Most bar innovations, from forced carbonation to rotovaps, escape the attention of even the most devoted cocktail enthusiast. But there is one concept of the last decade that even the most clueless barflies would have been hard pressed to miss. That’s barrel-aged cocktails. The barrel-aged cocktail has become so ho-hum ubiquitous that even the most run-of-the-mill gin joints and restaurants seem to have one on the menu, be it a Negroni, a Manhattan, a Martinez or an El Presidente.
The worldwide phenomenon began a decade ago when a Portland bartender happened to taste an off-menu cocktail at a high-concept cocktail bar in north London. That Portland bartender, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, took the practice—changing the aging vessel from glass to barrels—and brought it to his bar Clyde Common. Its success was immediate. A year after its debut in 2009, barrel-aged cocktails were seemingly everywhere, from New York to San Francisco to New Orleans. Part of its diaspora owes at least something to Morgenthaler’s website, one of the best read and most technique driven of the early cocktail blogs, and one of the few written by a working bartender.
Also lending a vital assist was the simultaneous rise of craft distilling. Young distillers trying their hand at immature specimens of bourbon suddenly found themselves with a lot of used barrels on their hands. (Bourbon barrels must, by law, be discarded after their first use.) Some of these were small barrels, which worked better for aging whiskey faster, and were, coincidentally, ideal for aging cocktails.
That perfect storm of circumstances kicked off a trend that proved to be no flash in the pan. Since the practice first peaked, Morgenthaler has had eight to ten barrels resting at Clyde Common at any given time. There is still at least one barrel-aged cocktail on any Clyde drinks menu (typically the Negroni, the most popular cocktail of the genre), and sales of the cocktails have never flagged.
To tell the story of the barrel-aged cocktail, we spoke with Morgenthaler; his boss, Nate Tilden; Gable Erenzo, one of the movement’s critical barrel suppliers; Kevin Denton and Thomas Chadwick, early adopters of the practice; and Philip Duff, a cocktail expert who provided Morgenthaler with the tip that would kick of the whole thing.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler (bar director at Clyde Common, 2009 to present): “I was at [the London bar] 69 Colebrooke Row on October 22, 2009. I was there for UK RumFest and was having some drinks with [bartender] Michael Menegos and the master distiller for Havana Club. Michael is a friend of mine, so we were just catching up, and I’d always wanted to go to that bar. I’d put on Facebook that I was there, and Phil Duff messaged me and told me to ask Tony [Conigliaro, the owner] for the vintage Manhattan. I even took a photo of it.”
Philip Duff (longtime bartender, bar owner and roving cocktail and spirits expert): “Honestly, I don’t specifically remember messaging Jeffrey, but that’s 100 percent something I’d do . . . Information traveled much more slowly back then, and I knew about Tony’s bottle-aging. Hence it was a nice off-menu item to ask for back then.”
Morgenthaler: “I mean, to be honest, it tasted like a Manhattan. Tony said that he found the flavors to be more ‘integrated’ after being stored in the bottle for five years, but I probably just wasn't sophisticated enough to tell the difference . . . If I remember correctly, it was a Rittenhouse Manhattan. I made a shit-ton of them at work, so I was familiar with the way a fresh one tasted. I never felt like the flavors weren't integrated with one another, whatever that means.”
Research & Development
Nate Tilden (co-owner of Clyde Common, 2007 to present): “Jeff came to me in 2009 with the idea of aging a cocktail in bourbon barrels. He had visited a friend in Europe who was aging cocktails in glass and came back with the idea of doing aging on wood. I had visited Kentucky whiskey distilleries the previous summer and was feeling very American-whiskey-forward at that time, so I was quite interested in the idea.”
Morgenthaler: “I had this one-gallon oak barrel I’d received through being a board member of the Oregon Bartenders’ Guild, and I’d already filled it with Madeira and was just flavoring the barrel with the Madeira until I came up with something to do with it. I was planning on doing Madeira-cask-aged orange bitters or something. But the Manhattan seemed like a much better choice.”
