Visually stimulating, seductively intriguing, immensely satisfying—something about drawing spirits straight from the barrel stirs curiosity and engages guests.
After sipping an aged Manhattan at Tony Conigliaro’s London hotspot 69 Colebrooke Row, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, the barman behind Portland, Oregon’s Clyde Common, decided to give a few of his own cocktail creations, like the Negroni, a whirl in barrels. “It’s funny, the guests were more receptive than my bartenders. I think my staff at the time thought I was nuts,” he reflects. This was in 2010, when the idea of libations doing time in wooden casks to acquire deep, rich notes of vanilla and spice seemed like a time-consuming, flash-in-the pan fad. Five years later, barrel-aged cocktails have become fixtures on beverage programs around the country.
“I never would have guessed it would become the huge phenomenon it is now. I honestly was just trying out something new,” Morgenthaler says. “I think we’re seeing a lot of bartenders out there trying experimental aged cocktails. I’ve heard of folks using clarified citrus juice and things like that. It’s an exciting time.”
Cocktail trends are ever-shifting, so what is it about the barrel-aged rendition that lingers and evolves?
Temple Bar, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was one of the first to embrace the forward-thinking concept. Today, the imaginative Knights and Knave, with Mahia fig brandy, tawny Port, Meletti Amaro, and mole bitters, emerges from a barrel after 25 days of maturation. “I think people are still curious about how aging a cocktail affects the final results. It’s not something that is easy to make at home, like you can do with a Manhattan or a Cosmo. There is still a mystique about what the barrel does to a drink,” says bar manager Jenn Harvey.
Barrel-aged cocktails also grace the menu of Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar, in nearby Somerville. Alec Riveros, director of operations for Alpine Restaurant Group, which includes Rosebud, says that aging “offers a whole new way to appreciate classic cocktails. Like a single-barrel bourbon, a single-barrel cocktail is a one-of-a-kind beverage that will never truly be replicated. Each barrel contributes a different characteristic to the cocktail, and time spent in one plays a huge factor in the final flavor profile.” Although Rosebud’s versions—like the Yellow Jacket with Agavales tequila, elderflower liqueur, and house orange bitters—are priced higher than regular cocktails, he says they are a natural complement to the restaurant’s vast whiskey list.
Compelling flavors always draw in guests, and Jeffrey Gregory, general manager and beverage director of FT33 in Dallas, says barrel-aged tipples offer the chance to experience old favorites in a new light. “Cocktails emerge after 10 to 12 weeks in the barrel with soft edges, wonderful new layers of complexity on the nose, and a beautifully mellow impact on the palate that can’t be found in their freshly mixed state.” He deems a Negroni variation, “which incorporates agave spirits instead of gin for a lovely smoky note and robust flavor,” as the bar’s most interesting creation thus far. “We use both blanco tequila and mezcal to achieve a better balance between the bitter, vinous, and smoked elements of the drink.”
For some bars, crafting barrel-aged cocktails is one route to making a menu stand out. Consider the Unusual Negroni, served at all four restaurants in St. Louis–based Niche Food Group. Kyle Mathis, bar manager of Taste by Niche, says that it’s “a huge hit because it creates a common thread throughout the group. A guest can visit all four restaurants and theoretically order the same cocktail.”
Peter Kreidler, sous chef at Fort Worth–based Clay Pigeon Food and Drink, also runs the restaurant’s cocktail program. He reveals that the presence of the barrel alone is often enough to inspire excitement among guests. “When people see the big barrels, they’re already intrigued. Those who aren’t familiar with this kind of cocktail might see the bartender pour a drink right from one and ask, ‘What is that?’ When they find out, they’re usually interested in trying it,” he explains. “There’s an element of showmanship as the bartender pours the cocktail out of a spigot from the barrel. It’s got a rustic, old speak-easy, Game of Thrones feel to it. Likewise, more adventurous drinkers might want to try a barrel-aged version of their favorite cocktail. They know the aging process gives it a twist, so it’ll be different than the ordinary drink they’re used to.” Currently, Clay Pigeon serves the Barrel, an aged Manhattan melding local whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters. “When guests order a Manhattan, we will always recommend the Barrel, which has become a fast favorite,” Kreidler points out. Harvey agrees with Kreidler’s show-and-tell philosophy. “Since we use smaller barrels here, I’ll keep some of them on display on my back bar, hopefully to spark a conversation—plus they look cool,” she adds.
Despite its clear attraction at the bar, there are a few downsides to barrel-aging for operators to consider. First and foremost is the waiting game it creates. “Coordinating the supply and demand cycle is the most difficult. As these cocktails take 15 weeks to age, you have to have the foresight to prepare for demand,” Mathis points out.
It’s a delicate balancing act, Harvey admits. “We usually have several barrels going at once, but occasionally we do run out and have to wait a few days for the next batch to be ready. You can’t rush the aging process. If I pull it out of the barrel too soon, then there was almost no point to having it age in the first place. On the other hand, have it in too long and the cocktails will be dry and oaky, which leads me to another challenge: the monetary commitment. If I mess up a cocktail for a guest, it’s a few dollars’ worth of product down the drain. If I mess up the barrel, it can be hundreds of dollars,” she explains. “We use 5-liter barrels for the most part. Since they are smaller and have more surface contact with the spirits, the cocktails age in about 25–35 days. Places that use larger barrels will probably be double. That’s a long time to wait for something that will sell out in a week.”
Kreidler notes that the barrels at Clay Pigeon are rather big, “so it requires some creative spatial awareness on our part. That said, the aging process itself is quite simple. We basically make the mixture that goes into the barrel, then it’s a ‘set it and forget it’ type of thing. We generally check up on it after three weeks to a month.”
Whiskey is a natural fit for a barrel, but this summer Kreidler is trying his hand at lighter, patio-perfect vodka and gin concoctions as alternatives to the abundant wintery iterations typically produced in this manner. Meanwhile, Gregory is introducing Pisco to barrels in the warmer weather and Riveros is aging gins with a lustrous Martinez in mind.
The barrel-aged drinks at Temple Bar run the gamut; Harvey’s even considering giving just Chartreuse the wood treatment next. “At times we do something completely new and inventive, and other times we stick with classic cocktails. Those have the best response, probably because people have a mental image of a drink to compare it to. For some guests, it allows them to stay within a comfort zone while still trying something new,” she says. This means offering a lighter riff on, say, the Boulevardier with Four Roses Yellow Label bourbon, Dolin Rouge vermouth, and Campari. “Using these spirits, instead of more heavily flavored ones, really allows the barrel to work its magic rather than relying solely on the base spirits.”