Photo by Sonja Groset © 2011
Aging cocktails applies the already well-tested theory that age adds depth, flavor, and character to spirits. It's a low-tech way to improve cocktails at a time when high technique is popular in both the culinary and bartending worlds. And it's a technique being seen at more and more bars around the city. Just as barrels give whiskey its flavor and color and soften the harsh tannins in wine, aging cocktails in wood barrels smooths the sharp edges of some drinks, while creating new flavors like vanilla and warm, spicy notes in others.
Photo by Sonja Groset © 2011
The popularity of aging cocktails was referenced in print in the early 1900s, but was recently revitalized in the U.S. by Jeffrey Morganthaler, the bar manager at Portland's Clyde Common, by way of London. While in London, Morganthaler visited Tony Conigliaro's bar at 69 Colebrooke Row. There, Conigliaro had been aging cocktails for over five years. By time Morganthaler visited in 2009, the aged cocktails were already well established and he was impressed. Upon his return to Portland he began experimenting with aging ingredients as well as complete cocktails. He also took the concept of aging cocktails one step further and started aging them in wood.
Today, at bars from New York to Chicago to Seattle, bartenders are taking small, two- and three-gallon barrels and aging everything from Negronis to Manhattans. Most bartenders agree that gin-based cocktails work best for barrel-aging. The floral and herbal qualities help it stand up to the flavors imparted by a charred wood barrel. Bitter ingredients like Campari become subtler, while vodka takes on too much of a whiskey flavor.
Aging in small barrels means the flavor of the wood is imparted into the barrel's contents more quickly. So instead of several years, a cocktail can be aged in a few weeks. Five to six weeks seems to be the sweet spot for many cocktails, though some are aged longer. The trick is to take small samples of the cocktail during the aging process to taste the progress. If using vermouth, barrels must be filled entirely, with no air space allowed to oxidize the contents. A large barrel could cost thousands of dollars to fill--another practical reason for using a small barrel. Most bars charge $1-$2 more for aged cocktails, which offsets the cost of the barrels, since they are typically only used once or twice.
Mulleady's Irish Pub, in Magnolia, has a barrel-aged Negroni regularly on their menu. Tasted alongside a classically made Negroni, the aged Negroni is smoother and in some ways richer. The Campari is beaten into submission, allowing the floral sweetness of the gin to shine through. Owner Travis Stanley-Jones has plans for aging a Widow's Kiss, in hopes that the apple and spice flavors of the calvados will be enhanced after some time in oak. He admits, though, that barrel-aging is a one-shot opportunity. "Once the cocktail is in the barrel, you can't undo mistakes like you can when mixing a cocktail to order," he lamented.
Liberty on Capitol Hill has a "Barrel-Aged Cocktails for the Masses" program where customers can choose a cocktail to have mixed and aged in one of several half-gallon barrels from Woodinville Whiskey Co. After several weeks, your cocktail will be available for purchase by you and other patrons at the bar.
Owner/bartender Andrew Friedman likes the "innovation factor" of barrel-aging and has created an original cocktail called The Good Dog. It's a mix of Woodinville Whiskey Co.'s White Dog (an unaged whiskey), a chamomile-infused grappa, and Bitter Truth's Lemon Bitters. They are also currently offering aged versions of a Sazerac with gin, a Vieux Carré, and the Negroni--and hopefully, in a few more weeks, an aged version of the Trident suggested by yours truly (Hi, Andrew!). They have also aged individual spirits like Campari, housemade orange bitters, and sweet vermouth, in hopes that adding any of those individual ingredients to a cocktail will make it more interesting.
Want to try aging your favorite cocktail at home? You can get the half-gallon barrels from Woodinville Whiskey Co. for $69.95.