Aged Cocktails: the Vieux Carré

a Vieux Carré in its aging bottle

For those of you who tuned in for my post on Tuthilltown Spirits, as promised, here is the next installment featuring aged cocktails.

For those of you who didn’t, or who aren’t up on your high-end craft cocktail trends, aging cocktails is one of the recent crazes hitting bars across the nation, starting with Jeffrey Morgenthaler in Portland, OR back in 2010.  It is appropriate for spirit driven cocktails that do not contain any citrus, dairy or eggs (for hopefully obvious reasons), for example, the Negroni or the Manhattan.  A very few select bars around the nation have started to dabble in aged cocktails over the past year, including Summit Bar in NY, but it remains firmly in the realm of the esoteric for the time being.

And now, making it easier to DIY, Tuthilltown Spirits, who I visited a few weeks ago and who also supplied Morgenthaler with his first batch of barrels, have come out with the cocktail aging bottle.  That’s right, a glass bottle (the same one they use for their bourbons, in fact) with a piece of used oak barrel inside.  When I saw these, I racked my brain for who would think they were as cool as I did and actually use them, so I could buy as many as possible as gifts.  Unfortunately, the list was short.  And so for my less cocktail-savvy (and extremely lucky) friends, I made individual bottles of aged Vieux Carrés as this year’s homemade holiday present.

My first encounter with the Vieux Carré was a month or so ago at Lamb’s Club – another stellar spot in midtown, with a bar program courtesy of Mr. Petraske.  Storied to have originated at the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans in the 1930s, it certainly tastes like it could have.  The classic recipe calls for 3/4 oz each rye, cognac and sweet vermouth, 1 tsp Benedictine and 2 dashes each Peychaud and Angostura bitters.  Sometimes it also calls for a lemon peel garnish.

the ingredients

The Lamb’s Club recipe, and the one I used is:

  • 1 oz rye (I used Old Overholt)
  • 1 oz cognac (Pierre Ferrand Ambre)
  • 1/2 oz sweet vermouth (Dolin’s Rouge)
  • 1/4 oz Benedictine
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
  • Brandied cherry garnish

If you are drinking immediately, stir ingredients in a rocks glass, add 1 large ice cube (these 2×2 silicone ice trays work well at home) and enjoy.

If you are aging your Vieux Carrés, prepare a large batch with the proportions 1-1-1/2-1/4 rye, cognac, vermouth and benedictine, with 1 dash of bitters for every 2 oz of rye/cognac.  For example, we mixed ours in batches with 16 oz rye, 16 oz cognac, 8 oz vermouth, 4 oz Benedictine and 8 dashes bitters.  We stirred it all together in the largest receptacle I could find – a pasta pot – then poured into each bottle (6 total, which took a little over a bottle each of rye and cognac, 2/3 bottle vermouth, 2/3 bottle Benedictine).  Each bottle contains just over 3 full cocktails.

When aging cocktails in barrels, one can wait 3-6, or more, months (although Morgenthaler only aged his experiments for 5-6 weeks).  In these bottles, since the wood-to-liquid ratio is higher, we have estimated they should age about a month.  (Leaving cocktails to age for too long can make them oaky.)  But just in case I’ll start tasting next week to see how they progress and will keep you posted!

this year's homemade gift

Addendum:

Almost a month later the cocktail experiment is concluded – or at least Phase 1 is.

I realized that in my original post I neglected to discuss why one might want to age a cocktail. Essentially, the aging process mellows the alcohol and fuses the flavors of the ingredients, adding the charred notes of the wood in the process just like aging bourbon or anything else. I had originally thought a few weeks would be the right amount of time to age the Vieux Carrés but I have now revised that down to a week to ten days.

At Week 1 of the aging process I started testing and conducting “vertical tastings”, mixing up a fresh batch of cocktails alongside the aged ones. This actually being my first ever aged cocktail experience I was wondering what it would taste like and slightly worried I might not notice the difference (horror).

Turns out I shouldn’t have worried – the difference is overwhelming, and also delicious. Just as it’s supposed to, the barrel stave and aging process had blended and softened the flavors. The aged cocktail was less bright, and smoother than its fresh cousin, with a hint of oak. This also made it even more highly drinkable (read: dangerous).

I stopped the aging in one of the bottles at one week, and continued to sample it against other bottles for comparison. At ten days it was still great, but at two weeks the wood got to be a bit overpowering, adding a hard edge to the mix. Still drinkable – don’t worry I’m not about to let it go to waste! – but not as soft and velvety as the one week.  

Oh no, you might think, what if I miss the sweet spot and don’t have time to drink it in the 7-10 day window. Not to fear, just remove the stave from the bottle and enjoy at your leisure. 

Now for my next experiment: what happens if you age the cocktail without a stave at all? And perhaps some other variations on the theme. Stay tuned….

