It’s hard to ignore the explosion of barrel-aged cocktails, though I confess I have tried. But with the recent announcement that even such mainstream bars as Washington, D.C.’s historic Occidental Grill will start serving their own, it’s clear that our friend Tony Conigliaro has started something.
Conigliaro, who shortly will be making a quick tour of the U.S. under the Pernod Ricard USA "BarSmarts" auspices, has been toying with aged cocktails for some time, and the versions I tried at his 69 Colebrooke Row bar in London were, as expected and promised, something deep, mellow, subtle and smooth. But one I tried was also very close to the edge of fading, which is one of the dangers of inviting oxygen and time to mellow your drink. Since Jeffery Morgenthaler of Portland, Ore.’s Clyde Commons began his own experiments after having tried some of those aged cocktails served at 69 Colebrooke, the dam broke – Morgenthaler’s blog, www.jeffreymorgenthaler.com having that power among the cocktail geekdom.
Not insignificant in the growth of the genre is the popularity of niche distillers using small aging vessels, especially Tuthilltown Spirts in upstate New York, whose petite barrels are at work in the transition of drinks from fresh to aged at the Occidental, as well as Clyde Commons and numerous other bars. Who else is working on the aged drink cocnept? Who isn't? L’Abbatoir in Vancouver serves an aged Martinez; the barkeeps at Violet Hour in Chicago have put aside their Manhattans; Temple Bar in Boston, ditto with Negronis; Blackbird in San Francisco, Dram in Brooklyn, the Tigress Lounge in Austin, among many, many others, are doing their bit as well. A number of noted chefs, including Grant Achatz, have been bunging away as well. It’s an interesting development, but it's also one that, in my mind, is tempting depending completely on the reputation of the person in charge of the cocktail program. In other words, the chance to sample an aged cocktail is like being invited to sit in the kitchen for a chef’s table – a potentially interesting idea if the chef’s work impresses, a possible embarrassment if his skills don’t already shine.
At Occidental, assistant general manager Lawrence Von Weigel's aged drink program starts off with an Aged Maker’s Mark Manhattan and the Darkening Storm (made with Kraken, Zacapa and Orinoco rums, mixed with fresh ginger, red chili, and Jamaican allspice simple syrup.) He’s giving them four to five weeks in wood. The Manhattan, like the Negroni, has become a natural target for aging, but I wonder how the already mellow and soft Maker's responds to aging.
Here’s the cautionary note: Conigliaro experimented for some time to get the flavors and balance right in his aged drinks before he started serving them to customers. He also sometimes transfers the cocktails into bottles for a longer period of non-wood aging, letting a slight oxygenization do the work after the wood has added its vanilla-ish dash. Too much wood can soon overwhelm any drink recipe; many wines and spirits go through varying periods of “dumbness” or take on excessively penetrating tannins while aging, along the way to becoming something else. It’s only the sharpness and persistence of the distiller or blender that guarantees the liquids are captured at the right time of flavor and aroma to take their place in the ultimate blending that yields the final product. Otherwise, it’s off to the corner of the warehouse for them, to be used as an accent barrel but sparingly, so not to take a spirit out of balance. Barrels vary significantly in flavor and aromatic qualities after use, and one batch can vary dramatically from another. A new balance should be one of the goals of barrel-aging cocktails, a melding and smoothing that evens the edges but deepens the bass notes of a drink. Bringing in flavors otherwise not accessible is another goal, and, frankly, marketing is another, but only if the final product is worth the trouble (and expense) and improves the ultimate guest experience.