Pre-mixing and barrel-aging cocktails might downplay the theatrics of modern-day bartending, but can offer a tastier, mellower drink.
When hosting a cocktail party during the holidays, you want to mingle with guests, not spend the entire evening mixing drinks.
“It’s the worst part about being me,” jokes Dante Conception Jr., creative director at Spirithouse on Adelaide St. W. “When I have people over or I go to a party, they know I make cocktails for a living, so I spend the whole night in the kitchen.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Pre-mixing and barrel-aging cocktails might downplay the theatrics of modern-day bartending, but can offer a tastier, mellower drink, says Concepcion.
Barrel-aging, where a cocktail matures in an oak barrel, offers the ingredients a chance to “really mesh with each other. You do lose a bit of spirit from having it soak in the wood, but with that comes a little more vanilla, a little more honey.”
This week, Spirithouse released a new batch of Manhattans. Matured for three weeks in 5-litre barrels which once housed their whisky blends, they are then filtered, bottled, hand-corked and sealed in wax before appearing on the menu. An 8oz bottle, recommended for four guests, is $48.
If aging cocktails at home, Concepcion, who joined Spirithouse in July, would keep the cocktail choice simple and not be too ambitious. Only spirits and aperitifs should be aged, he says, so no juice-heavy drinks should ever be funnelled down a barrel.
“A Manhattan is almost a perfect cocktail. You can use different whiskies to make it bolder, but what you’re creating is a more complex Manhattan, with different layers of flavour.” Alberta Premium Dark Horse Whisky will offer a bold flavour, while Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey will make a lighter, sweeter version, he says.
In Toronto, barrels can be purchased at BYOB Cocktail Emporium on Queen St. W. (a two-litre barrel is $85), or online at Tuthiltown Spirits. They vary in size, from 750 millilitre to 5 litres, but Concepcion suggests you keep it on the smaller side. “A 2-litre barrel is perfect for a home party. Unless you’re having a pretty big party.”
Before filling it with spirits, the barrel must first be sealed. Fill it with water and let it seep into the wood and expand for a couple days, then empty it out.
Once filled with your spirits of choice, keep a close watch on your barrel, says Robin Goodfellow, general manager and bartender at Ursa on Queen St. W. “Taste it every couple of days, because at some point it’s going to be overpoweringly woody.” The barrel should not be treated as a container. “It’s constantly breathing and constantly working with whatever ingredients are inside,” he adds. Goodfellow says seven to 14 days is generally sufficient if using a 2-litre barrel.
At Ursa, he infuses gin with cedar staves in a 2-litre mason jar, setting barrel-aging inside out.
But whether using a barrel or dropping wood chips into glass, the process can easily be ruined, seeing your precious LCBO dollars go to waste. When Goodfellow infused Buffalo Trace’s White Dog #1, an unaged white spirit, with his cedar staves, he liked what he tasted. “It was beautiful, but I thought I’d keep it one for just one more day.”
That extra day killed the balance he sought. “When it’s perfect, take it out.”
While Concepcion suggests letting the entire cocktail soak in the barrel, Goodfellow recommends those at home simply age the vermouth. “If you use the vermouth, you’ll still get all those woody flavours. If only one third of the ingredient is oak-aged, you have room for error. If it’s too woody, just decrease the ratio.”
Most importantly, whether barrel-aged or simply pre-mixed, refrigerate anything you’ve bottled. “All my home ingredients,” says Goodfellow of the various liqueurs and shrubs he creates, “I don’t even consider them finished until they sit in the fridge overnight. It’s always better the next day.”
And don’t worry, even if you’re not muddling orange peels and cracking egg whites into cocktail shakers all night, people will still be excited about your drinks. “They’re there for you. They want you to hang out.”