Every now and then I come across a new culinary trend that leaves me wondering, “Why mess with something that’s already a success?” Such was the scenario with aging cocktails. Then I tried a barrel-aged Manhattan at the Driftwood Room in Portland, Ore. After sipping that smooth, velvety libation, I stopped asking why and started considering whether I, too, could produce such richly complex drinks.
I’d been in the right town to talk aged cocktails. Portland was where it all began, in 2010, when Clyde Common bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler introduced his Madeira wine cask-aged Manhattan to the public.
Morgenthaler’s inspiration for this drink came in the fall of 2009 in London. There he tried Manhattans that had been aged in glass bottles. Created by 69 Colebrooke Rowe bartender Tony Conigliaro, these subtly matured drinks prompted Morgenthaler to wonder how pre-mixed, single-spirit cocktails would fare in a different vessel, such as a small, used oak keg.
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The thought behind aging a cocktail is that, left inside a wooden cask for six to eight weeks, the drink would absorb some of the flavors and color of whatever was previously housed there. The resulting libation would be more developed and multifaceted than the original. The question, though, is how would it taste.
The answer is quite good. In Morgenthaler’s case, his Manhattan took on the flavors of both the oak cask and the liquid — in this case, Madeira wine — that it had previously contained. Mellow and sweet, his beverage flew off the shelf.
Today, along with aged Manhattans, Clyde Common does a brisk trade in bourbon barrel-aged Negronis and Tridents matured in single-malt whiskey kegs.
Morgenthaler’s offerings have motivated others to age their own drinks.
Without leaving Portland, I sampled an array of aged cocktails, including Negronis, Tridents and Glass Feathers. In some bars, such as Liberty, which ages spirits and bitters along with cocktails, I could even make requests.
Aged cocktails as a DIY project
Inspired by these innovators, I decided to try aging at home. For $23, plus shipping, I purchased a new, pre-charred, 1-liter oak barrel. As a byproduct of the caramelized sugars in the wood, a charred keg gives off a mild caramel flavor. Liquids placed there will pick up this pleasant taste. Thus why I chose charred.
After unpacking my little cask, I filled it with warm water, placed it on my kitchen counter and let it rest for a day. During this time the wood expanded, decreasing the likelihood that the barrel would leak and unleash my cocktail everywhere.
With my cask primed and set to go, I mixed together my first drink. Although an avid home mixologist, I’m completely green when it comes to aging spirits. With this in mind, I opted for the tried-and-true classic, a rye-based Manhattan.
When mixing my batch of Manhattans, I withheld the ice so it wouldn’t dilute my concoction. I also left out the cherry garnish. Leaving out the cherries was a wise move. Fruit and fruit juices will spoil in the cask. The same applies to dairy. I’d also avoid adding club soda and any other effervescent, for they will lose their carbonation in the barrel.
Once I had filled and sealed the cask, I stored it at room temperature in my pantry. That’s where my liter of Manhattans remains, waiting until it hits the right state for me to enjoy.
Professionals advise aging cocktails anywhere from five weeks to three months. Drinks stored in smaller barrels, such as mine, will mature more quickly than those in larger ones. The key is to sample the batch each week to see how it’s progressing. That’s exactly what I’m doing. Once I find a flavor profile I like, I’ll just strain the cocktail through a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth to remove any sediment that’s collected. Then I will transfer the Manhattans to glass bottles, where they’ll stay until I’m ready to serve them.
Needless to say, I no longer scoff at cask aging cocktails. One small but luxurious drink made not only a believer but also a practitioner out of me.
Photo: A barrel at the Driftwood Room in Portland, Ore. Credit: Kathy Hunt