Six months ago, Eric Dutton, bar manager at Vesta Dipping Grill, unveiled a Vieux Carre he'd let sit in wood for a few weeks -- the first barrel-aged cocktail we'd seen on a Denver menu. Since then, though, we've noticed barrel-aged cocktails popping up on a handful of lists, making this a true trend on Denver's drinking scene.
"It's sort of the new wave for Denver bar nerds," acknowledges Randy Layman, head of the bar program at Steuben's, who has been involved with the Vesta project and also with crafting his own barrel-aged Martinez with his brother, Ryan. "It's kind of cool as far as what the barrel does to the cocktail. It concentrates all the flavors and adds sweetness and tannen from the oak. It gives it this weird, mystery taste that I can't do behind the bar within two minutes -- it's something you have to wait for." The difference, he says, is like the variation between white whiskey and barrel-aged whiskey -- the latter is rounder, sweeter and more caramel-y from its time on oak.
According to Randy Layman, the trend goes back to Jeffrey Morgenthaler, a bartender at Portland's Clyde Common who first barrel-aged a Negroni a couple of years ago. He and Ryan began exploring the idea last summer, when they started talking to Peach Street Distillers about the process. "Then a buddy showed up from Peach Street and said, 'Hey, I've got barrels for you," Randy recalls. "We're really into making spirits, too, and this is something we can do legally without making booze. We're all about the process."
For the Laymans, that process involves batching a 15-liter Martinez cocktail and then putting it in the barrel for five to seven weeks, tasting it on a weekly or bi-weekly basis and straining it and rebottling it once they've hit the optimal point. Randy says Dutton, who now has three barrel-aged cocktails on the menu, tops off his barrel once he's drained a quarter of it because he's interested in how the spirit changes -- and the blend of aged and new spirits.
Not every bartender in Denver is embracing the trend, though. "I'm looking into it," admits Kevin Burke at Colt & Gray. "But I have yet to taste a barrel-aged cocktail that I like better than the fresh version."
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Burke also says he'd only play with drinks like an old-fashioned, which are made with all-stable ingredients. "Recently, we've had it driven into our heads that there are these ingredients that we need to keep fresh, and that includes vermouth and sherries," he says. "But barrel-aging is deliberately oxidizing these spirits and letting them go south."
The barrel-aged cocktail crafters, though, argue that the rest of the alcohol in the cocktail acts as a preservative, making those wine-based aperitifs less volatile. And plenty of the city's bartenders agree with the Laymans. The proof is in the cocktail lists: Adam Hodak is doing a barrel-aged Martinez called the Smoke & Oak at Russell's Smokehouse, and Mike Henderson is preparing to launch barrel-aged cocktails at both Root Down and Linger.
Check out one of those drinks -- and the barrel-aged cocktails at Steuben's and Vesta, of course -- to decide for yourself whether the taste improves. Or test out the influence of wood at home: Randy says you can batch a large cocktail in an iced tea jar and add oak spirals, available at your nearest home-brew shop for less than ten bucks. Just make sure you're doing a cocktail that consists entirely of booze; citrus or other juices would spoil in the time needed to sufficiently age the drink.