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    Aged Cocktails: Time is on Your Side

    by Francoise Villeneuve
    Antoinette Bruno and Francoise Villeneuve
    August 2011

    Table of Contents

    A Brief History of the Aged Cocktail

    Barrel and Bottle

    Vessel Evolutions

    Modern Methods

    Bottle-aged Cocktails

    When Booze Meets Bottle

    Barrel-aged Cocktails

    When Booze Meets Barrel

    Variations

    Myhrvold Weighs In

    What’s Old is New Again?

    The Industry Weighs In

    Techniques

    How to Barrel-Age Cocktails

    Recipes

    Barrel-aged Brooklyn Cocktail
    Mixologist Naren Young of ForkandShaker.com – New York, NY

    Bottle-aged Manhattan
    Mixologist Tony Conigliaro of 69 Colebrooke Row – London, England

    Gin & Pep
    Mixologist-owner Tristan Stephenson of Purl and Worship St Whistling Shop – London, England

    Artesian Vieux Carré
    Mixologist Alex Kratena of Artesian Bar at The Langham Hotel – London, England

    The Fedora
    Co-owner Brian Bartels of Fedora – New York, NY

    Barrel-aged Negroni
    Mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common – Portland, OR

    A Brief History of the Aged Cocktail

    Bottles and barrels weren’t born as a way of imparting flavor to spirits or cocktails. They originated out of necessity. But over time, something interesting happened—people realized the effect they had on spirits, and they evolved into tools in their own right.

    Barrel and Bottle

    The barrel has been kicking around since the Celts, long before mutton chopped, trilby-ed mixologists and pre-Prohibition cocktails. “[Barrels] were the hollowed-out trunk of a tree and the ends were covered in animal hide,” Tales of the Cocktail presenter Wayne Curtis explains. “That didn’t work very successfully because animal hides gave a funny taste.” Fortunately, staves were invented and gave the barrel shape. “From the early 18th century, trade started becoming much more rampant,” says Curtis, “and barrels became a really essential part of trade.”

    The glass bottle (the other booze container champ) is quite a bit more recent. It began as the primary vessel for transporting alcohol in the 17th century. Not that mixed drinks were particularly in vogue before then—one of the first printed mentions of the word “cocktail” didn’t crop up until 1806. At that time, interestingly enough, cocktails appear to have been stored in wooden casks, and transferred to bottles for service. What that meant was that by default, most cocktails were barrel-aged (or perhaps more accurately cask-aged).

    Vessel Evolutions

    Aberdeen cocktail consultant (and Jerry Thomas fan) Adam Elmegirab points out that “it was a way for people to have [cocktails] at home without needing the skills of a bartender.” Not that drinking was restricted to the home. Elmegirab notes that because barrels were such a great vessel for transportation, “if you took a trip, you had a cocktail ready to drink.” Drinking and driving laws were a little different back then—they’ve evolved along with cocktail culture.

    Eventually, in a stroke of marketing genius, Heublein spirits company began advertising the fact that their Club Cocktails were barrel-aged and bottled. Heublein appears to have done a particularly good job of marketing their pre-made cocktails right up until the 1960s. At some point between the 30s and 60s, the barrel-aged part of the equation dropped out of their ads, possibly because faster transportation meant that they no longer had to be stored in barrels (and possibly because Heublein’s Mad Men-type execs picked up on the fact that it wasn’t actually the main selling point).

    Curtis feels that the switch from barrels to bottles came about as “an overall shift toward branded products in the United States”—it’s easier to market yourself on a bottle than it is on a barrel. “I used to drink Club Cocktails in the 80s,” recalls Wondrich. “The canned martini was the musician’s friend—it was strong and cheap, and you could get it at 7-11s. They came in bottles; they came in cans; they had 20 cocktails in a range.”

    Modern Methods

    Bottle-aged Cocktails

    The recent revival of bottle-aged cocktails by London Mixologist Tony Conigliaro of 69 Colebrooke Row did not originate from a history of storing cocktails in bottles. As Conigliaro explained, the idea of bottle-aging had its birth on a trip to Spain. A friend gifted him a bottle of 1920s vermouth. On his return to London, he says, “I was a little bit scared of opening it and one day I thought, ‘let’s make a Manhattan with it.’ And it worked really well. And that gave me the idea. It had aged and become really incredible, and I thought, ‘well, having made that Manhattan with it and the flavors that came through, will cocktails age in a bottle? I put some in wooden barrels. I didn’t really like those ones—they got too woody too quick.” So he put them in the cellar to see if they would improve. When he was clearing out the cellar, he decided to try them before throwing away. He found they had reached a stage where the different ingredients were more integrated, and the cocktail was smoother.

