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Roll Out the Barrel Aged Cocktail: Hands-On Innovation is Catching On at the Bar

Posted on  | February 23, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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For the cocktail geek, barrel-aged cocktails are one of the most interesting developments of the 21st century.
For the bar owner, barrel-aged cocktails are an opportunity to grab some hip cachet and pull in extra customers. And off-premise sellers should keep an eye on this trend, because pre-made versions are already available in bottles.

Barrel-aged cocktails are “a big part of our business,” says Shawn Vergara, owner of Blackbird in San Francisco. “We get a lot of people who like to come in and try these: industry people and cocktail enthusiasts.” Blackbird is a two-year-old bar in a city well known for its food and drinks scene. It serves no food, but the barrel-aged cocktail program put it on the map.

When a barrel-aged cocktail is good, it’s like nothing your best bartender can immediately whip up. The spirits have melded together over a period of weeks, yielding a seamlessly smooth drink. Depending on the type of wood used, it might also have interesting accents from the barrel.

Carin Galletta Oliver, president of the word-of-mouth marketing agency Ink Foundry, says having such cocktails as a signature item is a good way to impress. “When consumers come into a restaurant and bar, they want something new and they want some sort of ‘wow’ experience,” says Oliver, whose clients include Outback Steakhouse and California Pizza Kitchen. “A barrel-aged cocktail is something people want to go home and tell their friends about.”

However, there’s a reason barrel-aged cocktails are still found at only a few bars around the country: they take some investment, both in time and money. And if you find out after six weeks (or more) that you don’t like what you made, you have to either sell it anyway or, better, eat the losses. That’s why Jeffrey Morgenthaler, the bartender who imported the trend from London and now manages the bar at Clyde Common in Portland, says in an instructional video for Hudson Whiskey: “Start small.”

A barrel-aged cocktail program like Blackbird’s can be elaborate: the bar does three or four cocktails at a time with different types of aging vessels. But even a single barrel-aged cocktail—perhaps a classic like a Manhattan or Negroni—can get attention.

You can try the concept by sampling High West’s “36th Vote” Barreled Manhattan, made with the Utah distillery’s rye, sweet vermouth and bitters. It’s a steep $57, but it is delicious, with a softer profile and longer finish than you’d expect from a 74 proof drink. But if you’re in the bar business, you’re going to want to make your own.

Nick & Toni’s Café in Manhattan has been doing a barrel-aged Negroni for about a year. Assistant General Manager Richard Scoffier found inspiration on his honeymoon in the Finger Lakes, and uses Seneca Drums Gin as the base. “It took a while to catch on last year,” he says, “but then it sold out quickly at the end of the summer so we had a bit of a gap where we were out of it this fall. It’s a steady seller and I’m getting ready to put my third batch in the barrel now.” Promotion of the cocktail is low-key: “When someone asks for a Negroni we tell them we’ve got a house version. Other people are just intrigued about the barrel aging and want to give it a shot.”

Getting on the Barrel Bandwagon

A few months ago, this story might have said, “The first thing you need is the barrel.” Tuthilltown Spirits in New York, which makes Hudson Whiskey, is the main company selling the small new barrels used to make these drinks. A 5-liter barrel is $96 before shipping. You can and should use the barrel more than once, but it is a startup cost.

However, now there’s an even cheaper way. Blackbird has begun aging cocktails in glass barrels with oak staves, ironically the exact same way that the wine industry saves money on barrels.

“We wanted to offer a lower price,” Vergara says. “A $10 cocktail moves a lot better than a $12 cocktail. If we can use products that allow us to keep the price down to $10, that helps.”

The ingredients list is important. Avoid anything that isn’t spirits-based, such as juices, because they can go cloudy or even spoil. Fortified wine products like Vermouth and Sherry will work, but avoid unfortified wines or beer. Vergara now avoids organic liquors, which may not have the same preservatives. “We used one product that was organic, an organic cordial, and it fell out of the solution,” he recalls.

Consider using white liquors instead of those already aged in wood, so you avoid double-oaking. But before you reach for the vodka, consider this: the cocktail enthusiast tends to favor whiskey-based drinks. Solve this by using unaged “white dog” whiskies.

Make sure to prime the barrel first by filling with water and draining. You can pour the ingredients right into the barrel and stir. There’s no set time for the cocktail to be ready. Morgenthaler suggests you begin tasting it after six weeks, and often after that until you like the results.

At that point it’s important to empty the barrel into a glass vessel so the cocktail won’t absorb any more wood. Morgenthaler suggests leaving some of it behind as an experiment, so you can see if you would have liked it a week or two “woodier.” Filter the drink through a cheesecloth to remove stray bits of wood.

Recipes from Blackbird

Bonnie and Clyde
4 parts High West Silver Whiskey
1 part Dolin Blanc Vermouth
1 part J. Witty Chamomile Liqueur
0.1 parts Bar Code Baked Apple Bitters

El Cumbre del Monte
5 parts Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
5 parts Luna Azul Silver Tequila
2 parts Martini & Rossi Rosato Vermouth
1 part Apricot Liqueur
0.2 parts Peach Bitters
0.1 parts Peychaud’s Bitters


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