Tuthilltown Spirits: A Field Trip

Tuthilltown's Spirits

The first distillery in New York state since prohibition looks a lot like a converted garage where some mad scientist has rigged up all sorts of contraptions for his experiments. And in fact, that might not be too far off the mark.

the garage

Ralph Erenzo started Tuthilltown Spirits back in 2001, the year New York finally amended its Prohibition era regulations on small distilleries, taking the annual permit fee down from $10,000 to $1,250.  Completely self taught, and with a background in rock climbing, he partnered with a former-television-tech-whiz-turned-aspiring-bread-baker (after all, whiskey is a lot like bread, just without the oven) and together they started distilling vodka from the apples grown nearby.  Soon, thank goodness, they added grain to their repertoire, and have recently launched a cassis liqueur, rum and their own line of bitters.  (Read more about the team and their history.)

I visited Tuthilltown on a sunny, crisp Saturday in December. After brunching at Main Street Bistro in nearby New Paltz, a good local spot for all manner of eggs, sandwiches and chili, we drove off towards what looked increasing like nowhere. In fact we were still a little unsure we were in the right place even when we pulled into the gravel driveway.

aging bourbon

We were greeted by Cordell, an actor-turned-chicken-farmer-turned-whiskey-tour-guide, and, along with some other Manhattan types, were soon being lectured on the history of Tuthilltown and the fermentation process of grain.  One of the first things we covered was that, contrary to popular belief, bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky or Tennessee.  In fact there are six criteria that must be met in order for a spirit to be classified as bourbon, and the only geographical one is that it be made in the United States.  That’s right, any one of the fifty. (Sorry Guam and Puerto Rico).

The other five are:

  1. It must be at least 51% corn
  2. It must be aged in a first-use white oak barrel
  3. Nothing else may be added to the barrel (such as extra wood chips or flavorings)
  4. It must be at least 80% alcohol coming off the still
  5. and 62.5% going into the barrel

The second of these at first posed rather a challenge to the aspiring distillers, since they didn’t have the resources to carry a large quantity of liquor through a lengthy aging process.  The solution?  Use smaller barrels so the spirits age faster and are ready sooner.  From whence Tuthilltown’s first aged spirit, the Baby Bourbon, a beautiful, smooth and lighter whiskey which was my first encounter with the brand.  The Baby is still one of my favorites, but I am also a fan of the Manhattan Rye and the Four-Grain Bourbon, which is made from corn, rye, wheat and malted barley and is spicier and stronger than Baby. (See their full product line here.)

Then it was time to see the process in action.  Upon entering the glorified garage, we were first faced with a large vat that was busily churning corn with yeast before being transferred to big plastic buckets for fermentation. We were invited to sample the liquid with our fingers – and as promised it did in fact taste kind of sweet and like bread. We did not try the brew in the fermentation buckets in the next room, but if smell is any indicator it was pretty rancid.

the vat of corn & yeast

corn fermenting in a plastic bucket

Upstairs they have just installed a brand new beautiful copper still. It’s so tall they they had to build a cupola on the roof to accommodate it (see picture of garage above).  Here, we were instructed in some of the basics of the distilling process.

the still

The raw liquor is heated and as it evaporates the steam rises through a pipe with various metal discs. The first liquids to evaporate are known as the “heads” – basically acetone aka nail polish remover – you don’t want to drink it. Next come the “hearts”, which is the good stuff. As the liquor pours off the still, an alcohol monitor (like a weight buoy that measures the density of the liquid) tells the staff what stage they are at.  After the hearts come the “tails” which are likewise toxic and not to be consumed. The tails get tipped back into the still with the next batch, which allows Tuthilltown to extract more good stuff from them, and also serves to develop the signature taste of their whiskeys over time.

bottles ready for labeling

Next up was the bottling room.  It looked like something out of the I Love Lucy episode when Lucy works in a chocolate factory.  Old school conveyor belt contraption and everything, including a hand dipping station for the wax that coats the tops of the bottles.  And if I worked there for a day I’d probably end up just like Lucy, but drunk and covered in booze instead of chocolates.

 

Thank the Lord

 

Apparently they are due for an upgrade in the bottling room, in part due to a new partnership with William Grant & Sons, who own, among other brands, Glenfiddich and Hendrick’s.  Also a result of their agreement, Tuthilltown spirits will soon be making their way across the pond: Europe, get ready, Prohibition is over!

 

And finally, the highlight of the trip: the tasting.  We were strictly admonished that we were to have only three samples each, and no sharing.  I sampled the rum – not bad – but settled on a bottle of Manhattan Rye to add to my Baby Bourbon at home, as well as some bourbon barrel aged maple syrup.  By far the best find of the trip, however, is their cocktail aging bottle.  That’s right, a cocktail aging bottle.  In case you are not up on your cocktail trends, this is the latest fad (I heard it here first, last summer).  And now, instead of coughing up for a large barrel, you can buy a small bottle with a piece of barrel inside it, and age your own small batches of Manhattans, Negronis, etc at home.  Stay tuned for adventures on this score coming soon….

 

a whiskey barrel is an excellent place for a nap

Vital Statistics:
Location: 14 Grist Mill Lane, Gardiner, NY 12525
Website: www.tuthilltown.com
Prices: $15 per person for a tour and tasting.  Whiskeys are $40 each onsite, and average $45 at retail locations in New York City.  Cocktail Aging Bottle is $10.