The narrow, maze-like one-way streets of Sanlúcar de Barrameda are mere crevices between the mix of two story buildings. Are they houses? Shops? It’s hard to tell exactly what lies beyond the doorways. Most are stucco and painted white to reflect the intense, Spanish sun that bears down on this seaside town where the Guadalquivir River exits into the Atlantic. A GPS will hopelessly confuse things here – the streets are so close together, you are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Luckily, Federico Sánchez-Pece Salmeron, Director of Communications for Lustau, knows exactly where we’re heading.
After countless turns and tight squeezes through the impossibly narrow streets (alleys, really, if we’re being charitable), we pull up to a large sliding door and Fede hops out. To the casual observer, what’s behind the door would be a complete mystery in the absence of visual clues. Sliding open the doors, we find what we came for: sherry!
Dozens of sherry casks are arranged on their side in rows, stacked three high – a classic, small scale solera system making Manzanilla sherry, which by law must be made in this town and nowhere else on earth. We’re at Bodegas Manuel Cuevas Jurado, one of the few remaining almacenistas — small family-run producers who purchase young wine and carefully nurture it to maturity before supplying the finished product to a brand like Lustau for resale. The number of traditional almacenistas has dwindled to almost nothing in the face of industry consolidation. However Lustau, once an almacenista itself, celebrates and supports those dedicated few who remain. It’s just one more example of why Lustau is one of the best-known names in sherry.
Much like the handful of Kentucky families who started distilling close to 200 years ago and are now household names, Spain’s “sherry triangle” is well populated with producers tracing their lineage back to the early 1800s. Names like Harvey’s, Williams & Humbert, Osborne, and Gonzalez Byass. However, in mixology circles, another name has become almost synonymous with sherry, without selling anywhere near as much as the behemoths. That company is Lustau, and what follows is the tale of our amazing immersion in Lustau’s world.
(Note: What follows assumes you’re familiar basic sherry terminology. If you’re new to sherry, be sure to read my earlier article which explains the basic concepts and terminology. )
While I’d seen lots of Lustau-branded sherry on cocktail menus during my bar crawls around the world, I didn’t feel a particular connection to the brand until I was invited to a lunch hosted by Lustau and Santa Theresa rum in New Orleans during Tales of the Cocktail in 2016. I’ll admit that going in to the event I was mostly interested in the rum side of the gathering. However, over the course of two hours I found a new passion – Brandy de Jerez, brandy made in Spain and aged in sherry casks in the bodegas. This was something I needed to learn more about! One of the speakers was Fernando Perez, master distiller for Lustau’s parent company, Grupo Caballero. Through a translator, he spoke of soleras and sherry and brandy production, things near and dear to my wonky heart. Little did I know then that in eight months I’d be standing with him at his laboratory in southern Spain, much less sitting in the alcove of the oldest tabanco in Jerez, eating tapas and watching flamenco.
Following that fateful lunch, Mrs. Wonk and I made the decision that Jerez de la Frontera was our next boozy destination. I set out to arrange private visits to key producers, and Lustau was obviously on my list. I was a little surprised that the Lustau representative asked us to set aside two full days for our visit. What? How is that possible? Even the biggest of our full-meal-deal Scotch whisky distillery tours only took a half day. How long does it take to tour a sherry bodega? Would we sampling from each and every cask? Little did we know then what was in store.
At “only” 120 years, Lustau is relatively young compared to some sherry producers. Founded in 1896 by Don José Ruiz-Berdejo, Lustau functioned for many years as an almacenista, wholesaling the wines that it nurtured. In 1950, the company began exporting wines under its own label. In 1990, Lustau was purchased by Grupo Caballero, a Spanish company that owns a number of wine and spirits brands. Besides Lustau, Caballero is also famous for its Ponche Caballero, a fruit and spice infused liqueur made with brandy, easily recognized by its famous silver (now aluminum) bottles. More on Caballero later in the tale.
During the slow breakup of Allied Domecq in the early 2000s, Lustau took the opportunity to purchase six buildings previously used by Harvey’s, which was owned by Allied Domecq. This gave Lustau prime real estate on the Calle Arcos in Jerez de la Frontera, which serves as the base of their Jerez-based operations. All of Lustau’s soleras were very carefully moved from their original location to Calle Arcos so as to not disrupt their flor. A few years later, Lustau purchased some of Allied Domecq’s sherry brands and associated soleras, including La Ina, Botaina and Río Viejo.
