Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: Barrel-Aged Cocktails...Patience, Grasshopper!

Why dump a perfectly good cocktail like a Negroni or Manhattan into a wood barrel for a couple of months?

1) It’s fun in an old-world mad-scientist kinda way.
2) It may make your cocktail luxuriously smooth and even add a bit of wood character.

For over an hour, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Gable Erenzo and Naren Young hit the highlights of this relatively new approach (with roots in older practices) to fiddling with cocktails. Booze nerds like these guys are always on the hunt for ways to improve your drinking experience, and barrel-aging cocktails is one of the latest methods that’s gaining popularity in cocktail programs worldwide. Here’s a few informational nuggets they shared…

~ Bottled cocktails originated in the Jerry Thomas era as way for customers to take drinks “to-go” and enjoy later. Being that I’m New Orleans as I write this, I can’t help but think the “go cup” phenomenon here somehow owes its existence to this earlier incarnation.

~ In the early 1900’s, the Heublein company sold pre-made cocktails that had been aged in wood.

~ A few years ago, Tony Conigliaro began experimenting with aging cocktails in glass, prompting modern bartenders to rethink the concept and apply it in new ways, using different materials, spirits and processes.

~ Experimenting with barrel-aged cocktails coincided nicely with the internet making it easy to contact distilleries and procure their used barrels.

~ Much as single spirits do, aging a cocktail in a barrel will allow it to pull distinctive characteristics from the wood. However, using new barrels can be risky because too much wood flavor can be imparted very quickly. Score another point for recycling!

~ It easy to overage a cocktail, but if that happens, it’s not a lost cause. Often simply introducing more fresh cocktail to mix can salvage the batch.

~ While experimentation is encouraged, using ingredients like eggs, cream and citrus should be avoided. But I’m sure our intrepid bartending community is already hard at work coming up with a way to get around this though.

~ Generally speaking, lighter, unaged spirits like gin, vodka, unaged Tequila etc., seem to yield the best results.

~ For those not inclined to wait several weeks for a barrel-aged cocktail to reach maturity, you can get quicker results (and satisfy any latent gadget jones you may be experiencing) by using smoked wood chips and an iSi whipper to infuse your cocktail. I’ll need to track down specific instructions for this asap.

Now go find some barrels!


bearito said...

I first tried a barrel aged Negroni at Clyde Common in Portland, OR and it was truly inspiring. I would love to try my hand at this process, but I just can't seem to locate the used barrels. Any advice on where one can procure such a vessel? Thanks. Love your blog!

Anonymous said...

@bearito: If you're local to the Pacific Northwest, I know Seattle bars and locals are all stocking up at Woodinville Whiskey.
Their 2L barrels are unused, but that gives you the option of seasoning the wood with whatever spirit you choose, and you can count on several uses before the barrel's effectiveness is lost.