    Conigliaro began by putting the cocktails in glass because he intended to age them like a port or wine. He rejected the barrel-aged versions he made in the early days, because “the idea was not to age it for three or six months but to age it over a very long period, as a wine would age, so you’d have something that would really evolve and become really quite complex.” After experimenting with the concept, he came to the conclusion that slightly heavier aromatics work really well bottle-aged cocktails similar to a Manhattan.

    For Conigliaro the service aspect of what he does is as important as the cocktail. “The idea was to bring a bottle up from the cellar and act out blowing off the dust from the bottle and serving it to the customer. There’s a whole psychology behind it.” Every six months he puts down 48 bottles. His first batch of bottle-aged Manhattans was laid down eight years ago. He’s extremely careful with that first batch, releasing just one bottle of it a year. He mixes the ingredients in a big kitchen bowl, sterilizes the bottles using steam, making sure they are dry, and them seals them and keeps them away from the light, as one would do with wine.

    What actually happens to the cocktail in the bottle though? Essentially it oxidizes over time. Conigliaro refers to the aged cocktails as “more complex, really silky and smooth.” He takes a very analytical approach, running tests with a gas chromograph (equipment usually used by chemists to isolate and analyze compounds in a mixture) to see what’s happening chemically in the bottle as it ages. Where a fresh Manhattan usually yields peaks and spikes, the aged Manhattan shows smaller peaks. “It seems to indicate the chemicals are falling in on themselves, which explains the smoothness.”

    Photo Credit: Richard Install

    When Booze Meets Bottle

    Conigliaro’s experiments have determined that cocktails with a strong spirits backbone (and without fresh juices, cream or other perishables) yield a better result. Technically, you can stabilize cream, but Conigliaro suggests leaving out cream or anything fatty. Wondrich points out that you can purify citrus juice before incorporating it. “You need to get solids out and pasteurize it, or use a centrifuge—there are definitely ways to do it. Many of them are out of the realm of the home experimenter.”

    The rub for the bartender is that there’s an obvious cost incurred with laying down a vast amount of liquor and not selling it for months. The alcohol and vessels have to be purchased and the return doesn’t come until much later. After the first year, Conigliaro met the steep cost by convincing some bourbon companies to collaborate on the project with him. Still, he had a hard time selling the drinks to customers, until recently. “No one was that interested until last year. I had been aging for six or seven years—no one got the concept. I didn’t sell that many of them.”

    At 69 Colebrooke Row the Seven-Year-Aged Manhattan will set you back £24.50 (about $40). More expensive than your typical London cocktail, but it helps cover the cost of running the program. Conigliaro limits customers to one each, so that there is enough for other customers to sample. Initially he didn’t list them on his menu, only sampling them to friends and a select few customers.

    Barrel-aged Cocktails

    Just like Conigliaro, Jeffrey Morgenthaler didn’t embark on cocktail aging out of respect for old-school vessels. He plunked down the requisite 24 quid in London, drank from Conigliaro’s dust-covered bottle, and started thinking barrels. Since then, Morganthaler’s experimented with Negronis, Manhattans, and Tridents (a mixture of aquavit, Sherry, cynar, and peach bitters), all in pursuit of one idea: what happens in the barrel when a cocktail ages?

    For Morgenthaler the barrel is as important as the process. “You extract some of the wood characteristics—oak tannins, caramel, and vanillin—but the important thing is extracting some of previous contents,” hence the Hudson whisky barrels. Using 2.5- to three-gallon barrels, he stores them at room temperature for at least six weeks, then begins testing them. They may sit for an additional one to two weeks if necessary. The final product has a silkier mouthfeel, and the components of the cocktail marry more than in fresh cocktails.

    This method of aging cocktails seems to have drawn a lot of excitement from fellow mixologists. After all, the size of the barrel, type of oak, and previous contents of the barrels are all factors that could be experimented with for different results. New American oak seems to develop aggressive woodiness more quickly. Cocktails seem to age more quickly in smaller barrels than large ones. And bourbon barrels impart a different flavor than Sherry barrels. Not to mention that toasted barrels will impart a different flavor to the final cocktail. It’s like a mixologist’s candy land.

    When Booze Meets Barrel

    As it turns out, it also matters how many times the barrel has been used to age cocktails. In his recent article for Class Magazine, Tristan Stephenson, the owner of London’s Worship Street Whistling Shop and Purl, outlines three principle reactions that go on when barrel meets cocktail:

    • Infusion: The cocktail picks up some of the flavors from the wood, mainly vanillin.

    • Oxidation: The cocktail also oxidizes, creating some of the nutty flavors you might taste in the final cocktail.

    • Extraction: The wood reacts with the acidity of the cocktail, creating the sugars that give the drink its softness and help integrate the different elements.


