By Terry Trucco
If you’re on top of drinks trends, you know all about barrel-aged cocktails, mixed drinks like Negronis and Old Fashioneds poured into barrels and left for weeks or months to oxidize and absorb flavor and color from their woody casings, much like whiskey and wine.
You also know the trendlet’s history – how Jeffery Morgenthaler, a Portland, Oregon bartender with an avid blog following, sampled a mature Manhattan in London at Tony Conigliaro’s 69 Colebrooke Row bar in 2009 and had a hosanna! moment.
Describing the drink as “sublime and subtle,” he elected to try it at home. But instead of aging a Manhattan in a glass bottle, like Conigliaro, he decided “bigger equals better” and opted for large-batch Negronis in an oak barrel.
The result? Bliss in a barrel. “The sweet vermouth so slightly oxidized, the color paler and rosier than the original, the mid-palate softly mingled with whiskey, the finish long and lingering with oak tannins,” he writes. Who could resist?
No bartender alive, if you read cocktail blogs. Since Morgenthaler introduced barrel-aged cocktails at Clyde Common in 2010, barrel-aged cocktails have popped up across the country, including at Felidia and the Gramercy Park Hotel Roof Bar in Manhattan.
A trio of oak wood barrels sat on top of the bar, pert wood casks that look like something a St. Bernard on the lookout for avalanche victims in the Alps would wear. The three cocktails were anything but straight-up Negronis or Manhattans.
Aged Beauty consists of rum infused with vanilla beans for a week then aged for six weeks with rhubarb syrup and rhubarb biters. In Epitome of Elegance Leblon Cachaca melds with dates and figs for five days then mixes with Aperol, Maraschino Liqueur and Campari Bitters for six weeks. And Timeless Grace, a riff on an Old Fashioned, infuses rye whiskey with dried cherries and orange zest for a week before blending with Lillet and Glayva Liqueur for six weeks.
“We wanted to come up with something different,” says Sachin Hasan, assistant manager of Two E, who dreamed up the drinks.
You don’t have to be a bartender to try barrel aging at home and dazzle your friends. Just stay away from ingredients that will ferment or go bad, like juices or cream, and taste the mix every week to see how it’s developing, Hasan says. Tuthilltown 1 liter barrels cost $60 and are easy to procure on the internet. (The company also offers a $12.50 starter kit featuring a glass bottle with a stick of oak wood.) “It’s easier to control how the ingredients will react if you choose barrels made from new wood instead of aged wood,” Hasan says.
It’s lots easier, of course, to try out barrel-aged cocktails at a bar. Two E offers all three individually ($14) or as a three-drink sampler ($18), which I tried. All were complex and smooth, but Grace, designed as a classic cocktail, was surprisingly light and summery (for a whiskey) while Beauty, designed as an envelope pusher, tasted smokey and intense. Elegance, straddling a middle ground stylistically, was a distant cousin of a Negroni, rich and sweet, but not too sweet. To this Goldilocks, at least, it tasted just right.