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Barrel-Aged Cocktails

Some months back I had read this great post from Jeffrey Morgenthaler's great blog about aged cocktails.  The notion of taking an already delicious cocktail and stuffing it into a used whiskey or wine cask to age for about 6 weeks - making the cocktail even better - really had me hooked from the start.  And of course watching this video didn't help matters in the least.  I was hooked.  I HAD to figure this cocktail aging thing out for myself... 

Having finished my first batch last week I can attest that barrel aging a cocktail creates an absolutely amazing result.  My barrel-aged Negroni is soft and voluptuous, the charred oak removed any rough edges normally associated with gin and Campari, replacing it with a full-bodied richness and a smoky, almost sweet finish.  And now I have several bottles of the stuff lining my liquor cabinet - enough to last me for maybe as much as a year. Even here in the cocktail Mecca that is San Francisco Bay Area an aged Negroni cocktail is hard to find - I have a virtually unlimited supply of one of my new favorite drinks.  And come time to entertain guests I now have a guaranteed money drink at my disposal, one that is sure to leave my guests talking.  If you are a cocktail enthusiast, a home-brewer of beer or even a foodie with a yen for alchemy it may be worth giving barrel aging a shot.  

Note to the intrepid home mixologist:  As it turns out, the process of making barrel-aged cocktails can be quite expensive and time-consuming.  Unless you are a hard-core cocktail person (endowed with a strong dose of patience) this may be an endeavor best left to bars that have the foot traffic to use - say - 6 gallons of cocktail. 

So if you're still reading, I'll stop mucking around and get down to it.  Here are some of my production notes and the recipe for a lovely barrel-aged Negroni.  Stay tuned for more adventures with a barrel-aged Trident and possibly a Martini.  

A Few Words About Barrels

Hurry up Negroni... The Ace is thirsty!I followed Mr. Morgenthaler's advice and purchased my barrel from the guys at Tuthilltown Spirits in New York.  I was able to get a 6-gallon barrel that had formerly held bourbon whiskey for ~$125 plus shipping.  It is very important that you find a quality barrel for your process.  For my aged Negroni I wanted a barrel that had been flame-charred and then had stored bourbon (or rye) whiskey for a number of years.  And you want to get the barrel directly after its primary purpose as a whiskey storage vessel has been completed.  You obviously don't want a barrel that has been drying out in someone's back forty for the past couple of years, and you certainly don't want the barrel your Uncle Cooter has been using as his card table for decades.  

I spent a lot of time over the Summer months looking for other suppliers for barrels and could not find any other sources for whiskey-cured barrels. I even spoke to the folks at the Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky to see whay more distillers don't sell barrels to bars and other mixologists. It seems that many distillers sell their used whiskey barrels to lower-cost whiskey producers (Think Jim Beam and Canadian Club) to be recycled aging their whiskey products.  As a result whiskey barrels are pretty expensive and a bit hard to find. 

That said, the barrels are recyclable - so you may not need to buy more than one to be used on multiple projects.  Now that my Negroni aging process is finished I just bought a couple gallons of cheap blended scotch whiskey to re-condition my barrel in preparation for the next project - a Trident cocktail.  Other barrel-aged recipes call for wine-cured barrels (Mssr. Morgenthaler's aged Manhattan recipe in fact calls for a barrel cured with Madeira wine).  Those may be easier to find if you live in a wine-producing area of the world.  

A Few More Words About Proportions

When considering the amount of cocktail that you would like to produce, be sure to assess the cost of buying 10 or more bottles of spirits.  Luckily, the spirits involved in a Negroni (gin, sweet vermouth & campari) are all reasonably priced at $15-30 per bottle.  But even so you should expect to spend $200-300 in spirits, depending on the size of your batch.  

Don't forget to hold on to those dead soldiers... They'll come in handy in about 6 weeksThe recipe below assumes a 3-gallon batch of aged Negroni.  It resulted in just slightly less than 3 gallons of cocktail - the Angel's Share was approximately 1/2 a bottle of spirits.  BE SURE TO KEEP YOUR SPENT SPIRITS BOTTLES.  They will come in handy after the barrel aging process is complete and you need to store your cocktail in glass bottles until you are ready to serve.  



Barrel-Aged Negroni
Adapted from

4 750ml bottles Campari
4 750ml bottles gin (I used Boodles, but Plymouth is also great)
3 1liter bottles Carpano D'Antica sweet vermouth

Combine all ingredients into a large bucket or mixing bowl (without ice).  Stir and pour using a funnel into the barrel.  Use a rubber mallet to hammer the bung (stopper) into place and store in a cool place for 4-6 weeks.  Save your spirits bottles for storage when aging process is complete! 

Beginning at about 4 weeks its okay to take a little sample of the cocktail to check on the progress of your concoction.  I found that 6 weeks was just right in my case.

When aging process is finished pour the liquid out of barrel into a bucket or mixing bowl and then strain the liquid (to remove the charred wood chips) into the original spirits bottles with a funnel.  

To serve cocktail, pour pre-mixed cocktail into a mixing glass with ice.  stir vigorously to chill drink and strain into an up glass.  Serve with orange peel if desired.  



Bitter + Whiskey = Damned Good

It's been a long day - long week for that matter.  I could really use a drink...

