Better With Age: There’s nothing exciting about creaky knees and crow’s feet. But pour some booze in a barrel, and aging gracefTo be clear, aging cocktails in spent whiskey barrels isn’t a spanking new idea. But this year, the trend exploded, appearing on (and off) menus at nearly every craft cocktail bar within a 100-mile radius. Now, with several barrel-aged experiments under their belts, local bartenders are honing their crafts, learning their preferences and delving into exciting new territories. Their results? Well, pardon the pun, but they’re only getting better with age.
In 2004, London-based mixologist Tony Conigliaro was gifted a bottle of Dubonnet from the 1920s. A bit nervous to try the contents of the near century-old bottle straight, he stirred it into a Manhattan. He was so impressed with how the French aperitif smoothed the cocktail’s flavor that he began experimenting, pouring his Manhattans into glass bottles and setting them in a cool, dry place to marry and meld. Five years later, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, an inquisitive bartender from Portland, Ore., tried one of Conigliaro’s aged Manhattans and wondered what would happen if he aged a cocktail like distillers do whiskey – in oak barrels. Morgenthaler blogged about his new project, alerting mixologists around the globe, including a talented bartender at Taste in St. Louis named Ted Kilgore. In August 2010, Kilgore began aging his own cocktails, filling used whiskey barrels with two original creations.
The process is simple: A variety of liquors and liqueurs are funneled into an oak barrel and left to age. What makes the cocktail special, however, are the variables: how much flavor the cocktail picks up from the wood and whatever was aged in the barrel previously (usually notes of vanilla and caramel and spices); how much oxidation occurs (which lends nuttiness); and the amount of extraction that takes place (which can mellow the cocktail significantly).
For his first two experiments, Kilgore filled one barrel with Negroni Fresca, a spin on a classic Negroni, and the other with Holy Mole – a mix of amaro, Green Chartreuse, Wild Turkey rye whiskey and chocolate mole bitters. The Holy Mole, which became sweeter with time thanks to the malt and touches of wood in the barrel, was a hit with Taste customers, but Kilgore realized that he was far more interested in aging gin than whiskey. “Gin is really cool to age, because it has the ability to take on other flavors,” he explained. “With dark liquors, there is a more subtle difference. It’s not as exciting to add wood to something that is already woody.”
Matt Seiter, bar manager at Sanctuaria, is also less interested in aging dark cocktails these days. “Why put an aged whiskey that the experts have already deemed ready to drink back in a barrel?” asked Seiter, referring to such elegantly aged whiskies as a 12-year Elijah Craig bourbon. Instead, when aging cocktails at Sanctuaria, Seiter uses only un-aged liquors like tequila, vodka and white whiskey. For the last year, he has been keeping books on his signature barrel-aged cocktail Passato Amante – a combination of Boyd and Blair Vodka, The Big O ginger liqueur and Amaro Montenegro that sits in oak for about nine-and-a-half weeks. After four rounds of aging, Seiter has this one down to a science: Once he dumps the cocktail and filters out the wood bits from the barrel, he bottles it, finishes it with lemon juice and serves it in a glass laced with maraschino liqueur. As I tasted the cocktail in the barrel at four-and-a-half weeks, and then again at nine, it was easy to see – er, taste – the value of time. The drink’s acidity had been softened; the flavor palate, even more complex.
Some area enthusiasts are pushing the barrel beyond cocktails, seeing how other alcohol-based liquids fare after spending some time in the cask. Like Matt Obermark, who began aging seasonal bitters this year after tasting Fee Brothers’ whiskey barrel-aged bitters. He loved the bitters but hated the price tag and wondered if he could create a similar product by letting his own house-made bitters sit in the wood. Come September, his bitter made of Buffalo Trace White Dog, orris root, gentian, citrus peel, cinnamon and other spices – aged for 10 weeks in a spent whiskey cask – will be placed behind the bar at Salt, ready to be stirred into fall and wintertime cocktails.
But the buck – or the barrel, rather – isn’t stopping with the city’s mixologists. As with cocktails, letting beer sit in a barrel isn’t a new idea. In fact, it’s been happening in some countries since beer was first born, though the renaissance didn’t occur in America until around 1992. In the last couple of years, it’s caught on around the country, and in this suds-loving city, it’s quickly becoming a testament to the ingenuity of St. Louis’ craft brewers.
Letting a beer age in a whiskey barrel for as little as a month or as long as several years may sound like it would produce a familiar flavor combination, but the result is nothing like chasing that shot of whiskey with a cold beer. For starters, the barrels brewers are using weren’t all used to age whiskey in their past lives; some aged wine. This can drastically affect the flavor of the beers. Brews aged in spent bourbon barrels, like the Liquid Spiritual Delight (LSD) from 2nd Shift Brewing Co., will typically pick up hints of vanilla, char and, of course, whiskey; while beer poured into casks that formerly held wine (both red and white) – like the kind brewer Cory King is experimenting with at Perennial Artisan Ales for his yet-to-be-named 100-percent Brettanomyces brown ale – will take on more of an oak flavor. According to King, there is one rule of thumb, though: Unless making a sour beer, you want to age beers with high alcohol (ABV) levels; that way, the end product isn’t overwhelmed by the flavors it takes on from the barrel. He recommends using beer that has at least a 9-percent ABV.
With nearly 25 craft breweries now spanning St. Louis’ reach, more than half have poured a beer straight from the tank into the barrel. This September, Square One owner Steve Neukomm is debuting his whiskey-barrel-aged Belgian Grand Cru for the first time. Come November, Perennial will release the long-awaited Barrel-Aged Abraxas, a Mexican chocolate stout that’s been sitting tight inside a Rittenhouse Rye barrel for an entire year.
Taking things a step further is Paul Hayden, owner of The Wine and Cheese Place, who has teamed up with a handful of local breweries to create unique barrel-aged beers. For his latest project, he’s joining forces with 4 Hands Brewing Co., to age maple syrup inside of a whiskey barrel. The duo will then let that seasoned barrel lend its sweet and spicy notes of syrup and whiskey to create an aged beer similar to Founder’s Brewing Co.’s Canadian Breakfast Stout – a beer that sold so fast on The Wine and Cheese Place’s website, the site crashed.
These days, it seems like just about everyone in the local elixir scene is pouring something into a barrel and waiting patiently to taste the fruits of their labor. So, does that mean barrel-aging is the next foam, spreading across bars like wildfire and then disappearing from the glass as quickly as it came? Don’t count on it. For one thing, the amount of time and patience at the very epicenter of the process deems it anything but fleeting. (Some local barrel-aged beers won’t be ready for tasting until at least 2014.) More importantly, the people behind the barrels are only improving their skills, assuring us that the best drinks are ahead of us. “For us, it’s not a fad or a trend,” said Seiter, “It’s a method and a tool to better our drink selection.” And if that means better drinks, let the aging process go on and on.