We’d all like to think that we improve as we age. This is certainly true of certain types of wine, and most varieties of whiskey.
But cocktails? The entire concept of an aged cocktail seems to contradict the key parts of the recent revolution in mixology. The bartenders driving the current cocktail culture stress fresh ingredients above all else. They pride themselves on squeezing their own juices, chipping their own ice and making their own bitters.
Even so, barrel-aged cocktails are the latest trend. It started in 2009 with Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bar manager at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon. Morgenthaler had visited a bar in London where Manhattans were aged in glass containers. If glass worked, thought Morgenthaler, what type of complexity might a barrel add to the drink? It turns out that aging in the right type of barrel for five or six weeks can add subtlety and complexity to your favorite cocktail.
He pioneered the aging of Negronis (a classic blend of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth) in used whiskey casks purchased from Tuthilltown Distillery outside New York City, and is currently aging ten different drinks at his establishment. At a Chicago bar called Girl & The Goat, Benjamin Schiller is putting Buffalo Trace Bourbon Manhattans back into a Buffalo Trace barrel, and serving flights of different ages (one, two and three months). Chicago is also the home of The Aviary, a revolutionary bar owned by famed molecular chef Gran Achatz of Alinea, which combines aged cocktails with cutting-edge food. Dram, a bar in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, serves an aged Martinez—a 19th century forerunner of the Martini, made with gin and sweet vermouth.
A used barrel from a top-notch distillery such as Tuthilltown sells for around $75. Cocktails usually reach their peak after six weeks of aging, and experts recommend seven as the maximum. The casks may be used over again, and drinks supposedly taste best on the third or fourth attempt. And yes, you can try this at home—what better way to enliven a party or cocktail reception?