Some of the world’s best wines develop their complex flavors in barrels. So it makes sense that barrel aging might add similar depth to cocktails. Once an experiment for die-hard connoisseurs, barrel-aged cocktails are becoming more popular at bars and restaurants across the country.
Many brown spirits benefit from a barrel aging long before bottling, so returning them to a cask along with fellow cocktail components means added spice notes like cinnamon and nutmeg, as well as occasional hints of butterscotch and caramel, depending on the type of barrel that’s been used.
With white-spirit-based cocktails, the proper amount of barrel aging lends a more prominent base note to the proceedings. And I find that, no matter what the ingredients, a stint in the barrel often allows the many disparate components to marry better than they do in the shaker or glass, resulting in a smoother, more texturally appealing drinking experience.
(As far as doing this at home, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it… unless you have plans to consume copious quantities of cocktails. If you are undeterred, however, start off with a whiskey-based drink; manhattans are a good place to start, as the barrel-aging will allow the vermouth and whiskey to come together, but the wood itself won’t change the flavors too overtly.)
Washington DC’s BLT Steak barrel ages both its Brooklyn — made with rye, amer picon and maraschino — and its increasingly popular Pegu Club, which is made with gin, Cointreau and lemon juice. A few blocks from there, Graffiato lets both its Martinez and its Negroni age in barrels. The latter, a classic blend of Plymouth gin, Campari and Carpano Antica, picks up smoky, nuanced notes to balance its classic bitter notes. In Miami, The Cypress Room ages The Old Pal, a beautifully composed blend of bourbon, Campari, Carpano Antica and vermouth. The result is layered, complex and seriously gulpable.
Death + Company in New York uses whiskey barrel-aged bitters in its Cobrafang cocktail — a trend that I expect we will see more of in coming years as more consumers become increasingly familiar with bitters and their many variations.
Of course, barrel aging doesn’t always benefit a cocktail, just as it’s not always best for every wine. Rather, it is an option, yet another tool in the utility belt of serious mixologists all over the country. And it undoubtedly adds a layer of excitement to our already riveting national cocktail scene. No matter where you live.