Today, Lustau has a substantial range of products, and over two days we sampled them all!
- Almacenista – Sherries made by small producers.
- Especialidades – Specialty sherries like East India.
- VORS Range – Long-aged, more than 30 years average age.
- Tres En Rama – En Rama-style “raw” sherry. Minimally processed.
- Brandy de Jerez – Grape brandy aged in sherry casks
- Vinegar – Solera aged vinegar
- Vermut – Sherry-based vermouth
Today, Lustau holds around 10,000 wine-filled casks. While this may sound like a lot, it’s an order of magnitude less than the big sherry producers like Williams & Humbert and Gonzalez Byass. What Lustau lacks in quantity, they make up for in spades with quality. As we saw firsthand, this is a company focused on the high-end rather than that mass-market. More Mercedes Benz, less Toyota.
Driving in a foreign country when you don’t speak the language is challenging. With Mrs. Wonk behind the wheel and I as the token “navigator,” we put our trust in the GPS as it navigated us out of the city core of Seville for the ninety minute drive through Spanish farmland to Jerez de la Frontera, the epicenter of sherry. We were in little position to argue with the GPS as it guided us down progressively narrow streets lined with whitewashed stone walls.
Stopping where the GPS says, a bit of intercom confusion, hand waving, and charades got us through the iron gates and safely parked in the Lustau parking lot. In short order we meet the Director of Communication, Federico. Tall, thin, and nattily attired in a perfectly tailored suit, his slightly British affectation punctuated with bursts of enthusiasm is utterly charming. He looks completely at home pouring a fine selection of Spanish Brandy, translating our conversation at a cooperage amidst fire and flying wood, or standing in his polished loafers in the white Albariza soil of a vineyard, explaining vine management techniques. Joining Mrs. Wonk, Federico, and me on the two day Lustau immersion was Andrea, a graduate student intern at Lustau, who was herself learning and observing, as well as providing backup translation as necessary.
The crux of any sherry bodega tour is the casks – thousands and thousands of black-painted casks, lying on their side in rows as far as the eye can see, under the high ceilings of a centuries-old warehouse. Most casks are devoid of any markings except for a white chalk-written number or a short line. However, the last cask at the end of each row is marked with more information that seems important. These end-casks are labeled with a name, e.g. “Fino La Ina,” the words “solera” or “criadera,” what seems to be a fraction (like 1/387), and some arrows.
Walking through our first bodega, it’s soon obvious we’ll be seeing a lot of these cask collections, so understanding the marking is quite beneficial. Federico explains that each set of casks (a solera, or more accurately, an Andana) holds all the sherry that will someday be bottled as a particular expression, e.g. “Amontillado Los Arcos,” once it’s moved through all the criaderas and into the solera level. What looks like a fraction, e.g. 1/387, actually indicates this is cask one of 387 similar casks. The arrows point to the row(s) where you’ll find more casks at the same level. Any given warehouse has dozens of these cask clusters, some as small as ten, others totaling in the thousands. In time, the specially marked casks at the end of each row become our waypoints through the enormous bodega buildings.
Walking through endless rows of casks, we soon spot signs of life between two rows. A two-inch wide hose, similar to what you’d find on a shop vacuum (but far longer) snakes across the soil floor and out of sight. One end connects to a refrigerator-sized mechanical contraption. Nearby, a jumpsuit-clad worker on a stepladder manipulates a nozzle into place inside a cask. We’ve come across Lustau’s winemakers “running the scales” – transferring wine from one level to the next, implementing the glacially slow tick-tick-tick of wine aging as it moves through each criadera and solera.
As interesting as this process is to watch, we move on to a particularly small but colorfully decorated set of casks. These are the VORS andanas, holding sherry with an average age of thirty years or more. We spy Amontillado, Palo Cortado, and Oloroso, each with ten casks or fewer.
Up a set of stairs is a charming white tasting room with dramatic overhead views of the casks slumbering below. Lined up on the counter is a frightening number of Lustau bottles. In addition to the dozen or so sherry bottles, there are also four bottles of Brandy de Jerez. To our mild astonishment, these aren’t just for show–Federico opens each bottle in turn, pouring a healthy sample into tasting glasses. It’s not even lunchtime but we’re staring down a sample lineup that will put us under the table if we’re not careful. Luckily, we’ve done this a time or two, so are only mildly tipsy as we head back out into the wonderful Spanish sun.
