If you are curious just exactly what barrel aged cocktails are, you have arrived at the right place. The explanation following will give you the best understanding you possibly can get.
When you arrive at a posh hotel, artisanal speakeasy or hipster cocktail den, more than likely you will see on the menu “barrel aged cocktail”. All across the United States, led by San Francisco, Portland and New York, bars have hopped on this cocktail geek trend, and the phenomenon just continues to grow and grow.
Barrel Aging 101
One simple explanation is that barrel aging is precisely what it sounds like. A several-gallon cocktail serving is mixed up by the bartender (this is called “batching”) and it is then funneled into a charred oak barrel. The barrel is the same type that is used to age bourbon, rum scotch, whiskey or wine. Red Head Oak Barrels has small or mini barrels available for purchase direct from the manufacturer. This barrel will then be set aside in a basement dark corner either for a few months or precisely how long the bartender chooses to leave it and just when they determine that it is in fact “ready-to-go”.
Just as it is with bourbon or wine (or aged tequila, rum, or any aged spirit), what is going on inside is a complicated relationship between alcohol and barrel. With changes in humidity and temperature, the barrel “breathes”, The alcohol is absorbed and from the wood expelled, extracting flavors, color and tannin. The alcohols will soften and as they age, gain complexity, smoothness and flavor. Hopefully, what you are left with will be a tasty beverage which has a far different and better taste than what it was when it first entered the oak barrel.
When the Greeks and Romans began buying wine around 300 BC from the Gauls, they discovered the soured juice in those French barrels was far more tastier than the swill they had been keeping in animal skins and clay pots up until then. Burgundy’s wine was just not far more delicious to taste, but also much easier to transport and to store, and with far less breakage involved. By the time that Europeans embarked on their efforts to conquer and then colonize the Americas and Africa in the 1600s, barrels were the choice to store rum, wine and much more. The aging spirits concept and idea was still over 100 years away, however, the elements were already in place. Storage of booze in a barrel (hopefully one that hadn’t previously stored nails or fish), made it taste richer,last longer, and feel so much smoother.
Prior to Prohibition, very often cocktails were pre-batched and stored in barrels until the time they would be bottled. In the late 1800s and the early years of the twentieth century, bottled cocktails were very popular (and they are again), and bars would promote their drinks as “bottled” or “barrel-aged”
Barrel Aging Cocktails Is the Latest Fad (again)
Move ahead to 2010, and the Oregon innkeeper Jeffrey Morgenthaler (who receives the majority of the credit for revising the trend at the Clyde Common bar in Portland) found himself paying a visit with the London cocktail innovator and bar owner Tony Conigliaro. “Tony C. was conducting experiments with aging of cocktails in jars made of glass, and I had the thought, what would occur if I took them and placed them in Barrels”? Just as with many other beautiful accidents, trial and error led to the modern demand for barrel-aged mixed drinks.
The drink’s sharp edges are softened, but in a manner which doesn’t make the drink seem one-note or flabby. Depending upon just what was in the barrel prior to a cocktail being aged in it, such as delicious whiskey perhaps, those flavors will also find a way to work themselves into the drink. Fortified wine, just as is the case with vermouth, will be lightly oxidized, so you will get mushroom-y and earthy notes lending a lot of depth.
Critical to the entire process is the American white oak barrel. Bartenders and distillers say as much as 85% of the great flavor in single-malt Scotch whiskies derives from it. Cocktails integrate aging and soften in glass jars, but no flavor complexity is gained. French and American woods are the two most popular for barrels, and they do impart different flavor profiles. American oak leans more towards herbal, vanillin and coconut notes. A drink aging in a used sherry barrel will taste added sweetness, and those in bourbon barrels a spicy flavor.
Bars all over the country today are looking eagerly into spirit-forward classic cocktails and are anxious to experiment. The team at the Orient Express in New York have added coffee, and a variety of “top-secret” ingredients to their brandy based cocktail dubbed the Number 44. This is just a small sampling of the experimentation going on all over the Big Apple.
As with Sherry and Port, Solera aging involves fractional blending of both un-aged and aged product over time across several barrels. The result is intended to be deep and rich, but also with a lot of unexpected brightness.
There is no question that aging mixed drinks can in fact be labor-intensive. The good news today for the at-home drinkers is that they can get on the Red Head Oak Barrel website and find some tips and directions that will make it all easier and more fulfilling to accomplish.