With the flurry of trends in the cocktail world, you'd be hard-pressed to guess which will have staying power. Take barrel-aging. Yes, it's super cool to get your nightly cocktail from a barrel with provenance, but is it really relevant anymore?
With barrels now available to the home bar geek, distillers barrel-aging and bottling their boozy recipes, and barrel-aged cocktails appearing in even more experimental combinations across the country, barrel-aging seems destined to age quite well.
So, what exactly is this mysterious process? Not so mysterious at all, really. Booze has been in barrels for centuries. During the Golden Era of the cocktail in the late 19th century, Jerry Thomas — the ultimate bartender/showman — was aging rum shrub in casks for about six weeks, as well as bottling many of his cocktails, most likely for easy storage and batching drinks. At the turn of the century, 1910 adverts from the Heublein Company touted their bottled cocktails first being aged in wood; these Club Cocktails were popular even into the 1960s.
As far as the modern trend, the story has become almost apocryphal. Innovative bartender Jeffrey Morganthaler of Clyde Common in Portland was the first to explore the concept in 2010 after being inspired by a trip to the London lab of molecularly inclined cocktail guru Tony Conigliaro, who was bottle-aging cocktails. The Clyde Common experiments caught on; what started as “an American curiosity”, as Morganthaler first called it, is clearly here to stay.
As we noted last spring, L.A. bartenders had just started playing with the possibilities of barrel-aging. Now, a year later, the barrels continue to overflow. Here's the latest round-up of mellow mixtures that are in their prime.
We found Justin Pike, formerly of barrel-aging heaven Clyde Common, still hard at work on new concoctions. Why? “I think that barrel-aging is another tool a bartender has, just like using a muddler or a stirring spoon,” he explains. “It just happens to be way bigger and smells like burnt wood.” Right now, Pike is serving a Negroni (Plymouth navy strength gin, Campari, and Carpano) that he feels is the best stirred cocktail to age because of the gin's higher proof (higher proof helps deliver flavors more effectively). Come July, look for a barrel-aged sour, which began as what Pike thought was a “mistake.” When he first aged this drink — a combination of bourbon, Luli Moscato Chinato, the herbal liqueur Becherovka, absinthe, and a complementary wormwood dram — he found it too bland, so he added lemon and maple, creating what became “a beautifully textured sour that could only be produced from the concentration that happens during the barrel aging.” 1633 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 392-6644.
The Hollywood Roosevelt's swanky upstairs nook, which consistently offers a finely considered cocktail list, is currently home to three barrel-aged creations. Beverage Director Naomi Schimek notes that this technique creates drinks that “are uniquely balanced and rounded in a way á la minute cocktails are not.” Guests can choose from the bar's signature offering of “I'll Have Another” (Fortaleza tequila blanco, dry vermouth, Aperol, sherry), as well as the “Rolls Royce” (Plymouth gin, dry vermouth, orange bitters, Benedictine), and “The Living Daylights” (spice-steeped Atlantico rum, green Chartreuse, falernum, bitters). As to why the Spare Room continues to include these drinks on their menu, Schimek explains that it's all about the interaction between bartenders and guests, who “love the taste and are fascinated by the process. It often sparks a greater dialogue about why we do what we do when making cocktails, starting with why we choose to use certain ingredients when aging, like fortified wine, as well as introducing them to the characteristics of certain types of wood and spirits and the science behind the drink.” 7000 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 769-7296.
Tired of just sampling barrel-aged cocktails at your local? At Casa del Mar they will let you whip up your own “on tap” version of the cocktail of your choice — for a price. Raymond Olascoaga, Casa's food and beverage manager, felt that personal barrels stayed true to Casa's sense of hospitality. As he says, “Casa Del Mar was built as an original Beach Club and we thought it would be a unique idea to have the ability to have your own barrel in which you can come in with your friends and drink from, all embracing the history and tradition of this building.” The barrel-aged beauties start at $500 per barrel, pricing dependent on the spirit you choose. It may seem a little steep, but, hey, you get to keep the barrel when you finish it. If that's too rich for your wallet, you can still sample Casa's own barrel-aged Brooklyn (Buffalo Trace bourbon, Hudson un-aged corn whiskey,Carpano Antica vermouth, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, orange bitters), Negroni or Vesper. A day at the beach just got even more alluring. 1910 Ocean Way, Santa Monica; (310) 581-5533.
Head barman Dave Kupchinsky is a rarity in L.A. — a bartender who has stayed in one spot for 2 ½ years. As far as the barrel-aging trend goes, Kupchinsky is both wary and practical. He's honest when he says he has “mixed feelings about it. It's definitely a trendy thing to do and I resisted doing it for awhile, but it brings notice to the place.” Given that, it's not surprising that his first foray into the game is rather tongue-in-cheek, but also particularly Angeleno. Witness his barrel-aged Red Bull/vodka/Chartreuse, which evolved because the idea “just cracked me up” when he thought about it. Ironically, he says the mix is tasting pretty good. If Eveleigh sells it, it will be soon and on Monday's Industry Nights. Get in line — there's only four liters of the stuff. Currently, Kupchinsky is aging a more serious brew of Plymouth naval strength gin, Tio Pepe dry sherry, yuzu bitters and, again, that favored Chartreuse. The combination is a riff on the “Nome” cocktail from David Embry's “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks,” which was in turn a riff on the “Alaska.” 8752 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (424) 239-1630.
Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book “Gin: A Global History.” Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.