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11.10.10 by  

Barrel Aged Cocktails

Portland’s Jeffrey Morgenthaler adds a non-tangible ingredient to mixology’s growing arsenal of tools. The surprising result: Even cocktails get better with age.

You’ve worked on a spirit-forward cocktail recipe day in and day out for months. What’s the missing ingredient? Maybe it’s one that you can’t place inside the glass. Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s ground-breaking innovation — barrel aging cocktails — might just be the most obscure addition we’ve seen added to a drink to date.

Straight from the barrel to your glass.

Photo: David Reamer http://www.dlreamer.com/


served raw: barrel aged cocktails, a new fad or here to stay?
Jeffrey Morgenthaler: It’s too early to tell, but I’m thrilled that it’s become a new fad. It was really just a crazy weird idea I had, and now people are doing it all over the world. I do think it’s a very valid thing that’s happening and I’m certainly proud of it.

let’s start with a quick 101 on barrel aging.
Essentially aging a spirit and aging mixed cocktails are two very different things.

When you put spirits into barrels, most barrels have been heated or toasted — basically, you have to heat the wood to bend it — and French wine barrels are lightly toasted, where American whiskey barrels are more heavily charred. When heating, you end up caramelizing the sugars that are naturally found in the wood — wood comes from plants and plants have sugars in them, then the sugars get caramelized — then you use the spirit as a solvent to wash those sugars out of the wood over time.

When you load the barrel up with a strong 150 proof spirit right out of the sill and let it sit four, seven, 10 years — and through the seasons hot and cold, etc. — the flavors start to develop. With American whiskey bottles it’s vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, clove, honey. The spirit mellows, gets a little sweeter, and a whole range of flavor profiles are added to it.

so effectively, with cocktails you’re doing the same thing?
Yes, in a way, but when you barrel age cocktails, the mixed cocktail that goes into the barrel is at a really low proof going in, compared to spirits straight from the sill. And the cocktails are only in the barrels for about two months. You will get flavors from the wood, if you age lighter proof spirits or fortified wines, they will oxidize a little bit, as they are open to the elements. The “aged negroni” — the barrel puts a heady finish on it, basically taming the sweetness of the Campari, and rounding all the flavors out.

you’re risking a lot experimenting with large batch cocktails … have you found that certain types of drinks age gracefully versus others you’d like to forget?
I’ve been doing this for about a year and have tried about six cocktails so far. My kind of general rule is I don’t typically put whiskey cocktails into whiskey barrels — why put an extra whiskey finish on a whiskey drink? It’s more striking if you put non-whiskey cocktails into a barrel.

We always do spirit-driven cocktails, and have had a lot of success with gin drinks. I like gin cocktails and to see gin take on the characteristics of the whiskey barrel.

The Martinez works well. Rum drinks work too. I like to use lighter, less- or non-aged rums so you can taste the differences that the barrel adds to the cocktail.

I don’t think fresh fruit juices would work, though someone will eventually do it.

Originally, I aged a manhattan cocktail in a madeira cask, it was delicious. I had to re-soak the barrel with sherry to put that flavor back into the wood. You end up with a sherry finish and the profile of sherry in the manhattan.

are there recognizable subtle differences in batches?
Originally I was keeping a small library of the product to compare and contrast between batches, but we were having a hard time keeping the drinks in stock at the bar. We basically set up a mini rickhouse, rotating barrels, planning. There were subtle differences in all the batches but eventually, I ended up just serving the cocktails. The important thing is that it tastes good. We taste them while they are aging, taking barrel samples and all we want to do is make sure we are serving good quality drinks.

if you could manage to keep them in stock at the bar, an important step would be taking them from barrel to glass bottle, so that they don’t age any more after a certain point, can you talk about that?
There isn’t much to it, it’s all about timing and making sure you get into the glass bottle at the right time. We strain them through a fine strainer to get the “charcoaly” bits from the barrel out of the drink. A couple flakes of black charcoal in a negroni is ok. When someone at the bar asks me what that is in the glass, I get to tell them the story about the whole process, making the cocktail, dumping it in a barrel, letting it sit for a while. That fleck is part of how it got to your glass.

would you like to share a recipe with our readers?
I heard that Blackbird Bar in San Francisco is doing barrel aged cocktails and are actually barrel aging one of my originals, the Norwegian Wood. It’s un-aged aquavit, chartreuse, applejack, sweet vermouth and bitters. It’s pretty cool that they are aging my drink and I think it would work well since it’s spirit forward.

hey, we agree … imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.

Norwegian Wood

Use gallon-size proportions and try barrel aging. Taste weekly until the cocktail is round and smooth.

  • 1 ounce aquavit
  • 1 ounce applejack
  • 3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 1/4 ounce Yellow Chartreuse
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
  1. Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe.
  2. Garnish with a large twist of lemon peel and serve.