A year and a half ago, a Portland, Oregon, bartender, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, publicized his experiments with barrel-aging cocktails. Before long, the trend took off.
It has now reached the Northwest corner of the country, as restaurants here are barrel-aging their own cocktails.
Fireside Cellars at Willow Lodge in Woodinville, Washington, added them to its menu at the end of last month, timed to coincide with the fall equinox.
“Fall is the perfect time to start a barrel-aged program,” says Matt Davis, restaurant and wine manager. “We’re spending more time inside away from the rain, warming up with deeper flavored Manhattans and spicier flavors.”
The cocktails also complement the changing seasons that are highlighted through the food, he explains.
“The biggest reason we decided to do barrel-aged cocktails was to offer something new and fun to our guests and to ourselves,” Davis says. “A lot of us in the restaurant world like a little bit of change in menus, and we just added a whole new category of cocktails to the menu that we can rotate and change.”
Aging entire cocktails in a barrel smoothes out the edges in the blends of drinks and helps the flavors meld. It also allows some air in, which can create what Davis calls “third-level flavors” that are “round and rich,” created from different molecules combining.
Davis has spearheaded the project at Fireside Cellars although Jennifer Schmidt, his fellow restaurant and wine manager, and bartender Ryan Lobi are also involved.
Davis became interested in barrel aging cocktails after visiting a restaurant, Lot No. 3, in Bellevue, Washington, which was testing several cocktails in barrels.
“They had a barrel-aged Negroni and that’s when everything clicked,” he says. “Negroni is a fresh, bittersweet drink and the bartender’s excitement about it didn’t make sense to me, but when I tried it I was surprised at how good it was.”
Fireside Cellars is concentrating mostly on classic cocktails, Davis says. “We decided since these were going to be higher-end, more time-intensive, more sophisticated drinks, that we would go for classic cocktails.”
However, while two of the cocktails are classics—the White Manhattan and the Hanky Panky—the third is a drink that Lodi thought up. The Colonial contains a blend of applejack brandy, herbal liqueur Benedictine and a splash of St. Elizabeth, an allspice rum that is used to rinse the barrel and impart minimal flavor.
Fireside has three barrels, all of which were purchased from Woodinville Whiskey Co. They’re small, says Davis, and each holds 2.5 bottles of liquid.
The barrels can be used five or six times, and age the cocktails in three to five weeks (sooner for the first agings and longer for the fifth and sixth—the second and third are the ideal uses).
Each barrel costs around $150 but the cocktails themselves are only $1 more than other cocktails. Each one runs $13—or $6.50 during Happier Hour. “We don’t want to make it prohibitive; we want to make it fun and accessible,” Davis says.
Customers are really interested in these cocktails, he says, but particularly wine lovers “because of the crossover flavor.” Cocktail fans also enjoy them if they are into classic cocktails, or just want to try something new.
Fireside Cellars is marketing the barrel-aged cocktails by bringing in the spirit-makers for events for the public, and posting information about them on Facebook and Twitter.
“That partnership between us and the distillers has brought a lot of people in,” Davis says. “Plus, this is a new program for us and the staff is really excited about it. The staff really drives the guest’s experience. If the staff falls in love with [a drink], they’ll share it with the guests as often as possible and we won’t be able to keep it on the shelf.”
Next up will be some cocktails for the holidays, but Davis says that “once you start a project like this the ideas come flooding in faster than you can imagine.” Coming soon, he expects to create a barrel-aged coffee cocktail.
The ideas for Fireside came from Lot No. 3, whose sister restaurant, Barrio Mexican Kitchen & Bar, had a Mezcal that was barrel-aged for two months.
Director of bar operations for both restaurants, Casey Robinson, is now looking to launch more of the cocktails at Lot No. 3, and is testing several in the barrels.
“We’re going to age one cocktail per week for a month each, so we’ll unbarrel them every other week,” he says, adding that he’ll stick with classic cocktails like the Bijou and the Martinez.
“We do classics because that’s what we serve and if you’re doing a classic, you know what it already tastes like and can see the difference the barrel aging makes. If it’s a new cocktail, it’s not familiar to [customers]—they’d have to order the cocktail itself and then the barrel-aged cocktail.”
He also won’t price his barrel-aged cocktails too high—around $1 more than regular cocktails, he says.
By Amanda Baltazar