Barrel-Aged Cocktails: All Good Things Come to Those Who Wait
by Drew Long, Guest Writer
A common complaint about craft cocktails is that a drink that once took two minutes to make now takes ten.
Well, I’ve stretched that out to five months.
Barrel-aged cocktailing is one of the latest trends in drink making. Now, this isn’t simply mixing up a sazerac with your favorite barrel-aged rye. After all, you can’t have whiskey without the wood (regardless of all that white whiskey nonsense). No, barrel-aged cocktails are drinks that are mixed together, poured into a barrel and allowed to age for weeks or months.
The result is as obvious as it is surprising.
About a year ago, a friend bought me a small, 2 liter barrel that I aged a blend of white spirits in to produce a rather potent rye whiskey. Once I removed the whiskey, I needed to put something back in to prevent the wood from drying out, which would ruin the barrel. Lacking any ideas, I fell back on an old favorite: I filled the barrel with Early Times Kentucky whiskey.
Although aged Early Times is spectacular, I wanted to try something else. That something else ended up being a barrel-aged Manhattan.
The key to this process is picking elements that have spent time in a barrel or would benefit from it. With a Manhattan, you’re looking at whiskey and wine, both of which have spent time in wood and were better for it. A Rob Roy–the Manhattan’s Scottish cousin–would also work, naturally. On the other hand, a barrel-aged Tom Collins would be appalling. Gin does just fine without the barrel-aging process.
With a cocktail recipe and barrel-appropriate libations in hand, the only other thing you need is time. Well, time and a barrel, which are easy to find online. For the Manhattan, I began by aging 2 liters of Early Times for three months. Through evaporation and absorption into the wood, in which the Early Times mingled with the rye blend that preceded it, the volume of whiskey reduced by about a third, or about .6 liters. That works out to be the better part of one 750 ml bottle of Dolin’s sweet vermouth (after topping off the barrel, you’ll have enough vermouth left for a celebratory, mid-aging cocktail).
Knowing if the whiskey has reduced enough is as much an art as a math test. Every few weeks, I checked the barrel’s weight by picking it up, and by the three-month mark I noticed that it felt considerably lighter. So I poured the whiskey back into the original 1.75 liter Early Times bottle and measured the volume of liquid. A full 1.75 liters works out to about 7.4 cups of liquid. After the initial three months of aging, I had about 1.15 liters, or just under 5 cups, which is two thirds the original volume. And as Mr. Boston will tell you, a Manhattan is two parts whiskey and one part sweet vermouth. I knew it was time to add the wine.
Once I topped off the barrel, I plugged the bung, swirled the whole thing for a minute or two and then let the concoction sit for another couple months (swirling the barrel every now and then). Although I planned to let the mixture sit for three months, I pulled a sample after two (periodic sampling is critical) and knew it was ready.
Five months and 2.5 liters of whiskey and vermouth later, I had the makings of the best Manhattan cocktail I’ve ever made or paid for.
After co-mingling in the barrel, the whiskey and vermouth blend into a single spirit. It’s a sweet whiskey with additional notes of caramel and vanilla from the wood. The color is lighter than a traditional Manhattan, more liquid amber than deep maroon.
Intuitively, the results make sense. Blending whiskey and other spirits is as old as distilling itself, and infusing spirits with everything from bacon to peaches is pretty common. Yet, the outcome of the barrel-aged Manhattan project is still a surprise. This whiskey, this spirit that now lives in a bottle in my basement tastes like a Manhattan.
Straight from the barrel, the blend is certainly fine enough to drink as is. But to be a Manhattan cocktail, you need only a few dashes of Angostura bitters, a quick stir in an ice filled shaker and a brandied cherry. Simple steps after a long wait.
Sure, a perfect Manhattan could take 10 minutes in a good bar, but a spectacular one is worth waiting a much, much longer time for.
3 oz. of barrel-aged whiskey and sweet vermouth
3 dashes of Angostura bitters
1 brandied cherry to garnish (I prefer Les Parisiennes)
Fill a cocktail shaker half full of ice. Add the aged whiskey and vermouth blend, and three dashes of bitters. Stir to chill and pour into a cocktail glass. Garnish with the brandied cherry.