Cobbler: a half-baked cocktail? Hardly

Countless classic cocktails have benefited from the decade of renewed interest in craft spirits and pre-Prohibition mixed drinks. I've seen daisies, flips, fizzes and crustas populating cocktail menus in Pittsburgh and other cities. But the cobbler, a two-century-old mixed drink varietal, and one of the classic American bar elixirs, hasn't yet received its callback.

I suppose that's partly because the word can't help but conjure the baked dessert. And it may also be because the cobbler isn't a "real" cocktail in the way we think of them today, in that it's traditionally made with sherry or another fortified wine, but not straight booze. Its closest modern relative might in fact be sangria, which you'd be hard pressed to call a true cocktail, since it often contains no distilled spirits. In other words, unlike many of the rediscovered classic cocktails that are high-proof -- featuring whiskey or gin or rum -- the cobbler is a low-test tipple.

But for half a century or more, the cobbler might have been the most popular mixed drink in America, according to Squirrel Hill-born spirits writer and cocktail historian David Wondrich. He notes that Victorian novelist Charles Reade, in 1863, put the cobbler at the top of his list of favorite American drinks when he wrote: "America is fertile in mixtures: what do we not owe her? Sherry Cobbler, Gin Sling, Cocktail, Mint Julep, Brandy Smash, Sudden Death, Eye Openers."

Mark Twain wrote that it warmed his heart to see an Englishman order an American Sherry Cobbler; Jules Verne mentions the drink alongside the Gin Sling and the Tanglefoot cocktail in his 1865 sci-fi effort, "From The Earth to the Moon." And 19th-century bartender Harry Johnson, in 1882, said that the Sherry Cobbler is "without doubt the most popular beverage in the country, with ladies as well as with gentlemen."

"It really was an opulent cocktail," says New Orleans bar owner Neal Bodenheimer, whose newest property, Bellocq (in The Hotel Modern, not far from the Louisiana Superdome), has built a bar menu that focuses broadly on fortified wines, with a particular emphasis on the cobbler. "A mountain of crushed ice was a luxury. A really nice fortified wine was a luxury," Mr. Bodenheimer said. Even the newly invented straw -- essential to the original cobbler recipe -- was, if not a luxury, something of a novelty.

A cobbler has three main ingredients -- fortified wine, sugar and fruit -- and it's served over crushed ice, with a straw. Sherry Cobbler recipes generally call for 4 ounces of sherry, a few orange or lemon slices and a few spoons of sugar, but I've also seen recipes calling for berry garnishes and mint sprigs ("Ultimate Bar Book" by Mittie Hellmich, published by Chronicle Books). It's a simple drink to make -- few ingredients, a minimum of prep work -- so long as you, or the bartender, have the fortified wine on hand to begin with.

And that, perhaps, is why the cobbler fell out of favor. Sherries, Madeira wines and ports were "relegated to fine dining," Mr. Bodenheimer speculates, pushed off the menu altogether, or to the rear of the menu, where they are offered neat, as a dessert or after-dinner drink.

Or, perhaps, the Volstead Act helped kill this drink, as it did to so many others: If you were buying bootlegged spirits at high markups, it made sense to buy the bottles with the highest alcohol content. "Once you roll into Prohibition, when basically all spirits are illegal, people aren't really going to be smuggling in all the sherries and the light wines and the ports," Mr. Wondrich said. "Drinkers got used to really strong drinks."

Often, sherry and other fortified wines "fall between two bar stools," said Mr. Wondrich, with serious wine snobs often viewing fortified wines (a wine to which a distilled spirit, such as brandy, has been added) as adulterated, while spirits enthusiasts view the fortified wine as watered-down booze.

That's changing, though.

"Sherry has been coming back into major cocktail bars coast to coast, in a pretty big way," he said, with sherry brands sponsoring cocktail contests, and more bartenders carrying better supplies of it.

Pennsylvania, naturally, remains a challenging state in which to buy sherry, with many state stores carrying just a few lower-end brands. But even Taylor Dry Sherry (PLCB No. 5695, 750 ml, $5.99) or one of the Christian Brothers offerings will work. While they "aren't going to make the most epicurean of sherry cobblers," Mr. Wondrich said, "they'll make a decent one." Better sherries, such as Dios Baco Pedro Ximenez (PLCB No. 29863, 500 ml, $15.99) and other foreign brands are either classified as "luxury" products or "special order," meaning they are harder to obtain or have to be ordered in bulk.

When mixing a cobbler, note that a dry sherry is able to take more sugar, and a sweet cream sherry would take less. Feel free to experiment with the amount of sugar, and with muddling the fruit -- and you shouldn't feel bad about screwing up the first few drinks, since the cheap sherry runs you less than $6 a bottle (the fresh oranges, lemons and berries, in fact, might set you back more than the sherry does).

Mr. Bodenheimer, who co-owns Bellocq with fellow founders Kirk Estopinal and Matthew Kohnke, notes that the cobbler, with so much ice (and sometimes served in a chilled glass), works best in warm weather, making it yet another perfect drink for the hot, humid New Orleans summers. Mr. Wondrich noted the same. "It's light and delightful... Sherry is a such a nice drink, especially in the summer."

Eventually, because of the popularity of the Sherry Cobbler, bartenders began experimenting with variations -- the Champagne Cobbler, the Whiskey Cobbler and so on, some of which resemble other, better-known drinks (a Bourbon Cobbler, for example, isn't terribly different from an Old Fashioned, which came along in the late 1800s). But it was the Sherry Cobbler that first captured the bar patron's heart, even if it didn't stand the test of time.

Sherry cobbler

PG tested

  • 3 slices orange
  • Fresh berries, optional
  • 4 ounces dry sherry
  • 3 teaspoons sugar

In a shaker, gently muddle orange slices (with a few berries, if desired). Fill shaker with chipped ice; add sherry and sugar and shake vigorously. Pour, unstrained, into a tall glass.

The King's Cobbler

Amaro is an Italian aperitif.

  • 1 small strawberry
  • 2 ounces Zucca Rabarbaro (rhubarb Amaro)
  • 3/4 ounce simple syrup
  • 3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1 strawberry fan
  • 1 fresh mint leaf

Softly muddle the strawberry in a chilled glass. Add the Zucca Rabarbaro (PLCB No. 513368, $27.49), simple syrup, lemon juice and ice and shake. Single-strain over cracked ice. Garnish with a strawberry fan, a slapped mint leaf, and 2 small straws.

-- Neal Bodenheimer

Champagne Cobbler

  • 1/2 orange wheel
  • 1/4 wheel fresh pineapple
  • 1 lemon wedge
  • 1 ounce Maraschino liqueur
  • 4 ounces champagne
  • Garnish: additional orange, pineapple and lemon wedges (with skin)

Muddle the fruit and liqueur in the bottom of a bar glass. Add Champagne and 1 ounce water. Shake with ice cubes, then strain into a second glass filled with crushed ice.

Garnish with fruit and serve with a straw.

-- Dale DeGroff

Bill Toland: or 412-263-2625. For bar and spirits news, follow him on .


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