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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.  



Grapefruit Cocktail Extraordinaire: The Plantation

My current favorite bar is Comstock Saloon in San Francisco.  It's really an amazing place in the North Brach area of town.  You simply won't find a more professional set of barkeepers anywhere - led by the two chief mixologists, Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin.  Back in the day, both of these guys came from Absinthe on Hayes Street in San Francisco, and a couple years ago Jeff co-wrote a brilliant book called Art of the Bar which shows off his considerable talents behind the bar.  

Ooh - check out that green cocktail!The Art of the Bar has been in my Library for some time now, but recently I found myself digging through the tome looking for a grapefruit cocktail for Mrs. The Ace.  My wife, a well-documented grapefruit cocktail lover, was looking for something new to help her pass another rainy Bay Area winter evening.  Lo and behold, I found this thing of beauty that includes not only grapefruit but also is a fresh basil cocktail.  

This drink has a lovely, fresh taste to go with its brilliant green coloring. The basil and sugar make a nice, light pesto of sorts that go nicely with the citrus flavors of grapefruit and lime. And if you float some club soda on top you get a great little summertime cooler for your trouble. It's almost enough to make anyone forget that it's still cold and rainy outside. In just a few short weeks this drink will be much more useful as a harbinger of Spring.  

Plantation Cocktail
Adapted from Art of the Bar (2006) by Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz

4-6 leaves fresh basil
1/2 tsp sugar
1 oz. Plymouth Gin
1/2 oz. Cointreau (or Combier)
1/2 oz. fresh-squeezed lime juice
1 oz. fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice
Club soda (optional) 

Combine the basil and sugar in a mixing glass and muddle until the basil is liquified into something that looks like pesto.  Fill the mixing glass with ice. Add the gin, orange curacao and juices to the glass and shake well for 10-20 seconds until well-chilled. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a chilled tall collins glass filled with ice. Top with a float of club soda for a summer cooler (optional). Garnish with a slice of grapefruit. 


Shaken not Stirred

Since I am rolling with the 10-Bottle Bar stuff - I may as well post a bit about the Martini. Yes - the mixologist's most hated cocktail does have a place here. Oh sure - it's easy for mixologists to hate on the martini.  After all - America's taste in liquor has now reduced this drink down to nothing more than a glass of chilled vodka (a little cold, unflavored spirit, anyone???). Alas, if only the industry had stopped there in destroying this fine old cocktail - but cotton candy martinis? Perish the thought.  

So yes, there is still a place at The Ace for a well-crafted martini. But I will focus only on versions that I find to be more interesting and that I would serve in my home (which luckily for me also happens to be my bar).  I will assume that everyone reading this already knows how to chill the hell out of gin or vodka and pour it into an up glass - so I will focus on some more interesting, old-school versions of this classic cocktail.  Here goes nothing..

Dry Martini
Adapted from Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) by Harry Craddock

2 oz. gin (Old Tom is historically appropriate here if you have it)
1 oz. dry (french) vermouth
1-2 dashes orange bitters

Place an up glass in the freezer to chill. Pour ingredients into a shaker with lots of ice and shake well for at least 30 seconds until the drink is well-chilled.  Strain into the chilled up glass and serve with a long strip of lemon peel (be sure to express the oils from the skin into the drink before placing into the glass).  

So its worth mentioning here that the Martini had evolved substantially by the time that Craddock included it in his seminal Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930. The drink started out in Jerry Thomas' era as a 1:1 ratio of Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth with a little orange bitters thrown in for good measure. This makes sense given that it is generally accepted that the Martini descended from the Martinez cocktail (see below). The use of sweet vermouth had fallen out of fashion by the 1930s (dry cocktails were "in" and sweet ones were gauche by then). But I kept the Old Tom gin (also out of fashion by this time) and the orange bitters in this version because I wanted to capture a slightly older-school version of this cocktail and because I like bitters.  

