Remember when influential Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler instantly made barrel-aged cocktails a thing and suddenly bartenders everywhere needed to follow his lead? For those who need reminding, it simply involved sticking a pre-batched cocktail in a used oak barrel for "X" number of weeks or even months. The idea was that the aging imparted flavors from the barrel, helped marry the ingredients together, and rounded out the edges of the spirits.
Everyone loved the idea of time and oak as additional ingredients that transformed classic cocktails into something new and different. But, I was never a fan.
Does it really help a cocktail?
Not only are they usually the most expensive drink on cocktail menus, the wood-aging mellows out the booze and downgrades a perfectly good Manhattan/Sazerac/Negroni into a boring and syrupy cocktail. No thanks. And yet a barrel-aged anything in a program signals to drinkers that that particular establishment is into the "mixology."
"I have yet to have one that I thought hadn't oxidized or was balanced"
However, it turns out I'm not the only one who hates them. For Melrose Umbrella Co. Program Director Dave Purcell, the technique seemed "a shortcut to mellowing flavors and rounding out corners that usually comes from a skilled and steady hand." In addition, Trevor Easter, general manager of the The Normandie Club, thinks that barrel-aging doesn't really improve the flavor but actually impairs it. "I have yet to have one with a different spirit [from gin] that I thought hadn't oxidized or was balanced."
Honeycut's Mary Barlett attributes these bad drinks to bartenders not treating the barrels properly from the start or not caring about what type of barrel they use. "Another example of something Jeffrey Morgenthaler did well (that Trident!) and then a whole bunch of others did to capitalize on a trend. It's [like] buying your art at Urban Outfitters."
What's the problem?
So are we right? Are barrel-aged cocktails overrated? Or are a majority of the ones sold out there just made incorrectly?
Trend creator Morgenthaler says to not hate the game, hate the player. "I don’t know if it’s fair to say they’re all bad," he contends. "It’s just a technique, it’s all in how the bartender uses that technique." He says the aged Martinis at Chicago's Aviary are better than anything he's come up with. "When it’s done right, it’s just another super cool tool in a talented bartender’s arsenal of tricks."
Fortunately the barrel-aged fever itself seems to have mellowed out a bit, at least in bars. Still, the desire to put things in barrels and age them continues into other formats: barrel-aged beer, barrel-aged maple syrup, and even barrel-aged cold brew coffee. There's even oak-flavored vodka.
And if you want to try a good barrel-aged cocktail the ones at these L.A. bars are worth checking out.
Bartender Beau du Bois had liked using the barrel-aging process to deepen the relationship between the ingredients and imbue the mixture with a "complex, toasted wood characteristic." But for his very popular booze-forward "barrel-aged" Old Fashioned he now uses Infusion Spirals, patent spiral cut patterns in medium toast American oak, "for a more controlled and consistent outcome." The spirals create the same effect and taste in three days what it takes to do nine weeks in a barrel. [Photo: Matthew Kang]
Justin Pike, former colleague of Morgenthaler at Portland's Clyde Common, barrel-ages his Negroni for up to six weeks as he believes the process would balance the classic's flavors. His trick is to start off with a navy strength gin to establish a strong foundation for the cocktail. In the end, a silky-smooth Negroni emerges, with a softened Campari flavor and chocolate notes. [Photo: Matthew Kang]
There was a time when Sassafras had more barrel-aged cocktails than they knew what to do with. The bottles just dangled from that rotating overhead carousel like long-forgotten decoration. But Karen Grill streamlined the program. And after her departure Chris Whelan and Sean Hamilton took over. The barrel-aged Last Word is Whelan's personal favorite. The funky earthy flavors of The Botanist gin complement the Green Chartreuse and are then amplified after resting in the barrel for a month. "With the softening of the Maraschino it really turns into this beautiful silky cocktail," he says. [Photo: Elizabeth Daniels]
Head bartender Brynn Smith barrel-ages her Black Manhattan — made with Whistlepig rye, Averna, Angostura and Regan's orange bitters — for 30 days. Amazingly, instead of making the cocktail sweeter, it has the opposite effect. "Perfect for this cocktail to be barrel aged," she says.
This Arts District bar has a whole barrel-aged section in its big book, featuring a vast array of offerings. Apart from the usual whiskey suspects, there's the popular Oaxacan Kid Negroni with mezcal aged 21 days in a Campari barrel, as well as the Homie Swirly with Tequila Ocho Plata aged 13 days in bourbon barrel. [Photo: Instagram]