    Stephenson plays with the wood as a form of flavor layering, so he’s not just barrel-aging but using the barrel as an additional ingredient in the cocktail. “The most common problem that we have is too much extraction from the wood. If you’ve got new casks or casks that have only been filled [with cocktails] once, you get a lot of the vanillin flavors extracting out of the wood, and it tends to overpower the flavors of the wood fairly quickly,” he explains. He toyed with removing cocktails from the barrel sooner if the barrel has only been used once, but then the nuttiness that comes with a long, slow oxidation is lost. So Stephenson balances the amount of time he stores the cocktail in its cask with the age and type of wood the barrel is made from to manipulate the outcome.

    One of the challenges of barrel-aging is the space required. Stephenson laments that he doesn’t have the space to lay down the same cocktail in different types of wood to see what effect it might have. Barrel treatment is also important—if poorly handled, they’ll begin to dry out and crack. (Morgenthaler primes his barrels with hot water to prevent this from happening.)

    Variations

    At the Manhattan Cocktail Classic Philip Duff collaborated with Excellia tequila and G’Vine Gin de France, to age The Hanky Panky and White Lady cocktails to his specifications. He compared the cocktail when aged in a used cognac barrel with one aged in a new barrel. The White Lady usually includes G'Vine Floraison, Cointreau, fresh lemon juice, and egg whites, but for the barrel-aged version, Duff subbed Lactart (an acid phosphate) for the citrus juice to avoid spoilage, and added the egg whites when serving. Although these technological advances are interesting intellectually, the audience preferred the fresh version of The White Lady. However, we preferred The Hanky Panky (G'Vine Nouaison, Dolin Rouge sweet vermouth, Fernet Branca, and orange zest) aged—it became smoother on the palate over time and the different ingredients became more integrated.

     

    Courtesy of Philip Duff of Liquid Solutions

     

    Meanwhile, virtually every city now has a barrel-aged cocktail, from Atlanta to Chicago. With Grant Achatz’s Aviary featuring a line of barrel-aged cocktails on the menu, it’s a trend that’s likely to catch on. At The Columbia Room, Derek Brown adds wood chips to a maple syrup that he then uses in a cocktail, so essentially he’s adding woodiness to the cocktail without aging the entire thing. Seattle’s Liberty Bar has created many barrel-aged cocktails on request, principally using Woodinville whiskey. New York’s Fatty Crab has both a gin and a tequila barrel-aged cocktail on their menu. Of course there are some repeats—at New York’s The Beagle Co-owner of Clyde Common Matt Piacentini brings the barrel-aged Manhattan (among other cocktails) to its namesake city. In Toronto, Mixologist Jenn Agg also makes barrel-aged Manhattans at Black Hoof. Manhattans and Negronis are common themes by now.

    But some mixologists are testing different cocktails, like in Austin where at The Tigress Laura Nixon serves three barrel-aged cocktails, the latest of which is the Blackthorn (a gin, Dubonnet Rouge, and kirschwasser mixture). Others toy with the techniques themselves to produce new results. Worship Street Whistling Shop now features an irradiated cocktail with Diplomatico rum, chip pan bitters, Campari, Dubonnet, absinthe, and grenadine. The radiation supposedly breaks down the harsher elements of the cocktail. Alex Kratena of London’s Artesian Bar at The Langham Hotel is less sci-fi, combining bottle and barrel-aging in a sense, for his Artesian Vieux Carré. The cocktail combines Rittenhouse high-proof rye, Antica Formula, Remy Martin, Benedictine, and bitters, but instead of bottle or barrel-aging the combination, he stores it in a 1-liter glass bottle for two weeks with a stave of American oak, cut in two different ways to expose the liquid to charred and uncharred wood at the same time.

    At New York’s Fedora, Bar Director Brian Bartels began aging his Fedora cocktail in a Tuthilltown spirits barrel for three months. The Fedora is based on a cocktail from the early 1900s in The Ideal Bartender by Tom Bullock—a manly combo of rum, brandy, bourbon, and orange curaçao. Bartels updated the recipe, using Smith & Cross rum, Elijah Craig bourbon, apple brandy, and Combier in place of the orange curaçao. To see if he could add some more complexity, he began taking the three-month-old Fedora out of its barrel and storing small amounts of it in mason jars with smoked wood chips. He’s currently playing around with adding simple syrup made with smoked water to the mix, to add a third layer of flavor. And at Chicago’s The Whistler Paul McGee inserts oak spirals into a bottle of Martinez cocktail (made with Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth, Maraschino liqueur, and Angostura bitters) to avoid impregnating a barrel with the flavors of a particular spirit. McGee uses The Barrel Mill’s oak spirals.