Tilden: “We ran the financials together, and it was something like 500 bucks to buy the spirits and the barrel, which might have been donated, or we might have already had it, I can’t recall. I remember thinking that gambling $500 of Clyde capital on an idea that might be a total disaster was pretty low risk. If it had been $5,000, [it] might have been a different story.”
Morgenthaler: “[Nate] was super supportive, but I couldn't help thinking that he must have thought his new bar manager was mildly insane.”
Tilden: “Jeff tasted a bunch of the Clyde bar crew on his project throughout the aging process. I recall we all felt like six weeks was the perfect time on wood. The biggest difference we noticed was a mellowing of the Campari [in the aged Negroni] that really rounded out the cocktail . . . We did try a sample at nine weeks that was way too woody.”
Morgenthaler: “People took to it immediately. They’d never seen anything like that before. We sold out of that first gallon in like a week or two.”
Tilden: “We thought they were yummy, and I guess if the public hated them, then we would have drank that barrel ourselves and moved on to the next idea.”
Morgenthaler: “The other thing that made this the perfect storm was that Tuthilltown had just started selling their used bourbon barrels. So after we did the Manhattan, I had the idea to put a Negroni in a bourbon barrel. Seemed like a much better idea than aging a Manhattan, a whiskey drink, in a whiskey barrel.”
Gable Erenzo (owner of Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery, 2006 to 2015): “We sold all of our three- and five-gallon barrels from the first few years of whiskey maturation. The small ones were obviously the best for aging cocktails and the most sought after. Many of those sold were sold through our Tuthilltown online store, and much of the traffic coincided with Morgenthaler’s blogging of his aging projects. Lots of bartenders told me they bought through our site, without my knowledge of who, when I saw them in the field.”
Morgenthaler: “I put the whole thing on my website immediately, and people picked it up from there.”
Kevin Denton (bar director at Gramercy Park Hotel, 2008 to 2010): “A very unsung hero in the cocktail movement turned me on to barrel-aging: Mayur Subbarao . . . I tagged along on an Eleven Madison Park trip to Tuthilltown, where I bought one of their small barrels for the purpose of aging cocktails at Gramercy Park Hotel. The idea was really compelling, as I had already been messing around with oak chips in root beer. It didn’t make a ton of sense to barrel-age spirits, but I tried it anyway with the applejack Manhattan. It married and mellowed all those flavors so well . . . We got a few more barrels and ramped up production.”
Thomas Chadwick (owner of Dram, 2009 to 2017): “Dram may have been early on the scene of barrel-aged cocktails, but definitely not the first. Yeah, it would have been 2010. I remember procuring two small barrels from Tuthilltown. I know we did a Negroni, and for the life of me cannot remember other ones. I think a Vieux Carré . . . I was eager to try everything back then, and there was a lot more to explore.”
Erenzo: “Mike Neff at Ward III got one of our early three-gallon barrels, and I believe they used it many times for different aging projects. Daniel Hyatt from Alembic in San Francisco used a barrel I had given him many times, and I dropped off others when in town for WhiskyFest. Naren Young was one of the early bartenders aging cocktails . . . Eamon Rockey was doing some barrel-aging, perhaps while he was still at Eleven Madison Park. Abigail Gullo was using barrels. They were doing some barrel-aging at Rye and Bourbon & Branch, in San Francisco. Neyah White at Nopa.”
Erenzo: “We loved the idea of our small barrels moving on to a new life. Since no Scotch, rum, or tequila distilleries were particularly interested in our small barrels, we had lots . . . Plus, it was fun to visit bars around the country that were coming up with creative reuses for our baby barrels.”
Tilden: “If you can take food or drink and do something magical with time and environment, then that satisfies the certain mad-doctor streak a lot of people have.”
Morgenthaler: “I think it’s just one more tool in a bar’s arsenal.”