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 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!
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….