It’s a drizzly Thursday night, but inside Bar Pepito it’s as hot as pimiento.
Opening the door, I’m hit with the intoxicating smell of jamón. The bar of the tiny bodega in King’s Cross is a slice of Jerez squeezed into 30 square feet.
From the floor covered with traditional Spanish tiles, to the flamenco posters and esparto-grass mats lining the walls, it’s easy to feel transported to Southern Spain.
Even the level of noise – a classic Spanish racket – is authentic.
We’re standing shoulder to shoulder around a table made of a Tio Pepe barrel, with brightly-coloured bowls of kikos (fried corn), habas fritas (fried broad beans) and giant Gordal olives.
A blur of waiters emerge from the miniscule kitchen carrying plates of pan con tomate, jamón ibérico and sheep’s cheese. Four small glasses of Tio Pepe Fino are brought over to our barrel.
The tiny bar, a converted railway storage shed, is a few steps away from sister restaurant Camino in Varnisher’s Yard.
Pepito’s Hispanophile owner Richard Bigg wants to shake off Sherry’s fusty image. He’s on a mission to convert London into a city of Sherry sippers and give Sherry the makeover it deserves.
Once described as the grand druid of hip hangouts, Bigg has a bloodhound nose for the next big bar. He started Cantaloupe in Shoreditch, years before the area became cool.
‘Sherry is druggingly delicious and I think the public are ready for it,’ Bigg says. ‘Wine knowledge is going through the roof – people are becoming more confident about wine and want to experiment with new styles.’
He concedes it’s a gamble but says he likes taking risks. ‘It would have been a lot riskier if I’d opened a stand-alone bar, but I think it would still work.’
Bigg has collaborated with Gonzáles Byass, whose wines make up nine of the 15 Sherries on offer, along with one beer and a seasonal Sherry-based cocktail.
The list is deliberately short, so as not to intimidate novices, but Bigg already plans to edit the offering and include a different ‘wild card’ wine each month.
The Gonzáles Byass team is out in force. Managing director Martin Skelton and marketing director Jeremy Rockett are armed with a bottle of Gonzáles Byass 1968 Oloroso.
It’s outstanding, with a nose of varnish, walnut skins and mahogany. On the palate is sweet spice, orange peel, dried figs and hazelnuts. It’s deliciously long and amazingly vibrant for its years.
Accompanying the wines is a well-thought-out tapas menu including venison carpaccio and devon crab salad. Each dish comes with a Sherry recommendation.
‘Sherry has to be drunk with food – it’s the best food matching wine there is’, says Bigg. ‘It’s all about serving fresh styles at the right temperature in the right glasses.’
There are six tasting flights (three 50ml measures), including the Oloroso-based ‘Glorioso’ and the Pedro Ximenez-fuelled ‘Decadencia’.
A cage-like cellar lines the back wall, and next to it, a single Enomatic machine. Bigg is offering Bar Pepito cards, which you can load up with credit to buy 25, 50 and 75ml Sherry shots starting at 95p and going up to £4.50 for the ‘68 Oloroso.
Written by Lucy Shaw