All good cocktail creations seem to come with an equally appealing story. The story of aged cocktails in the U.S. is no different.
The epiphany came when Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bar manager of Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon, was given an insider’s tip to order the aged Manhattan at Tony Conigliaro’s London bar at 69 Colebrooke Row.
“The cocktail had been aging in glass for about five years,” he recalls. “I started thinking about that drink and it seemed like a natural thing to put it in wood.”
And his first trial was to recreate that same Manhattan, but age it in a small one-gallon oak cask that once held Madeira. He aged the drink for about five to six weeks, a time determined by weekly tastings and instinct. “It was fantastic,” notes Mortgenthaler. “I sold out in less than a week.”
He has since experimented with various cocktails, including the ever-popular Barrel Aged Negroni ($10), something he tries to keep on hand, which is made with Beefeater gin, Cinzano Rosso Vermouth and Campari, finished with an orange peel.
After chronicling his adventures in aging cocktails on his blog (jeffreymorgenthaler.com), word got around and savvy bar managers across the country are experimenting with this new evolution of cocktails. The drinks not only create buzz around when the quaffs will be ready, but also allow bar managers to charge a premium (about a $1 more per drink) because of the time it takes to create the drinks.
When determining what types of cocktails to age, not all spirits are considered equal. “Our thinking is that since you are putting it in a barrel, you don’t want to use something that has already been barrel-aged,” says Alex Homans, bar manager at Temple Bar, an American bistro in Cambridge, MA. “We are using unaged spirits like gin, vodka and rum that hasn’t spent time in a barrel.”
For example, his staple aged cocktail is the Negroni ($11), made with Berkshire Mountain Ethereal Gin, Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth and Campari. Another aged cocktail on his menu is the Cherry Valance ($11), made with Pyrat XO Rum, Cherry Heering Liqueur, Fee Brothers Chocolate Bitters and Bittermans Xocolate Mole.
Meanwhile, Benjamin Schiller, bar master at BOKA in Chicago, uses spirits and liqueurs that are used to seeing oak. “Whiskey and wine based products like vermouth make up the majority of what we age,” he explains. For example, The Elder ($15) is made with Black Maple Hill Bourbon, Aperol, Nux Alpina Walnut Liqueur and Angostura Bitters.
Lawrence Von Weigel, assistant general manager at Occidental Grill & Seafood in Washington D.C., uses all different kinds of spirits. For example, his Darkening Storm ($15), features a blend of Kraken and Ron Zacapa Dark Rums, Oronko Light Rum and house made ginger and allspice syrup, which is topped with Gosling Ginger Beer.
When making an aged cocktail, bar managers are somewhat limited in the types of barrels they can use. Most opt to use one- to five-gallon barrels for sheer practicality.
“I use the smaller ones because it doesn’t cost quite as much to fill,” notes Morgenthaler. “You would wind up spending $5,000 on product if you used larger barrels.” He has about 15 used whiskey barrels that he ordered from Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner, New York.
The key to the barrel, though, is how it changes—well, finishes—the cocktail.
“What the barrel does is integrate the flavors, allowing them to become an entity that is bigger than just the three ingredients in the Negroni,” explains Homans. “It really adds some interesting spice notes and aromas to the cocktails that you won’t get from any other process.”
Von Weigel agrees. “The barrel makes the drink more complex. You can smell the richness of the wood – not overpowering, just perfectly done.”
His Maker’s Mark Manhattan ($15), made with Maker’s Mark Bourbon, Sweet Vermouth and blood orange bitters, garnished with Marasca cherries, has been a big hit. “People say it’s the best Manhattan of their lives,” he boasts.
Often a barrel or two are displayed and aged right in the bar area, with larger ones and overflow stored in rooms outside the bar area, often where the wine and spirits are kept. “We have two smaller casks, 2.5 gallons that are branded with our logo for display” says Von Weigel. “Our larger five-gallon barrels are kept in the wine cellar.”
The process of aging the cocktails is relatively simple, say bar managers. “We take a cocktail that we think would benefit from oak aging, select an appropriate barrel, batch together a large quantity of the cocktail and pour it into the barrel,” explains Schiller. “We then sample it every week or so to see how the cocktail has developed in the barrel.”
It is this simplicity that Morgenthaler says is the key to its success. “Cocktails were getting so crazy with molecular trends,” he says. “This is a low-fi trend for cocktails—it’s kind of neat that way.”