Whether you prefer your cocktail shaken or stirred, there’s a technique mixologists are using to redefine the cocktail – in terms of taste and color. Welcome the Barrel-Aged Cocktail.
The concept is not new but is taking off quickly with mixologists who like to experiment and elevate the cocktail experience. While you probably won’t find a barrel-aged cocktail on the menu at your favorite fast casual dining spot, you will find a great selection at bars and restaurants that support craft cocktails.
Alex Smith, Spirits Director at the Black Sheep Restaurant Group says, “Barrel-aging can be a real game changer.” Black Sheep is a modern American restaurant that works with local purveyors and offers both great food and great cocktails. Known for innovating the classics, Smith adds, “Barrel-aging is another way to take great classic cocktails and create new flavor experiences.”
Portland-based, celebrated mycologist at Clyde Common and Author of The Bar Book, Elements of Cocktail Technique (Chronicle Books) Jeffrey Morgenthaler adds, “With a barrel you extract some of the wood characteristics—oak tannins, caramel, and vanillin—but the important thing is extracting some of previous contents. The final product has a silkier mouth feel, and the components of the cocktail marry more than in fresh cocktails.” Morgenthaler is credited for being the first mixologist in the U.S. to showcase this technique after he sampled bottled aged cocktails in London.
If you think about barrel-aging in terms of the food universe it’s evident that barrel-aging is not new at all. In fact, there’s a list of foods that are made using this technique including pickles, mustard and maple syrup and the newly popular condiment, Sriracha.
So, is it about the barrel or the cocktail? Most mixologists will agree it’s about both. “One of the reasons to barrel age is to extract the flavors from the barrel, so what has been in the barrel before is important,” says Dean Hurst, Director of Spirits, SideBerns.
For their “Three Amigos” cocktail served at Bern’s and SideBerns, Hurst chose a Hudson Baby Bourbon Barrel to age the batch because the bourbon was the weakest player and he hoped to bring it out in the finished cocktail.
Hurst also believes that this different offering adds to the hospitality experience. “Not only does the barrel-aging justify the cost but it allows us to open a conversation with our guests.”
Joshua Hiller, mixologist at Siro at the Orlando World Center Marriott says his ‘Ciao Milano,’ the first barrel-aged cocktail on the menu at this super chic bar, is as popular today as it was when it was first placed on the list. “All of our cocktails are based on the classics. This cocktail let us play with bourbon, in fact we used Buffalo Trace. We used honey from one of our partners, Lake Meadow Naturals and then used Carpano Bianco Vermouth to add a lighter wine hint to the cocktail. You can say the Bianco added a lift to the cocktail. Not only that, the Milano theme is also evident in the few drops of Fernet-Branca we add to the barrel,” says Hiller. “I think the Fernet-Branca adds a bit of freshness to the cocktail.”
The cocktail is aged for about 46–50 days in St. George Spirit Barrels and like all of the other offerings on the menu; this best-selling cocktail is priced at $14.
According to Morgenthaler, “Barrel-aging is essentially little more than infusing alcohol with wood, a process that has been part of the beverage world for centuries.” Wines, spirits and even beers take on some characteristics of the oak barrels they are stored in. No matter what the barrel-aged cocktail, if you are offered one of these fine libations, say yes. The taste experience is like no other and you can be sure that the mixologist and his team put time and thought into the cocktail. In fact, we’re sure you’ll say “I’ll have another!”