Friday, November 19, 2010

when he turns sixteen, plug up the hole

There have always been strange intersections between the world of real cocktails and the world of sloppy frat boys and over the hill bros.

Goofus stocks eighteen flavors of schnapps (or flavored vodka, now - same fucking thing).  Gallant stocks eighteen flavors of liqueurs.

Goofus buys flavored rum.  Gallant makes homemade rum infusions.

Goofus adds a shot of Bacardi 151 overproof rum to his drink.  Gallant ... adds a shot of Lemon Hart 151 overproof rum to his drink.

Goofus uses margarita mix instead of fresh lime juice because he doesn't know any better.  Gallant uses Rose's lime cordial instead of fresh lime juice because he knows that's what a fucking gimlet is.

Goofus buys premixed bottled cocktails.  Gallant ages premixed cocktails in oak barrels.

I mean, there are always reasons for what Gallant's doing and why Goofus shouldn't be doing what he's doing, but I'm well aware of the narcissism of little differences here.  And I've thought many times about this latest trend which has really hit its stride in the last six months: barrel-aged cocktails.

Barrel-aging anything can be pretty cool, for sure.  Oak is where bourbon and most aged liquors get a lot of their flavor.  Oak is a natural source of vanillin, among other flavor compounds.  But barrel-aging a cocktail means making a cocktail in advance and then sealing it up instead of serving it, and ... we've been told not to do that.  That's the opposite of fresh.  That's a really expensive version of a premade margarita-in-a-bottle.  Right?

But there's the barrel, see.

Yes, you're undoubtedly losing something in giving up freshness.  But the idea is, if this is worth doing - if! - then you're getting something back.  Wood interacts with your drink.  Glass doesn't.  

I bought some small barrels on eBay.  Oak, charred on the inside, just like the regular-sized barrels you'd use to age whiskey et cetera.  Mixed up two cocktails: a gimlet (about 2/3 gin, 1/3 Rose's lime cordial - sorry Ray, 50-50 is too tart and sweet for me) and a coffee Manhattan (coffee-infused rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters).  Filled the barrels and waited some weeks.

We're at the part of the year where photography quality is going to dip until April: too cold, too little light.

Barrel-aged cocktails and gin

Far left, the Manhattan - not that the color is any different than before it aged.  Middle, the gimlet - it's actually more of a khaki/olive color than it looks here.

The Manhattan didn't change all that much.  It tastes more integrated, but there's another variable I introduced by using an infused liquor: infused liquors change flavor subtly over time because of the particles remaining in them; gin stays the same because it's distilled after infusion.  So the change to the Manhattan could be owed in large part to the coffee flavor settling in.  Some of it is the vanilla from the wood, though, I believe.

The gimlet, the gimlet is a whole nother thing.  Conventional wisdom is that gin is the best spirit to use in a barrel-aged cocktail because it's an unaged spirit - the rye whiskey had already been aged, already picked up wood flavor, so how much more can you add in a few weeks or months?  Whereas with gin (or vodka, theoretically, or unaged tequila or rum, or cachaca) you're adding a flavor gin wouldn't usually have.  The gimlet tastes ... not like a gimlet.  I don't know how to explain.  The lime is certainly recognizably there.  It's a very very well-balanced cocktail.  It just ... tastes like something other than a gimlet.  It tastes like a barrel-aged gimlet.  I'm sorry, that's not helpful at all!  But it's the case nevertheless.  I'm resisting certain descriptors like "smooth" because I think I just associate them with the wood, and I'm not positive they're meaningful here.

But I was interested by the effect on the gin.  Certainly the juniper is less pronounced.  The botanicals from the gin now intermingle with the flavors from the wood.  So to follow up, I aged gin - not a cocktail - in the same barrel.  But the only gin I had a full bottle of was an infused gin - infused with rhubarb.  Well, so be it: barrel-aged rhubarb gin.  That's what's on the far right.

It's good.  But it tastes nothing like gin.  If you gave it to me blind I don't think I would even guess gin, and if I didn't know about the barrel-aging trend, gin wouldn't even be in my first five guesses.  For one thing, there's a huge amount of tartness.  Some of that may be from the gimlet barrel - and let me note for my own future reference, the gimlet barrel is the one by the television, the Manhattan barrel is on the bookcase, because this certainly makes a difference and I certainly will forget - and some of it may be from the rhubarb.  I don't know.  

I wasn't sure what to think of the barrel-aged rhubarb gin at first.  What do you do with a gin that no longer recognizably tastes like gin?  So I made a Negroni.  Gin, Campari, sweet vermouth.  NOW it made sense.  NOW it came together.  This was a recognizable Negroni, a good Negroni.  I'm sure it helps that rhubarb is a botanical often used in potable bitters - I don't know for sure if it's used in Campari, but it's used in enough other Italian bitters that I imagine it probably is.

Haven't decided what to age next.  The barrels are filled with water - you always want to keep your barrels filled with SOMEthing, or they can dry out (especially in the current climate) and lose their seal.  Bitters are a possibility, or nocino.  A mojito maybe.

1 comment:

  1. My vote is for bitters but my body reacts unfavorably to walnuts so I am biased. I'm so happy to see your thoughts about this as it's something I really would like to try in the near future.

    One quibble. From my understanding gin is infused during the distillation process. I suppose some gins are infused prior, but for the most part I believe gins are usually infused as the vapors pass through the basket during distillation.

    I think a version of the Negroni would make for a good aged cocktail but perhaps working towards that with your own aged bitters is where you're going.