When I first started bartending, barrel aged cocktails were all the rage. First came the Old Fashioned, then came the Manhattans, Negronis, and any other classic cocktail you could think of. At my own workplace at the time, Fatty Crab, we aged a Boulevardier and a Rosita, with a good deal of success; we had six 5L barrels from Buffalo Trace going at any one time, and we would bottle the cocktails in old Sipsmith gin bottles when the cocktails saw enough time in the barrel.
Now that I’ve been placed in charge of the drinks program at a brand new bar (more details on that here), I thought it was finally time for me to create my own aged cocktail. But where to begin?
There’s a certain appeal in a barreled cocktail for folks on either side of a bar. From a guest’s standpoint, they can experience the same classic cocktail they’ve always enjoyed with the little added touch of vanilla, of caramel and oak tannins. For the business savvy bartender, they can offer the same quantity of spirits for a bit more money, and do it in large volumes; without the need to measure out each individual ingredient for every order, the serving of a barreled cocktail is much more streamlined.
But is that all that a barreled cocktail has to offer? No, clearly not. What a barrel really is is a conduit for creativity, allowing a bartender to change everyday ingredients in ways that nobody thought of before. In my opinion, the best way to get the most value out of a barrel isn’t to fill it with something that has already been aged, but to use instead something that has never ever even been in contact with wood.
That was what was on my mind as I started development on my very first barrel-aged cocktail. From a cost perspective, there’s a huge commitment on my part, as not only does the barrel cost a hefty HKD1,200, but at a 5L capacity, you’re sinking a good couple thousand dollars of booze every time you fill the thing. Naturally, I was a bit apprehensive, so I wanted to stick close to a classic recipe, both for their solid flavour foundations, and for recognize-ability’s sake (I would imagine this same trepidation is what drives many bartenders to age classic cocktails instead of originals).
Old Fashioned? Too simple, done to death.
Negroni? Talk about beating a dead horse.
Manhattan? With such a pivotal role, I didn’t want to use vermouth, as I didn’t know how fast it would oxidize, and to what degree it would affect the flavour balance.
Vieux Carre? My first choice actually, but after considering the cost, the price to the guest would have been prohibitive. Never mind that the vermouth still posed a problem.
To my knowledge, nobody (in Hong Kong, anyway) has ever aged a Sazerac, and I loved the idea of a wooded absinthe. I even had the perfect absinthe, La Fontaine Blanche, a white absinthe that was a bit more delicate so that it played better with a wider range of flavours and was more forgiving with proportions. Of course, I wasn’t satisfied sticking to the classic recipe. As per my philosophy on aging, I wanted to get some real value from the wood, so I looked to include some white spirits that I thought would go beautifully with the spicy clove-y notes of absinthe and Peychaud’s, and eventually settled on a white calvados. I tested the cocktail several times, mixing several varients until I found a combination that fit the profile I had in my mind: flavourful, but a touch dry, to benefit from the caramel and vanilla notes the wood should impart.
I had promised myself I would keep a diary detailing the aging process; I even bought a whole notebook for this and any future batch. What a waste of money that was. Didn’t even last 1 week before I simply forgot about it. That being said, I sure as hell didn’t forget to taste the cocktail every day. Quite honestly, I was astounded at how fast the wood affected the cocktail; within the first week, you could already pick up a bit of woody notes. By week two, there was suddenly a marked increase in the sweetness of the cocktail, which I sure as hell didn’t expect.
The increased sweetness actually turned into a bit of a problem. My guess was that this was an issue that arose from the first fill, so I probably wouldn’t have to adjust the sweetness next, but this particular batch would definitely need some some fixing. I figured I had two options; first, I could leave cocktail in the barrel for a little longer, and hopefully some more tannins would be extracted from the wood, counteracting the increased sweetness. Second, I could top up the cocktail with a little more booze to dilute the added sugar.
Being a novice, I played it safe and decided to empty half of the barrel into a container, and age the second half for an additional two weeks. Halfway through the extension, however, I decided that the cocktail had taken on a bit too much wood character; it was on the verge of being like chewing on a toothpick. As a remedy, I tried blending the extra aged cocktail with the stuff I had set aside, and got a much more satisfactory result. I added a spot more bourbon to lighten up the almost cloying vanilla and caramel, and finally achieved a flavour profile I was quite proud of.
So all in all, my experiences with the barrel bore fruit a few key lessons.
- Add less sugar than what would be considered balanced for a cocktail
- Exact recipes’ aren’t worth shit because every time you use a barrel, the effect of the wood is going to be different
- If you don’t know what you’re doing, consider tapping the barrel every week and blend the results. (sound familiar? I reckon this is one of the key advantages of a solera system)
For a the recipe and a few more details on the resulting cocktail, follow the link to the Driftwood.
Had I the time or the resources, I’d like to try a few things with a barrel. Ever want to try a barrel aged honey? How about a whole barrel of aged angostura bitters? Perhaps one day.