Generally speaking, sitting around in a barrel for a few months (or years) does some pretty great things to booze. The characteristic flavors of a sweet bourbon or oaky Chardonnay largely come not from the fermented flora that make the brew, but from the barrels that hold them until they're transferred into bottles for the most important step of all: consumption.
Now, the barrels themselves are starting to make an appearance behind the bar. At bars across the city, spirits as well as pre-batched cocktails are now resting in barrels for a spell before making their way to your glass. By allowing the cocktails to sit in the barrels for a period of time before serving, mixologists can soften some of the sharpness of the spirits and make the flavors of your drink altogether more well-rounded.
At FT33, bar geniuses Tristan Price and Scott Augat are aging spirits and spirit-forward cocktails that pack a serious punch. Currently marinating in barrels behind the bar are Ford's Gin, Chartreuse, a smoky mezcal-based negroni, a traditional Manhattan, and a riff on The Martinez, a gin-based cocktail that dates back to the late 1800's. Each are pulled directly from the barrel in three-ounce portions using a strange-looking tool known as a "thief" (this process is known as thieving). The cocktail is then gently stirred with ice and served straight up.
FT33 ages their cocktails in whiskey barrels from Texas distillery Balcones, each of which have twice held other spirits. Using barrels that have already been "seasoned" helps soften the aggressive flavors of the oak, creating a smooth cocktail that is entirely drinkable, but also has a more complex flavor profile. One of the bar's current standouts is their take on a Last Word, cleverly called The Final Say. Made with the aforementioned barrel-aged Ford's Gin and green Chartreuse, the bartenders sub velvet falernum in for the typical maraschino, resulting in a deeper-flavored, more deliciously nuanced take on the classic cocktail.
At Fearing's, cocktail wizard Jason Kosmas worked with chef-owner Dean Fearing to add barrel-aged drinks to the menu earlier this year. Inspired by Fearing's swanky Rattlesnake Bar at the Ritz, Kosmas crafted The Rattlesnake, made with Tequila Cabeza, Herbsaint, grapefruit bitters, and local honey. Another cocktail that harmonizes well with the smoky flavors from wooden barrels, an ancho chile-infused negroni, is also on the menu.
Swanky steakhouse Ser, located atop the Hilton Anatole, also barrel-ages dry gin and sweet vermouth for incorporating into a more traditional Negroni. A Vieux Carre, made with Bulleit Rye, Hennessy VS, and Benedictine is aged with two types of bitters. Vieux Carres are particularly good for barrel-aging, thanks to the smoothly potent combination of flavors that's naturally enhanced by the smoky oakiness barrel-aging imparts.
The trend has even begun to spread to the home bar. Industrious and ambitious at-home drinkers are using barrels to improve the flavor and quality of spirits of all kinds, even the cheap stuff that you normally would never touch. The barrels are relatively inexpensive, starting at around $60, and you don't really need many supplies outside of the spirits that you're planning to age. Go forth and make your booze better — or leave it to the professionals. Either way, barrel-aged drinks are worth your hard-earned drinking money.