    And at the 6th Annual StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress Naren Young, who co-presented the barrel-aged cocktail session at Tales of the Cocktail this year, will give his full take on the subject. Young is still experimenting with using an iSi whipper to create a rapid-barrel-aged cocktail by using wood chips or a piece of wood and charging it with a gas canister, reducing the aging time to six to 24 hours. In Young’s book, “anything that has a fortified wine, sherry, or vermouth is a good candidate for aging. Part of the beauty of these drinks is they oxidize a bit—that gives them viscosity so they come out of the barrel with a lot more richness and body and this sort of ethereal taste.” This method has the advantage of allowing the bartender to experiment with different types of wood—barrels are typically oak, whereas you can obtain wood chips that are mesquite, applewood, or cherrywood, to name just a few.

    Myhrvold Weighs In

    Wood-aging in particular seems to have captured the imagination of barkeeps nationwide, and across the pond. Author of Modernist Cuisine Nathan Myhrvold weighed in on the flavor extraction portion of barrel-aging over the phone, saying, “When you age a liquid in a wood barrel, whether it’s wine or it’s whisky, you wind up leeching some flavor compounds out of the wood and those wood flavor compounds can be amazing. Until recently, those things have been the purview of the winemaker or the whisky maker but there’s no reason you can’t do those extractions as a mixologist or cocktail chef or whatever you want to call it.”

    He went on to point out that if you go the historical route and use barrels themselves, once you start reusing them you begin to lose control over the process as the results won’t be uniform. If it were just a matter of getting the same infusion process, he wondered if “you could also put sawdust in [a bottle of cocktail] … frankly the higher the surface area you have, the more extraction you get.” When it came time to filtering the end product, Myhrvold posits that putting sawdust in a teabag might be a simpler method, or using a centrifuge if you’re lucky enough to have one. He does acknowledge though that those methods lack a little of the charm, and that doing it “in a controlled way doesn’t have the romance of the story or the history and tradition behind it and for some people that really matters.”

    What’s Old Is New Again?

    For folks of my generation, pre-mixed cocktails are the stuff of cheap liquor emporiums, but soon that might not be the case. Bars and spirits companies have been busily collaborating. Bramble Bar in Edinburgh recently teamed with Glenmorangie to create a barrel-aged Affinity cocktail with Glenmorangie 10, Nouilly Prat vermouth, and Byrhh (a mix of red and white quinine). And stateside, High West, a Utah-based spirits company, released “The 36th Vote” a barrel-aged Manhattan that is bottled for distribution. Who knows. In five years, spirits companies may start requesting barrel-aged Negroni barrels to age their whisky in.

     


     

    The Industry Weighs In

    “It’s a fad right now, and like anything it’s got its good points and its bad points. The problem with barreling anything is it removes the most aromatic parts. Fresh whisky is very floral and bright and all those floral, bright, volatile aromas go away with barrel-aging and the same thing happens to cocktails. A lot of the things we add to cocktails, we add to make them more bright and floral.” – Cocktail Historian Dave Wondrich, Author of Imbibe!

    “It appears now that there are a multitude of bartenders serving up aged cocktails, with little understanding of how and why they work. Displaying the barrels on the bar itself for example, leaves them open to constant temperature fluctuation, changing the flavor daily with no control over the results.” – Mixologist Tony Conigliaro, The Age Factor: Glass Aged Cocktails, diffordsguide Class Magazine

    “Alcohol should just be to make better drinks, whatever technique you’re using. People call it a trend, but if it makes better drinks, then sure.” – 2011 ICC presenter Naren Young

    “Many people like fresh ingredients and certainly when they go to a restaurant, they expect the cocktails to be made onsite. In terms of having barrel-aged cocktails … I think it remains to be seen how that will develop. I think anyone would say that it’s an educational experience and a unique experience for the customer—whether it’s going to be an enduring feature is uncertain.” – Eric Seed, moderator of Tales of the Cocktail’s Timber session

    “I think there’s a movement toward experimenting with barrel-aged cocktails and in some cases marketing them, but it’s still the Wild West—people are playing around. It’s like trying to do fine sculpture with a 20-pound mallet—you really had better know damn well what you’re doing” – Author and Master Sommelier Doug Frost of Uncorking Wine and On Wine

    “As much as I like them I tend to like more fresh cocktails. I appreciate what [barrel-aged cocktail practitioners] do but I like the art of compounding on the spot. I love adding the wood beforehand, so we do a barrel-aged aquavit. When I compound a cocktail on the spot I can control the flavors more than if I allow it to age. That doesn’t mean that it’s better.” – Mixologist Derek Brown of The Columbia Room – Washington, DC