Whiskey isn’t the only thing aged in wooden barrels these days. Barrel-aged cocktails have emerged as one of the newest trends in bartending. “It’s something fun to try. Why not? Isn’t that the point of food and booze in general?” asks Tara Curry, bar manager at Ghost Plate and Tap in Denver. “That’s the beauty of this industry, being allowed to experiment.”
To make a barrel-aged cocktail, bartenders mix together a large batch of a single cocktail, like a Manhattan or a Vieux Carre, then store the mixture in a wooden barrel for weeks or months at a time. The effect is a richer, mellow tasting cocktail. “It’s just absorbing some of the flavors that are in the wood, sort of that charred smokiness,” describes Curry. “It gets oaky, it gets more caramel-y, and it does have a tendency to mellow out the heat from the alcohol.”
Ghost began its barrel-aged program this year. “We read about it, we heard about the buzz in the industry,” says Curry. “We got our hands on some barrels and said, ‘let’s see what happens.’” Ghost currently has two barrel-aged cocktails on their menu: the Corpse Reviver No. 3 and the “New” Carre.
Curry sees barrel-aged cocktails as a gateway for her customers to start trying new drinks. “Most consumers are excited. In my experience if they are up for purchasing one, they are open to trying new things,” says Curry. “Everyone understands that [barrel-aged cocktails] aren’t better or worse, but who doesn’t love a little science with their drinking?”
This new trend also offers craft distilleries and bars the opportunity to work more closely together. “I can’t really see the industry falling out of love with awesome bourbon or awesome rum, or gin that’s made in your city right around the corner from you,” she says. “For me the ideas and possibilities are limitless.” Distillers like Peach Street Distillers, Tuthilltown Spirits, Copper Fox Distillery and Woodinville Whiskey have all contributed used barrels to bars for their barrel-aging programs. “Because we use some Peach Street barrels,” says Curry, “it’s important that we use as much of their product as we can.”
A few craft distillers have also started barrel-aging and bottling cocktails of their own. High West’s 36th Vote Barrel Aged Manhattan was inspired by bartender Jeff Jesenhans’ barrel-aged cocktails at the GG Lounge in San Diego. “The bartender there was a cutting edge guy and he wanted somebody to [barrel age a cocktail],” recalls David Perkins, Proprietor at High West. “So I said, ‘Heck we’ll do it,’ and it was so good.”
High West launched the 36th Vote on Repeal Day (December 5) back in 2010 and it has been a tremendous success among consumers ever since. “We literally rolled out the barrel and served it to people. We bottled the rest and sold out, and we thought, ‘shoot maybe we’re onto something,’” says Perkins. “Every time we did [more of them] they all sold out. We thought, ‘well you know, maybe we’ll just keep it as a product.’”
What’s on the horizon for barrel-aged cocktails? Tara Curry has said she is itching to age Ghost’s Italian Stallion: bourbon, Aperol, Applejack and sweet vermouth. High West also has plans for a follow up to the 36th Vote, “We hope to launch it this Christmas,” Perkins said. “A Boulevardier.”