactly sherry brands can capitalise on Spain’s thriving culinary scene isn’t a simple equation, but it feels like a golden opportunity to get sherry out of its consistently downward trajectory.

Digital Edition

Drinks International digital edition is available ahead of the printed magazine. Don’t miss out, make sure you subscribe today to access the digital edition and all archived editions of Drinks International as part of your subscription.


La'Mel Clarke

Service isn’t servitude: the skill of hosting

La’Mel Clarke, front of house at London’s Seed Library, looks at the forgotten art of hosting and why it deserves the same respect as bartending.