Old enough to drink
Does barrel aging make a Manhattan worth a month-long wait?
“Whiskey is white, and it tastes a little bit like hot cornflakes when it comes out of the still,” explains Michael Rubel, the bar director of The Violet Hour and Big Star. “The vast majority of the flavor in American whiskey comes from its time inside the barrel.”
The allure of charred wood has led bartenders to try their hand at aging bitters (Joshua Pearson has a batch of four-month-aged “Christmas” ones in the works at Sepia; the Violet Hour makes 15–17 varieties of bitters, some of which it ages), individual spirits and, most recently—with inspiration from Portland, Oregon, bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler—entire cocktails. Though what goes in the barrel is important (the cocktail’s got to be entirely spirits—and pretty high-alcohol ones that won’t oxidize), so is the barrel itself.
Craig Schoettler, who’ll be at the helm of Aviary (Grant Achatz’s bar that’s slated to open in early 2011), is interested in matching cocktails with barrels “that are not indigenous to the cocktail,” which is why he’s enamored of a recent experiment with a whiskey barrel–aged gin martini (“It takes on so many components of whiskey: the caramel, the heavy oak, the banana”) and is curious to put a whiskey cocktail in a Madeira, port or even Fernet Branca barrel. Rubel’s currently aging a “perfect Manhattan” (dry vermouth, sweet vermouth, two kinds of bitters and a high-proof bourbon) in a Heaven Hill Bourbon barrel that was also used by Goose Island to age its Bourbon County Stout. Think of it “like a slow-cook,” he explains: “We wanted to see what we could do with flavors in a slow melding, as the flavors mingle together over time.” Benjamin Schiller and Stephanie Izard recently traveled to Buffalo Trace distillery to select a house barrel of Weller bourbon for Girl and the Goat: Schiller explains he’s going to reintroduce the bourbon to its barrel for a Manhattan and remove a portion of the drink monthly “so we can eventually find ourselves in a spot where we can offer our guests a regular Manhattan, a two-month Manhattan, a three-month Manhattan.” (He’s also seriously in the market for a sherry barrel.)
All the bartenders test the drinks weekly as they age them, documenting changes in aroma, color and flavor. What exactly are they hoping for? Ultimately, Schoettler concedes, “I don’t know if the act of aging gin, sweet vermouth, campari and bitters in a barrel for a certain period of time makes that cocktail better than a non-aged negroni. They’re just unique and different.”