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.”