Sherry vs. Fried Chicken

18 July 2017


In the foodie world, it’s oft repeated that Champagne pairs with everything. That’s false. Champagne is good enough to drink with everything, but it’s really Sherry that takes the mantle as the best pairing beverage—it truly goes with everything. But why not put my money where my mouth is? In this short series, I’ll drink Sherry with a range of popular and hard to pair foods and find out what works and what doesn’t. Far from science, this is one man and an arsenal of Sherries. However, like science, I encourage you to try and replicate the results.

Sherry vs. Fried Chicken

It was an important goal of mine a few years back to find the world’s best fried-chicken. I believe in setting lofty goals! So I searched, and I searched. And though there are whole swaths of country I hadn’t been, and it remains one of my dreams to go on chef Tim Byres’ “fried chicken trail” stretching from Kentucky through Oklahoma, I felt confident I had found a trove. Some of my favorites include Price’s Chicken Coop in Charlottesville, Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans and Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville. All of which are excellent, all of which I would leave “chicken drunk,” having consumed more than my fill and feeling wobbly despite having nothing stronger than sweet tea.

Truth is, I had just skimmed the surface. It took one bite of Erik Bruner Yang’s Taiwanese fried chicken at Maketto to realize that confining the origins of fried chicken to the geographic boundaries of the U.S. is akin to calling BBQ the sole product of Texas: it conflates a branch of the tree with its trunk. It so happens that the world shares our American affinity for frying fowl—as much as they share our affinity for BBQ—and we’re better for it. So much better that realizing Asian cuisine’s love of fried chicken has opened a new door and my search is now perpetual, as is my search for the perfect beverage pairing with fried chicken.  Fortunately, I have good friends to help.

One of those friends is Carlie Steiner who is the proprietor and beverage director of Himitsu. Carlie runs Himitsu in Washington, D.C. with her business partner and chef Kevin Tien. They do many things well, but they’ve become best known for their Korean fried chicken. Their secret, apart from buttermilk and a wonderful crisp exterior made from flour cornstarch and potato starch, is Korean gochujang. Gochuchang is akin to a spicy miso paste, using hot peppers and fermented soy. It adds a spicy, sweet component that challenges conventional pairings like Champagne or even Fino Sherry. The latter is a pairing I’ve very much enjoyed when you’re talking about the fast food variety of fried chicken. Fortunately, Sherry offers an amazing range of styles outside of Fino.

Carlie knows those Sherry styles better than anyone (for full disclosure she worked for me at my Sherry-bar, Mockingbird Hill).  So, I sat down to the amazing Korean chicken and was at Carlie’s mercy for pairings. In response, she brought out a few different bottles from Fino to Oloroso but the one that caught my eye, and I thought might just bridge the gap, was a VORS Amontillado.

VORS is an acronym for the Latin phrase Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum, which sounds like a magical incantation when said aloud, but is translated as “very old rare Sherry.” It is a designation of age, indicating that the youngest Sherry is 30 years old. Since Sherry is a blend of multiple vintages, the oldest can be significantly older, sometimes as much as a 100 years or more. That age concentrates certain characteristics, especially dry extract (small particulates within beverages), creating a glycerin-like texture, leaving the Sherry rich and mouth coating. This is especially useful for richer foods that have the same effect on wine as nervous suitors swiping left on dating apps, removing any lingering impression. This effect also made the Sherry seem slightly sweet, though it was on the dry side. All of that wrapped the spicy, sweet chicken together on the tongue and delivered an amazing pairing. Though another standout Sherry deserves mention.

Carlie also recommended an Oloroso. I would generally think Oloroso is way too “big” as a wine to pair with chicken, with alcohol levels sometimes topping 20% ABV. However, the one she recommended was particularly smooth. That’s because it’s a pata de gallina, which coincidentally means “hen’s foot.” This isn’t a legal designation but a mark indicating that the Sherry is especially smooth and robust, with high levels of glycerol. It was as enjoyable a pairing with fried chicken as was the Amontillado.

Just as I thought that fried chicken is solely a product of the U.S. but have since expanded my world-view, quite literally, I would recommend thinking about Sherry and fried chicken pairings in a more nuanced way. Yes, Fino Sherry is delicious with KFC chicken. But when eating the gamut of fried chicken, especially when fermented paste and additional sweetness is a factor, reach for more complex and richer Sherries like VOS, VORS or “Pata de Gallina.” You’ll thank me (and Carlie).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of El Consejo Regulador.
Derek Brown is a leading spirits and cocktail expert with four of the country's most respected craft cocktail bars, James Beard Award nominee Mockingbird Hill, Eat the Rich, Southern Efficiency and the twice James Beard Award-nominated Columbia Room, located in Washington, D.C.

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