Area bartenders and distillers are bringing something new to cocktails and spirits – patience.
Aging drinks and liquor in oak barrels can bring a whole new depth of flavor and complexity to the drinks. At Italia Trattoria, owner and manager Bethe Bowman recently took the plunge with a barrel-aged Negroni cocktail. She did a few years of reading and research – tasting barrel-aged cocktails in Seattle, Portland and other cities – before deciding to try making her own.
The Negroni she’s serving – a cocktail made of one-third each gin, vermouth and Campari – has been aged for six weeks in a small American oak barrel. “Then I put it in a bottle for a week and let it – in the bottle – blow off a little bit of the oak, until it is just where I want it to be,” Bowman said.
“It’s kind of scary. You’re putting in all of these expensive ingredients. It’s a lot of booze in a 5-liter barrel and you have to keep tasting it and hoping. I think as time goes on and I do more different types of cocktails, I’ll get a better idea of how different liquors respond to it,” she added.
The result is a cocktail that is a more grown-up version of itself.
“When you barrel-age, it adds depth to (the cocktail), smooths it out and makes it have this really nice character. It kind of makes it a cocktail that is dressed to impress. It’s really sophisticated,” Bowman said.
Steve Busby, winery manager at Lone Canary and Caterina wineries, said he approached the barrel-aged cocktail with some caution.
“I know the Negroni. I’m a Negroni man,” Busby said. “The thing I love about a Negroni is that bite, that bitterness.”
When his friends at Italia Trattoria told him about their version, Busby said, “I thought, ‘OK, let’s see how you ladies do this barrel-aged Negroni.’ You know what? It’s not good. It’s great. It’s a more mature version of itself. It’s rounder and fuller. It’s nice.”
Bowman said she was concerned that cocktail lovers might wince at the price – the barrel-aged cocktails are $12-$14 each – but they’ve been well-received by customers. Bowman said she was inspired by, among others, mixologist and bar manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler, of Clyde Common in Portland, who writes about barrel aging and other craft bartending subjects at jeffreymorgenthaler.com, and the Liberty Bar on Capitol Hill in Seattle.
“It is so fun,” Bowman said. “It is something that I have been watching for about the past five years, but the last couple of years it really got hot.”
On tap next is a Figgy Manhattan. Bowman has started making the fig and orange bitters for the drink. After that, she’s thinking of a tequila Negroni and perhaps a barrel-aged Sazerac.
Making barrel-aged cocktails is catching on with some who want to make it at home. Bowman said she could see people learning how to make them for a party or a wedding. “You just have to have patience and be willing to experiment,” she said. “I think it is important to remember that you want to put good ingredients into it.”
The barrel-aged cocktail trend isn’t for everyone.
Paul Harrington, who helped design the bar at Clover, said he doesn’t like the way barrel-aged cocktails can take the bartender out of the equation. Harrington is the co-author of “Cocktail: A Drinks Guide for the 21st Century,” which was nominated for a James Beard award. He also wrote cocktail columns for HotWired online, where he was known as The Alchemist.
He was served a barrel-aged cocktail that had been put into single-serving bottles. “The bartender basically takes it out of the cooler, unscrews the cap and sets it in front of you. That is a completely different experience than having someone make you a cocktail.”
As a bartender, Harrington said he prided himself on being able to read a customer and customize the drink, even in subtle ways. The pre-made, barrel-aged cocktail takes away that flexibility.
Luckily, the barrel-aging trend has hit Spokane in another way that Harrington loves. On Friday, Dry Fly Distilling began bottling its new Barrel Aged Gin ($24.95/ 375-milliliter bottle). The distillers aged the signature Dry Fly gin in used wheat whiskey barrels. The gin released Friday is a blend of three barrels that had been aged for six months, a year and two years respectively, said Don Poffenroth, co-owner and co-founder of Dry Fly Distilling, Washington’s first licensed distillery since Prohibition. His business partner and the co-founder of Dry Fly Distilling, Kent Fleishmann, set up the barrel-aging project.
The gin is part of the distillery’s new Dry Fly Creel Collection, which also includes wheat whiskey finished in barrels that were used to age huckleberry port from Townshend Cellar and triticale whiskey, which is made with the wheat and rye hybrid. Poffenroth said they tasted seven kinds of triticale before settling on the grain they wanted to use for the whiskey.
The Dry Fly gin is known for its flavors of juniper, apple, coriander, lavender, mint and hops. Tasted side by side with the barrel-aged gin, the new release has vanilla notes, smoother finish and softer mouth-feel.
“I wanted the oak flavor to be really understated,” Poffenroth said. “It is not so oaked or tannic that it detracts from the gin.”
Kristi Gamble, bar manager at Clover, said she liked the sophistication of the new liquor, something that she thinks will appeal to the cocktail drinkers she serves.
She experimented with cocktail recipes to highlight the new gin. (See recipe that follows.)
“I like it because it reminds me of a good classic cocktail, rich and almost malty in flavor but slightly sweet,” Gamble said. “The other ingredients complement and bring out the vanilla and oak in the barrel-aged gin, while still giving you that nice herbaceous note that gin is known for.”
Poffenroth said he expects some of the Creel Collection specialty offerings at Dry Fly to sell out quickly, but they’re planning to make them each year. Dry Fly distributes to liquor stores in the region and can also be purchased at the distillery gift shop, 1003 E. Trent Ave.
The 21st Cast
From Kristi Gamble, Clover bar manager
1 1/2 ounces Dry Fly Barrel Aged Gin
3/4 ounce Carpano Sweet Vermouth
1/2 ounce grapefruit juice
1/4 ounce Galliano
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a grapefruit twist or flamed grapefruit peel for the more adventuresome type.
Yield: 1 cocktail