Drink 2013: Barrel-Aged Cocktails Sing in the City

As trends develop in the culinary world, you sometimes feel like the more you know the less you know. The rule used to be the fresher the better: fresh meat, fresh produce, and freshly made cocktails. Now we clamor for dry-aged meat, fermented vegetables, and barrel-aged cocktails. Is older now better?

We'll leave the others up to your discretion, but the barrel-aged cocktail may be here to stay. The idea of aging cocktails may smack of bartender posturing, but there has been some careful research done. English bartender Tony Conigliaro of 69 Colebrooke Row in London, widely credited for igniting the trend, has been aging drinks for a decade. Inspired by the flavors of an old bottle of fortified wine, Conigliaro started experimenting with aging cocktails in glass bottles, including some with added oak staves, though he wasn't completely sold on the results. "We had what we perceived as limited successes with wood in the first trials, but it just felt like we were just adding wood notes to something that already had wood notes in it," he says.

After a visit to 69 Colebrooke Row, Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler, owner and bartender at Clyde Common in Portland, Ore., started experimenting with aging cocktails in wood barrels instead of glass. While Conigliaro was unimpressed with the effects of oak extraction in aged cocktails, Morgenthaler found them quite interesting. "I love the oxidation that occurs with these drinks that are made with a wine element," he says. "Those earthy, mushroomy, grassy flavors are set up beautifully against the vanilla and caramel from the wood and the previous contents, usually whiskey."

It was the combination of Morgenthaler's careful notes and successes posted on his blog, along with a seminar at the Tales of the Cocktail conference in 2011, that motivated bartenders in the Bay Area to start playing with the method, and quickly found that it comes with benefits: it puts a whole new spin on a familiar drink, and delivers a consistent, interesting cocktail to patrons quickly.

The magic of an oak barrel essentially comes from two factors: its ability to be watertight, yet still allow the contents to "breathe" (oxygen in, water and alcohol out), and the chemical compounds that dissolve into the alcohol. In short, alcohol absorbs wood flavors from oak that show up as vanilla and spice, while the aspiration of the barrel allows for slight concentration of the cocktail.

It also has a curious effect of marrying the flavors. "I find when you have the same drink made fresh I'll notice that you can almost taste the individual parts of the cocktail, but when the cocktail has time to age, the ingredients almost become as one," says Shawn Vergara of Blackbird. "Instead of hearing the individual parts of the orchestra, you hear a symphony."

Here are some of our favorite places to get barrel-aged cocktails around the Bay Area.

At his bar, where Haight meets the Castro and Mission, Vergara offers a different set of aged cocktails with each seasonal menu, like The King's Men ($10, Famous Grouse black scotch, Kina L'Avion d'Or, Averell damson plum gin liqueur, cherry-bourbon-vanilla bitters). It has layers of scotch that unwind like a curl of smoke as the large ice cube melts in the glass. The bar staff has been playing with different techniques to find the best aging method for each drink, like aging cocktails in glass vessels, augmenting certain batches with oak staves, and resting others in the more common oak casks. Vergara feels like they are just starting to scratch the surface of what they can do. 2124 Market, 503-0630, blackbirdbar.com.

Opening the doors to Capo's feels like walking through a time machine into a perfectly preserved 1960s Mafioso red sauce Italian joint from Chicago. This time-traveling sensation only makes the idea of drinking an aged cocktail even more appropriate. Bar manager Elmer Mejicanos always has a barrel of cocktails aging, like the Made Man ($12, Cyrus Noble bourbon, Rémy V, Carpano antica vermouth, Benedictine). The drink is a twist on the classic Vieux Carré. Mejicanos uses unaged Rémy V brandy before adding the cocktail into the barrel to lessen the oak impact at the end of the aging. The five-week-aged drink was originally supposed to be part of a rotating selection of aged cocktails, but as the bestselling drink on the bar menu, this associate has suddenly found itself the boss of the bar. 641 Vallejo, 986-8998, sfcapos.com.

Jasper's Corner Tap
Bar manager Kevin Diedrich has a secret off-menu selection of two barrel-aged cocktails: the Hanky Panky ($10, gin, sweet vermouth, fernet) and El Presidente ($10, Denizen rum, Dolin blanc vermouth, Combier orange liqueur, grenadine) that he makes in tiny batches. Don't be surprised if the batches run out or if another barrel-aged classic cocktail is offered in its place. Each takes several weeks to make, but only minutes to drink. 401 Taylor, 775-7979, jasperscornertap.com.

General Manager Ryan Heis offers both a Manhattan and Negroni aged in oak ($13 each) at his Marin restaurant, and has fine-tuned the program by playing with aging in different parts of the restaurant to find the optimal location for the barrels. "In the areas of the restaurant that have large swings in temperature throughout the day, we noticed a smaller yield at bottling time as opposed to a room that is a constant temperature," he says. Called "aspiration," the shifts in temperature force the contents of the barrel deeper into the wood, drawing out more of the oak flavor. 320 Magnolia, Larkspur, 924-0300, restaurantpicco.com.

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Our last experience at Tradition, a must visit in SF, it was an amazing kaleidoscope of flavors from Jake Chevedden's blending/aging magic.  A very special treat indeed. 


Given the sheer number of bars in the Bay Area I know this list can't be comprehensive, but I'm very surprised that they did not mention the Hotsy Totsy in Albany. They've been making a barrel-aged Negroni and an aquavit-based cocktail (called the Trident?) for quite some time. Both are absolutely amazing, but I was really surprised by the latter. I didn't think I was an aquavit fan, but I'd happily drink that cocktail any day.

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