Boulevardier - Hipstamatic StyleSo what drink do I reach for at the end of one of those days? For me, it needs to be something with a little kick - preferably something that will help me take that edge off from the day on my way to bed. But if that was the only criteria I'd hit myself in the mind with a shot of Everclear and fall asleep on the couch (not as glamorous as it sounds).

No, this drink can't just be the high-proof hottie at the prom - it needs to have a little European exchange student to it as well... you know, something a bit more interesting. Hmm... I can hear the ladies out there already.

Wow - so we've established that The Ace is still the emotional equivalent of a high schooler. Great... Is there a cocktail recipe coming any time soon? 

So the point of that vague lead-in is that on nights like tonight I really crave a strong cocktail with some pizzazz. It's the perfect night for one of my new favorite cocktails - yet another that I learned of from Jason Wilson's fine book Boozehound.  Here goes:

From Boozehound by Jason Wilson (2010) 

1 1/2 oz. bourbon (I used Weller Special Reserve tonight, but I'd recommend something like Four Roses or even a rye like Rittenhouse 100)
1 oz. sweet vermouth (Carpano D'Antica please)
1 oz. Campari (Or Gran Classico if you have it)
lemon peel for garnish 

Place an up glass in the freezer to chill. Fill a mixing glass at least 1/2 full with ice. Add the bourbon, vermouth and the Campari or Gran Classico to the glass and stir vigorusly for 30 seconds until the drink is cold. Strain into the chilled up glass and garnish with the lemon peel twist and serve. 

This is, simply put, a damned good drink. Mr. Wilson describes it as a Negroni - only better. You get the spicy flavor of the whiskey (at least you do if you don't use Weller bourbon) along with the bitter of the Campari or Gran Classico - offset with the reassuring sweetness of the vermouth. If the Manhattan grew up, stopped dating cheerleaders and married a girl from the big city then it would become a Boulevardier.  Or me... Whatever. Good night.


The Negroni

I am just finishing up Jason Wilson's great book Boozehound.  While I have really enjoyed reading the entire tome, I find myself going back to his chapter on Italian aperitif wines and bitter spirits and making these cocktails again and again. I have already broken my New Year's resolution to stop adding bottles to my bar at an ungodly pace (yes, it's only January 7th - sigh), cleaning out my local liquor store's selection of bitter spirits and busily toying with bitter-flavored cocktails these past weeks. See these posts on the Brooklyn, Pamplemousse D'Amour and the Corpse Reviver No. 2.

Since the Ace is on a bitter kick I figured that I would profile probably the most basic and also the best-known of the bitter cocktails - the Negroni.  If this cocktail has not already permeated the cocktail menu at every hipster joint in your town, trust me that it will sometime in 2011.  And while I am not one for fads, I must admit that the Negroni is a great little cocktail that is worthy of your attention.  Not everyone will like it - after all, bitter has long ago exited the American taste palate and may take a long time to re-enter - but those that can hack the bitter qualities of the dominant spirit will love it.  

The basics of the Negroni are pretty simple.  The traditional recipe is as follows:


1 oz. Campari
1 oz. dry gin (I prefer Plymouth or No. 209)
1 oz. Carpano D'Antica sweet vermouth

Put an up glass into the freezer to chill. Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with lots of ice and stir briskly for 30 seconds until well chilled. Strain into the chilled up glass and garnish with orange zest.  

This is an excellent drink that balances the bitterness of Campari with the floral qualities of gin and the earthy, raisin-like qualities of Carpano. 

But Campari is just one of the plethora of interesting new bitter spirits out there that can lay claim to some form of European heritage.  There are a number of excellent new bitters and amari out there that combine herbs and vegetal flavors with fortified wine.  One new entrant in this space is Gran Classico, (see a profile of it from Imbibe Magazine here) a new product from Tempus Fugit Spirits that markets itself as the long-lost "Bitter of Turin".  It lists a Negroni recipe right on the back of the bottle, thereby competing directly with Campari for the hearts and minds of Negroni drinkers.

So I mixed up a pair of Negroni cocktails - one using the traditional Campari and the other one replacing Campari with Gran Classico.  

The first thing that jumps out at you when you compare these cocktails is the color.  Its tough to tell from the picture at right, but Campari has a bright red coloring - something along the lines of a raspberry syrup.  This gives the Campari Negroni its slightly supernatural but quaintly familiar red coloring. The Gran Classico Negroni is brown - much like you would expect from a Manhattan or any other whiskey- or cognac-based cocktail.  

As different as these two drinks look, the real difference is in the taste. Again, Campari tastes very good - and there's something familiar about the slightly syrupy sweetness of the Campari and the way that it downplays the bitter flavoring of the spirit.  It comes across to me like a spirit geared toward the traditional American market's attitude toward it's flavor profile - pleasantly bitter but not too much so. 

Contrast this with the Gran Classico Negroni, which was the winner for me. The Gran Classico spirit comes through with an unfettered bitter quality that lets the vermouth do the work in sweetening in this cocktail. I really preferred the herb-forward, bitter flavoring of the Gran Classico. In short, for my dollar the Gran Classico yields a higher-end, more artisanal cocktail.  

Campari is still a great spirit with a lot of utility in the home bar.  And many readers out there may find that they prefer the Campari flavoring over the alternatives. Whichever bitter flavoring you choose, there are a wealth of really great cocktail recipes out there that take advantage of this fashionable flavor profile.  More coming soon...