This was actually a damned fine cocktail.  Nothing like the bare-bones cold vodka or gin special - the vermouth took the edge off the gin and added a pleasant smoothness to the drink. This is historically accurate - as vermouth was originally mixed with gin cocktails to mask the questionable character of the bathtub gins of the era.  If I were to get picky, I guess that I could complain that the high ratio of vermouth robbed this drink of its boozey nature and left it just a tad on the bland side for my personal palette.  But compared to a chilled vodka in a glass this drink has character to spare!

Next let's hop into the way-back machine and try the cocktail that spawned the Martini from way back in the 1800s.  

Martinez No. 1
From Imbibe! (2007) by David Wondrich

1 oz. dry gin (Plymouth)
2 oz. Sweet Vermouth (Carpano D'Antica)
1 tsp Luxardo Maraschino
1 dash orange bitters

Place an up glass in the freezer to chill. Pour ingredients into a shaker with lots of ice and shake well for at least 30 seconds until the drink is well-chilled.  Strain into the chilled up glass and serve with a long strip of lemon peel (be sure to express the oils from the skin into the drink before placing into the glass).

So as much as I wanted to like this, one of the oldest of old-school cocktails, I just could not.  The high concentration of sweet vermouth makes this drink taste overwhelmingly sweet, or "raisiny" as Mrs. The Ace put it. There's not much more to say about this one. Let's keep trying...



Next I decided to turn to my The Art of the Bar (2006) book by Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz. Mr. Hollinger runs Comstock Saloon in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, where he serves my favorite old-school cocktails with a smile (and sometimes with a handlebar mustache). Mssrs. Hollinger's and Schwartz's Martinez cocktail recipe is as follows:

Martinez Cocktail No. 2
From The Art of the Bar (2006) by Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz

2 oz. Plymouth gin
1 oz. Dolin dry vermouth
Splash of maraschino liqueur
1-2 dashes orange bitters
Lemon twist for garnish
Olive for garnish

Combine all liquid ingredients in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Stir gently for 20-30 seconds, until, cold, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the lemon twist and olive.   

This is a nice improvement on the original Martinez cocktail, recognizing the change in American tastes toward drier spirits alongside their white spirits like gin. Note that this cocktail ends up being pretty similar to the Martini cocktail above - with the addition of maraschino liqueur and a more modern gin like Plymouth to the mix.  But similar to the Martini cocktail above, in my opinion this cocktail is still missing that little something special to take it over the top. 

I tried changing up the drink by substituting the dry vermouth in this Martinez with a mix of 1/2 ounce dry vermouth and 1/2 ounce of Bonal Gentiane-Quina.  Winner winner chicken dinner!

Martinez No. 3

2 oz. No. 209 gin (could also be Plymouth)
1/2 oz. dry vermouth (I used Sutton Cellars Brown Label but Dolin is just fine too)
1/2 oz Bonal Gentiane-Quina 
Splash of maraschino liqueur
1-2 dashes orange bitters
Lemon twist for garnish 

Place an up glass in the freezer to chill. Pour ingredients into a shaker with lots of ice and shake well for at least 30 seconds until the drink is well-chilled.  Strain into the chilled up glass and serve with a long strip of lemon peel (be sure to express the oils from the skin into the drink before placing into the glass).

I really liked this version of the cocktail. The Bonal adds a little bit of extra dryness and a little bitter to the mix of flavors in the drink.  The drink is transformed into a complex little drink with lots of things going on  in there. This is no Manhattan - but it does have enough character and charm to be approachable but still be interesting to modern cocktail drinkers.  

But no discourse in martinis would be complete without a crack at the Vesper - popularized by James Bond in the novels of the 50s and the movies since then. What could be cooler than ordering a martini "shaken not stirred"? Well, actually lots of things, but that's beside the point.  James Bond's martini is very alluring to lots of drinkers - so much so that it has been shamelessly stolen by vodka makers as their own. In reality, vodka is the stepchild to gin in James' drink.  Here is how Ian Fleming's introduced us to Bond's favorite quaff in his 1953 novel Casino Royale.  