Climbing into Federico’s Ford, the four of us head northwest toward Sanlúcar de Barrameda, on Spain’s Atlantic coast. It’s a perfect, sunny day as we travel past gently rolling farmland. We have a visit to an almacenista awaiting us. But first, we make an all-too-brief stop at the Las Cruces vineyard. This is where Lustau’s wine growers cultivate Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez grapes. It’s only March 1st, so the rows and rows of vines are devoid of leaves and trimmed way back. The stark vines, intense sun, and dry soil make it abundantly clear that conditions can be harsh here. A small house in the middle of the vineyard has an exterior spiral staircase to a roof deck. From this vantage point we see vines and a church spire in one direction. In the other we see Sanlúcar de Barrameda, stretching out beside the sea. It’s a supremely calm and beautiful moment — does life get any better?
Reluctantly leaving the vineyard, we soon arrive at Manuel Cuevas Jurado. Pepe, the cellar master, greets us. It’s hard to miss Pepe – a charming, bespectacled man likely in his 60s, dressed head to toe in a blue canvas work suit. This isn’t a fashion choice though. He spends his days clambering over old casks, venencia in hand to keep tabs on the hundreds of casks in his domain. Across the street and through a door we enter a hidden courtyard, the bougainvillea vines overhead providing a bit of shade for the summer heat to come. It looks like it hasn’t changed in fifty years or more. Yes, we’ve really stepped back in time to sherry’s past.
Walking past hundreds of casks crusted with decades of dust and cobwebs (this is terroir, people!), Pepe stops from time to time, removes a bung from a cask, plunges in his hand-crafted cane venencia. Taking our glasses in turn, he expertly fills them with a slow upward sweep of the wrist, aerating the sherry as it falls a half meter into our waiting glass, rarely spilling a drop.
Some of these casks have been in use for more than a hundred years. Being in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, it makes sense that the bodega’s primary product is Manzanilla, which Lustau sells as “Manzanilla Pasada de Sanlúcar.” Pepe also curates an Amontillado for Lustau called “Amontillado de Sanlúcar.” Both are part of Lustau’s Almacenista range.
After six hours of intense sherry immersion, hunger has set in. In Spain, lunch is a mid-afternoon affair. Sanlúcar’s seaside restaurants beckon, and history surrounds us as we dine on incredibly fresh local seafood and several bottles of sherry – Lustau, of course. Columbus and Magellan left on their famous voyages steps from where we bask in the warm mid-day sun, where the mouth of the river meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Our efforts to stay awake during the ride back to Jerez de la Frontera are in vain. The sun, the sherry, the beautiful countryside did us in. An afternoon siesta recharges our batteries just enough to enjoy a sherry soaked dinner with Federico that evening at an amazing local restaurant called Albores. Truly a day for the ages – how can tomorrow top this?
The next morning, still a bit groggy and sleep deprived, Federico and Andrea (looking far more alert than we did) pick us up at our hotel for the short drive to a local cooperage that supplies Lustau with casks. We’ve been to cooperages before, but this was by far the most intense cask-making experience, standing right next to the workers as they turned pallets of wood staves into finished casks. Fire, sawdust, and noise are in abundance as we witness every step of a cask’s construction. I have so many great photos and insights to share that I wrote a separate article on our cooperage visit rather than attempting to summarize it here. Here’s a teaser:
After nearly twelve hours without sherry, Bodega Juan García Jarana is a welcome next stop. Located in Jerez de la Frontera and practically next door to Lustau’s original aging facility, this tiny almacenista, about the size of a large house, is owned by a local businessman who made it big with his motorcycle dealership. It has several andanas aging Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, and Pedro Ximénez. Lustau sells the oloroso in their almacenista line as “Oloroso Pata de Gallina.” The cellarmaster wasn’t available when we visited, so Federico took charge, leading us from cask to cask and demonstrating his solid venencia skills. If we didn’t know better, we’d have pegged him as a cellarmaster himself. Truly a man of many talents!
You may recall that Lustau offers products beyond sherry. First and foremost (from my perspective) is their Brandy de Jerez. This lovely distilled spirit is relatively unknown compared to other grape-based brandies like Cognac, Armagnac, and pisco. What makes Brandy de Jerez unique is that for the product to carry that name, it must be distilled in Spain and solera-aged in the sherry triangle in ex-sherry casks. I’ve become increasingly interested in Brandy de Jerez and will write a wonky overview in a future post. What’s important here is that at Lustau we got to see Brandy de Jerez production up close and personal.
