This past summer, Houston restaurant Squable began offering a cocktail called And I Mean Ice. Consisting of gin, Campari and vermouth, the ruby-red cocktail was not your average Negroni. Its unusual presentation—served over a hunk of ice-cold flint rock—offered a tangible nod to the imperceptible way the cocktail had been prepared: aged in unglazed terra cotta pots for two weeks prior to serving.
There is, of course, a lengthy history of aging wines in clay earthenware, dating as far back as 8,000 years ago; the practice has recently been readopted by scores of natural winemakers across the globe, who find that the clay allows for greater control over temperature and oxygen exchange. But its crossover to the cocktail world is a more recent phenomenon, dating back only a few years—to 2013, to be precise.
It was then that Douglas Derrick took over as wine director at Nostrana, a modern Italian restaurant in Portland, Oregon. “That job really opened me up to the world of amphora-aged wine, mainly Georgia and what was happening in Italy with [Elisabetta] Foradori making incredible wines that were influenced with texture and flavor and oxygen, but not vanillin from oak,” he explains. “The joke started at that point: I want to age cocktails in an amphora. No one else has done that and that would be amazing.”
The more he thought about it, however, the more he realized it might actually work. After all, just a few years prior in 2010, the practice of barrel-aging cocktails—another technique borrowed from the wine world—emerged in Portland at Clyde Common and quickly gained traction at bars across the country. Derrick, however, didn’t like how the wood imparted tannins and oxidation to the finished cocktails. He figured aging in clay might contribute the flavors he was looking for—subtle earthiness and minerality—without the obvious oak flavor of wood.
To execute his vision, Derrick connected with Andrew Beckham, a potter-turned-winemaker who owned nearby Beckham Estate. He, too, had been inspired by Foradori and had begun handcrafting 90-gallon, 1,000-pound amphorae for aging his wine. In 2015, after taking a position as bar manager at Portland's Ava Gene’s, Derrick commissioned a handful of bespoke 24-liter amphorae from Beckham, calculating that each vessel could hold around 300 3-ounce cocktails to be served at the Roman-style restaurant.
Derrick filled the clay pots with equal parts Bulldog Gin, Campari and Cinzano 1757 Rosso vermouth, trucked them back to the vineyard, and buried the Negroni batches underground for six weeks—a decision motivated more by romanticism than utility. (Resting amphorae in the ground yields the same flavor as resting them aboveground.)
“It’s the ideal cocktail to age in that situation, to add texture and flavor profile,” says Derrick of the Negroni, which he finds dramatically changed once amphora-aged. “It ends up tasting more like a less-sweet amaro... It all melds together, the same way an amari producer makes a bunch of different macerations and then ages them together for a month so the flavors integrate.”
Around the same time that Derrick was experimenting with clay-aged cocktails in Portland, 4,000 miles away in Hong Kong, Giancarlo Mancino was commissioning a number of 5-liter clay pots from a family-owned ceramicist on the Amalfi Coast. He had just launched his eponymous vermouth company and wanted to create something bars could use in concert with his products.
“Back then was a period where a lot of brands would come out with the small aging barrels to sell themselves,” he explains, “But I didn’t want my clay pot to become [just] an ornament of the bar.” While Mancino has aged cocktails for up to a full year, he recommends only aging cocktails or punch for a day or two before serving them, a process he describes as “preserving” as opposed to “aging.”
This practice adds what most bartenders describe as “earthiness” to cocktails, but what it subtracts might be just as critical: namely, sweetness. As the cocktail sits, the clay absorbs sugar into its porous surface. “Twenty-four to 48 hours after sitting in the clay you can literally see a ring of syrup that forms around the exterior base of the pot, the tangible evidence of change to the cocktail,” explains Leith Shenstone, Mancino’s U.S. importer. Because of their higher sugar content, vermouth and liqueur-heavy cocktails like the Manhattan, Boulevardier and the Negroni are popular choices for aging in clay.
“The clay has such a fantastic mellowing effect on the Negroni,” explains Terry Williams, a partner in Squable and the co-creator behind And I Mean Ice. He accounts for that mellowing by upping the gin quotient in the typically equal-parts cocktail. The result, he says, is “a very balanced and smooth Negroni with some great minerality to it.”
For his part, Derrick, now an on-premise specialist for Campari, still serves his amphora-aged Negronis every year as the welcome cocktail at the Negroni Social, the kickoff to Portland’s Negroni Week. He, too, thinks clay-aged cocktails could reach a tipping point, so long as vessel production can keep up with demand.
“I think that if Beckham and other potters were to look at the market, there’s definitely a value in producing them,” says Derrick, who notes that amphorae’s appeal goes beyond their flavor-imparting abilities. “They’re just incredible pieces of function and art.”