Justin Pike first picked up the idea of barrel-aging cocktails from Jeffrey Morgenthaler in Portland, who pioneered the technique at The Ace Hotel's excellent Clyde Common. Pike adopted the method of aging cocktails at The Tasting Kitchen, where he is in charge of the bar program. Eater recently caught up with Pike to talk about how he makes his Negroni, a simple classic that takes on unique characteristics when aged in a barrel for upward of six weeks.
Pike starts the process in the morning with 12 liters each of three of the main ingredients in a Negroni: sweet vermouth, Campari, and gin. This method really came about because Pike thought the Negroni would benefit from a more balanced flavor, with more of the spice from the gin coming through instead of the flavor being overwhelmed by Campari.
Starting out with Plymouth Navy Strength gin, which clocks in at 55% alcohol, the barrel-aged drink gets a chance to have a stronger foundation. As the concoction sits in the barrel, it tends to lose some of the alcoholic vapors, intensifying in flavor and sweetness.
He uses Carpano Antica sweet vermouth because, well, it has the best flavor in his opinion. It's a rather simple ordeal after picking out the bottles, which he retains because after the aging process, the liquid needs to go into inert containers for long term storage. Dumping all the booze into a big vat for mixing, Pike says he feels like a college bartender again, holding up four bottles at a time. After all the bottles get poured in, he gives it a quick stir with a whisk then carefully places the mix into the barrel. The barrel has to get prepped beforehand by filling up with water so that the wood swells up. That way the Negroni won't leak out from the cracks in the wood over the month and a half.
What happens over that time is nothing drastic, nothing too revolutionary. The flavors mesh together, the alcohol mellows out and takes on more of an even profile across the palate. Rather than burning with Campari and drowning out the gin, the Negroni has a smoothness that is difficult to achieve without this process.
Pike pulls out a bottle of Negroni from a previous batch, finishing the drink by measuring out three ounces into a bar glass filled with cracked ice. The ice gets broken up in various sizes from large cubes, which achieves the proper dilution and chilling. For garnish, a lemon twist. The result is a fine cocktail, with a silky mouthfeel and almost chocolate note mid-palate. But it's still a Negroni at heart: comforting, relaxing, and the ideal autumn beverage.
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