Some bartenders are shaking up tradition by aging classic cocktails in barrels for several weeks to produce drinks with deeper, more nuanced flavors.
“What the barrels do is soften everything out and integrate the flavors,” says Hugh Reynolds, bar manager of Temple Bar in Cambridge, Mass.
When aging cocktails, you don’t want to use fresh ingredients, which could spoil. And bartenders mostly have been using liquors that can stand up to the flavors of charred oak, like gin with its botanical aromas. With vermouth, a staple in many cocktails, you get a little oxidation, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, says Reynolds.
One of Reynolds’ classic cellared cocktails is a whiskey barrel-aged Negroni, a cocktail made of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, that was aged in cured whiskey barrels from Tuthilltown Distillery in New York.
He’s also made a cherry valance — dark rum, blackstrap rum, cherry heering (a Danish liqueur) and chocolate bitters. “That came out wonderfully,” says Reynolds, who generally ages cocktails for about seven weeks.
Reynolds was inspired by Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bar manager at Clyde Common in Portland, Ore., who began barrel-aging cocktails a little over a year ago after reading about yet another mixologist, Tony Conigliaro in London, who has been aging cocktails in bottles.
“I wanted to take it to the next level,” says Morgenthaler, who also writes about spirits on his blog, jeffreymorgenthaler.com. “I thought we could speed the whole thing up into like two months in wood and, lo and behold, it worked out.”
In the constantly evolving world of cocktails — culinary cocktails, cocktails with special types of ice, even cocktails with meat — barrel-aging is part of the quest for the next and the new.
“It’s a great selling point. It’s a great headline,” says Benjamin Schiller, mixologist for the Boka Restaurant Group in Chicago.
But it’s also a chance to explore new flavor combinations says Schiller, who was drawn to barrel-aged cocktails by his appreciation of another aged product, single-malt scotch. He’s been aging Manhattans — whiskey, vermouth, bitters.
Schiller has been experimenting on the barrel side, too, following the single-malt scotch method of using different types of barrels — bourbon, port, sherry — at different points in the aging process.
“You’re looking for depth and contrast of flavor,” he says. “Even if the product is not remarkable, you can very easily make it remarkable.”
He’s been selling the aged cocktails at the bar at the Boka restaurant as well as at The Girl & Goat, the restaurant of Stephanie Izard, winner of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef” contest in 2008.
The drinks proved so popular that “we really were unprepared for our first batches,” Schiller says. “They sold out in a matter of weeks.”
Time to roll out some more barrels.