While Jerez de la Frontera is where most of Lustau’s sherry aging takes place, the neighboring town of El Puerto de Santa María is where Grupo Caballero, Lustau’s parent company, has its administrative offices and yet more aging facilities. Located on the coast in the southernmost part of the sherry triangle, the town is a short drive (15 km or so) to the southwest of Jerez de la Frontera. While El Puerto de Santa María wasn’t on the original agenda, we wanted to see Brandy de Jerez, so off we go!
When you think about what a spirit company like Caballero might acquire in the course of doing business, a 500 year old castle probably doesn’t come to mind. In 1961 Caballero purchased Castillo de San Marcos and preserved the key historical elements while also converting it to use as an event space and for cask storage. The castle’s profile is now the emblem of the Caballero group.
A hop, skip, and a jump away is the heart of Caballero’s operations. Our first surprise upon entering one cellar is a stack of casks with clear tops and bottoms. Brandy fills each cask, but settled at each cask’s bottom are spices – one cask holds vanilla beans, another cask is filled with orange peel, a third has cloves, and so on. These casks demonstrate how Ponche Caballero, a spice infused brandy-based liqueur, is made. It’s quite popular in Spain and readily identifiable by its tall, silver-toned bottles.
Nearby is the real treasure we’ve come for: Brandy de Jerez! Caballero sells its Brandy de Jerez under two brands: Milenario and Lustau. Walking past the black-painted casks in their criaderas and soleras, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were filled with sherry. The cask markings are exactly the same as sherry casks. Only the brand name tips you off that brandy lies within. Over dinner the prior evening, Federico shared that while Lustau’s Brandy de Jerez is considered among the very best available, it is a very small percentage of Lustau’s overall sales. Leave it to The Wonk to obsession about a company’s niche products!
An unexpected bonus of our side-trip to El Puerto de Santa María was a visit to Caballero’s laboratory, where Master Distiller Fernando Perez and his staff oversee quality control for the staggering number of wines and spirits in Caballero’s portfolio. A particular treat was sampling a local cherry/anisette liqueur, Miura, distilled north of Seville in tiny alembics.
After another sherry-soaked lunch (when in Jerez, do not miss the sherry pairing menu at La Carbona—food so fabulous we went back twice) and another much-needed afternoon siesta, we enter the home stretch. Returning to the Jerez de la Frontera tasting room, we met up again with Fernando and Lustau’s new cellarmaster Sergio Martinez for a comparative tasting.
First up is a walk-through of a number of amontillado expressions, illustrating how they evolve over time in the cask. A very in-depth overview of Lustau’s recently released sherry-based vermouth follows—the result of five years of development by Fernando, who is justifiably proud of his new offering. It’s stylistically similar to an Italian-style “red” vermouth, but with an Amontillado and Pedro Ximénez base. Fernando presents an array of jars in the center of the table that hold samples of the spices he used in making the vermouth. A fun group-bonding activity unfolded as the seven of us in the room opened up and passed around each jar. In case you’re wondering, I found the vermouth to be top-notch. It’s available in the U.S. and I have bottles on order as I write—the Spanish custom of drinking vermouth over ice in the afternoon became an enjoyable new habit during our two weeks in the country
The closing chapter of our Lustau journey could not have been more perfect – yet more sherry and a flamenco performance at Tabanco El Pasaje, the oldest and most traditional sherry bar in Jerez. Over plentiful tapas, presented old-school style on parchment-style paper set directly on the decades-old wooden tabletop, Mrs. Wonk and I did our best (in part via Federico and Andrea’s translations) to express our enormous gratitude for two very full days of amazing experiences in the sherry triangle. As I said goodbye to Fernando, he surprised me with a bottle of Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva–Reserva Familiar 1977, their very best Brandy de Jerez. A wonderful and treasured gift indeed!
It’s clear there’s enormous passion and pride in everything Lustau does, and we were extraordinarily lucky to experience it firsthand. If you ever find yourself near the sherry triangle (and really, just make it a point to go), you absolutely don’t want to miss the sherry bodegas. Naturally, a full-on Lustau tour should be high on your list. If you happen to see Federico amongst the casks, tell him Cocktail and Mrs. Wonk sent you!