Spirits Close-Up: Cobblers Had a Bumpy Road

Dopple Cobbler // Photo by Tj Turner

Sherry, sugar, ice, fruit. The sherry cobbler is simple and delicious but any hopes of knowing its origins remain as crushed as the ice on which the cocktail is built.

Mentioned by notables from Charles Dickens to Queen Victoria, the sherry cobbler became the most famous libation in the 19th-century Western world because of three big cultural factors coming together in perfect harmony. The ice trade was hot, sherry prices were dropping to the flor (wait for it), and there was a new-fangled invention taking the world by storm: a cut reed of rye grass the kids were calling “the straw.”

Sherry is Spanish wine that is fortified with a distilled grape spirit after fermentation and left to age. Fino and manzanilla sherry are aged in barrels that develop a layer of yeast called flōr (now you get it) to protect them from over-oxidizing. It’s called flōr, as in flower, because it “blooms” on top of the liquid, protecting the light, tart, crisp sherries underneath. Amontillado and oloroso sherries are more oxidized, producing nuttier and darker fruit notes. There are other types of sherry, but they weren’t as commonly cobblered.

The cobbler name is thought to come from its crushed ice looking like cobblestones. Some have claimed pebble ice was the original ingredient, but the industrial ice pebbler machines we have today weren’t invented yet and Sonic Drive-Ins were not a common sight in the 1830s. Ice was brand new in drinks and, wanting to avoid dumping it all over themselves, suddenly imbibers were in need of a way to sneak past. No one knows when or by whose hand it first entered the bar, but the drinking straw was practically unknown before the cobbler rose to popularity.

Sugar plantations were in full force in those days and Americans were using the superfine stuff in their sherry cobblers. This sugar wouldn’t dissolve right away so old recipes request a shaken cobbler to incorporate the sugar. For modern variations using a syrup, stirring will yield a smoother result. 

The sherry cobbler’s reign continued strong through the end of the 1800s. But in the early 20th century, Prohibition caused the beverage to go the way of this article: too quick an end.

Recipe for Sherry Cobbler 

By Jerry Thomas (1862)

4 ounces of sherry (fino or manzanilla)
1 tablespoon of sugar
2 or 3 slices of orange

“Fill a tumbler with shaved ice, shake well, and ornament with berries in season. Place a straw [in the glass.]”

Recipe for Dopple Cobbler

By Zachary Sapato (2019)

3 ounces amontillado sherry
1 ounce Dampfwerk
Helgolander
2 teaspoons strawberry syrup (see below)

Fill a tumbler with crushed ice, add all ingredients, and stir well. Ornament with blackberries, strawberries, and a sage sprig. Place a metal straw in the glass.

Strawberry Syrup

3 cups strawberries, quartered
1 cup sugar

Combine and let sit overnight. Strain off liquid syrup once the sugar has dissolved.