By LAURA REILEY
Times Food Critic
Like the rabbit pulled out of the hat, barrel aging is all mysterious transmogrification that takes place in the inky dark, away from human eyes. A young red wine or whiskey, balsamic vinegar or even Tabasco sauce goes into a barrel. It spends some time mellowing, taking on secondary characteristics like wood tannins and vanillin, and emerges a sophisticated, nuanced version of its former self.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler was drinking not long ago at a bar with no name at 69 Colebrooke Row in London. The bartender, Tony Conigliaro, had made a batch of Manhattans that stood aging quietly in glass bottles. The same whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters, but the commingling time had made the finished drink softer and mellower — different. Huh, Morgenthaler thought while sipping. Back home in Portland, Ore., where he is bar manager at Clyde Common, he happened to have an oak barrel lying around.
"I put a Negroni in it, and it was fantastic."
He wrote about it on his eponymous bartending website (a mixologist's must-read) last year, and thus was born the country's new mania for barrel-aged cocktails. In the past few months bartenders in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have been tinkering and offering up their experimental quaffs.
What exactly has captivated local bartenders so completely?
According to Geoff Crain, longtime bar manager at Fly Bar & Restaurant in Tampa, "It's about creating something very organic. You put the spirits in a barrel and they take on a life of their own. They evolve. The barrel takes over, it's out of your control and there's not that much more you can do but stare at it and wonder."
Crain and fellow Fly bartender Danny Guess first stared at and wondered about a barrel full of a classic Martinez cocktail late last year. Into a 3-gallon Hudson Baby Bourbon barrel they poured equal parts Plymouth gin (what Crain describes as a slightly fruity gin with "pronounced botanicals other than juniper") and Vya sweet vermouth, with dashes of Luxardo maraschino cherry liqueur and Angostura bitters. They plugged the barrel, kept it in a cool space and left it for six weeks, tasting along the way before filtering it through cheesecloth and decanting it into vermouth bottles.
And how was the finished cocktail (which they garnished with a grapefruit twist)? "It had become its own genre entirely, somewhere between gin and sherry and whiskey — so savory," Crain said. In other words, delicious. Encouraged, the duo started another batch two weeks ago, to be unveiled at the end of October.
Meanwhile, over at Mandarin Hide in St. Petersburg, general manager and head bartender Jason Fackler had a similar idea, prompted by a visit from Hudson's brand ambassador. He used a Hudson barrel, this one 5 gallons, with a Charred-Oak, Barrel-Aged Manhattan the goal. After straining out the char and putting the finished cocktail in stylish decanters, the drink sold like wildfire, garnished with fresh and dried cherries.
"You know it's a Manhattan, but the aging adds depth," Fackler said. "The char gives the finished cocktail a deep amber color."
Since his maiden voyage, he has made two more batches, and has another barrel in reserve for his next experiment, perhaps a Negroni.
SideBern's general manager and bartender Dean Hurst has done just that. In his first barrel-aged cocktail this year, he filled a used barrel from Palm Ridge Reserve, Florida's own bourbon-style whiskey, with junipery Beefeater gin, Campari and Boissiere sweet vermouth.
Hurst sees the appeal as the natural extension of a bartender's ambition to create.
"It's an opportunity to have something truly unique to offer, something original to me. The aged Negroni became its own cocktail. It lost its refreshing quality and became a little richer. We put it in sherry bottles and put our own labels on them, and served it poured over a big chunk of ice. People were shocked. It's something we really wanted to do, but you can't do it on a whim."
Hurst has more up his sleeve. He's tinkering with an original recipe, not a classic cocktail, to be barrel aged. This time he's thinking tequila, curious to know what a little aging and mellowing will do to some of his concoctions. As with any chef, he has theories on how best to craft a barrel-aged cocktail: "If you're going to do a Manhattan, don't choose a bourbon barrel. You're looking for layers of flavors, reinforcing through contradiction or contrasts."
Roger Perry, co-owner of Datz in Tampa, has jumped on the barrel-aged cocktail bandwagon, too.
"If you're a wine drinker you'd want to be a winemaker, the same way the serious bartender would like to blend some scotch and say it's theirs. It's taking your hobby to the next level. We thought, bourbon and scotch are barrel aged, wine is barrel aged, why not take it one step further and do a cocktail?"
Datz started with a classic Old Fashioned, then a Cuban drink called El Presidente (white rum, dry vermouth, Curaçao and grenadine), and then another classic called Remember the Maine (like a Manhattan, but with rye, sweet vermouth, cherry heering and absinthe).
"At Datz, we've always thought of ourselves as being on the outskirts of normal, always looking for something cutting edge and emerging. So we stumbled on to barrel-aged cocktails," Perry explains. As for what they taste like, he said something that even the cocktail rookie can relate to.
"You know how chili tastes better the next day? It's like that. It takes a while for all the flavors to marry in these cocktails."
Bob Wagner, elite bartender at Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club in Tampa, sees some practical reasons for the trend. First, bourbon distillers, by law, can use a barrel only once and then must get rid of it. The big companies, those using 55-gallon barrels, sell these slightly used barrels to scotch and tequila distilleries to defray their costs. But quite often the small guys sell their 3- and 5-gallon barrels to bartenders and home enthusiasts. So it's either a barrel-aged cocktail or a new coffee table. Which sounds like more fun?
And then, Wagner notes, there's the convenience.
"There's the sex appeal of it, and it's cool, but it's a way to make batch drinks so your bar is more efficient, without compromising flavor. We've been doing punches at Ciro's since the beginning because of that."
Wagner has experimented with a bottle-aged Holland gin martini and just ordered more barrels for a new round of creations.
All of these bartenders agree that because this is something customers haven't seen before, it has to be explained and promoted. After that, whether Negroni or Manhattan, the proof is in the glass.
So far, Tampa Bay bargoers have been enthusiastic about this novelty, but as with all novel things, the question is whether the case for casks is clear.
At least according to Morgenthaler, the Portland mixologist whom Geoff Crain describes as the impetus for this movement, "I don't know what the next big thing is. But I would like to see this expand. As a trend, I think it has legs."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293.
Photos by KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times
Jason Fackler, general manager and bartender at Mandarin Hide in St. Petersburg, holds a barrel of Charred-Oak Barrel-Aged Manhattans. The barrel contains 10 bottles of Hudson dry whiskey, nearly two bottles of Carpano Antica vermouth and 4 ounces of Angostura bitters. After seven weeks it is uncasked and served.
Charred-Oak Barrel-Aged Manhattan