"A dry martini," [Bond] said. "One. In a deep champagne goblet."
"Oui, monsieur."
"Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?"
"Certainly, monsieur." The barman seemed pleased with the idea.
"Gosh, that's certainly a drink," said Leiter.

Seems pretty simple, eh?  So let's try it.  

Vesper Martini
Adapted from James 

2 oz. No. 209 gin (or Plymouth)
1/2 oz. vodka (I cut down Bond's proportions so as not to interfere with the gin)
1/2 oz. Cocchi Americano

Place an up glass in the freezer to chill. Pour ingredients into a shaker with lots of ice and shake well for at least 30 seconds until the drink is well-chilled.  Strain into the chilled up glass and serve with a long strip of lemon peel (be sure to express the oils from the skin into the drink before placing into the glass). 

A nice drink here. Simple and clean, this drink most resembles the Don Draper martini. But the addition of the Cocchi Americano gives this drink the little zip that Bond called for when he asked for the Kina Lillet. As you can read here, Cocchi Americano is a new spirit imported from Italy by Haus Alpenz that nicely impersonates what Lillet used to taste like before the quinine was stripped from the recipe in the 80s.  

For those raised on modern martinis (I mean ones without Midori or apple sour mix) this is likely to be your favorite cocktail in this post.  If this is you, then use this drink as your gateway drink toward the Corpse Reviver No. 2 and the Aviation


The Aviation

I haven't posted a 10-Bottle Bar recipe in a while, so I thought I'd go with one of the drinks that got me into mixology back a few years ago.  

This was back in 2007 when spirits like Creme De Violette were just hitting the US market and the SF Chronicle was starting to write more words about the great cocktail that could be made with these spirits. As it happened, I had just read a piece profiling Creme De Violette and Pimento Dram (both of which had just been imported to the States for the first time in many years by Haus Alpenz) and the many great cocktails that one could make with these spirits. The star of the article was the Aviation, and as it happened I walked into Pizzaiolo in Oakland that same evening and found - gasp- an Aviation on the menu! Naturally I ordered one (or was it two?) and the first incantation of The Ace Saloon was incorporated the next day with my purchase of a bottle each of Maraschino and Creme De Violette.  

But enough of my not-all-that-interesting Genesis story.  Lets talk about the Aviation. So here's the recipe.

The Aviation
Adapted by Gary Regan from Hugo Ensslin's Recipes for Mixed Drinks (1916)

1 1/2 oz. dry gin (I use No. 209 or Plymouth)
1/2 oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1/2 oz. Luxardo Maraschino
1/2 oz. Creme De Violette (Rothman & Winter) 

Place an up glass in the freezer to chill.  Combine all liquids in a shaker with LOTS of ice and shake vigorously for at least 10 seconds (the side of your metal shaker ought to be coated with a layer of frost).  Strain the drink into your now frosted up glass and garnish with a brandy-soaked marasca cherry.  

It's interesting - my personal tastes have moved toward the brown spirits (whiskey, rum, brandy) so I hadn't made this drink in quite a while. But as I whipped one up (and drank it, of course) for this post all of those same emotions that I felt back in 2007 came rushing back again. The tartness of the lemon against the floral flavors of the gin is refreshing...  The alchemy of the lemon and the Maraschino adds an almost grainy texture to the gin... And that translucent grey-purple color!!! This is a damn good drink.

For those of you wondering where the Creme De Violette is on the 10-Bottle Bar - it isn't.  As it happens, Gary Regan actually adapted this cocktail recipe first with just the gin, lemon and maraschino back in 2005 when Creme De Violette was not yet widely available in the States.  This version is still quite tasty - though it loses the floral quality and the purple color of the Violette. It wasn't until Haus Alpenz began importing Creme De Violette sometime around 2007 that Mr. Regan adapted his recipe once again for the Violette, thereby taking this drink - in his words - "to the moon."  


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...