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Barrel-aged cocktails add character to mixed drinks

With all the focus on fresh, mixed-to-order cocktails in recent years, perhaps it is inevitable that a countertrend should arise. Enter barrel-aged cocktails, the current darling of creative mixologists.

Barrel aging is a relatively low-fuss way to create one-of-kind signature drinks. The hard part is waiting weeks or months until the elixir is ready to serve.

This is actually a story so old it’s new again, because wood has been used for centuries to smooth the taste of alcohol and impart nuances like vanilla and caramel. If the barrel the cocktail ages in previously held wine or spirits, the lingering nuances add even more complexity.

An establishment making a name with aged cocktails is Bibiana Osteria Enoteca in Washington, D.C., an upscale Italian restaurant and one of owner Ashok Bajaj’s seven concepts in the nation’s capital.

General manager and beverage director Francesco Amodeo has perfected a pair of libations aged in one- and five-liter oak and chestnut casks made by his grandfather on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Each drink spends two to three months in wood.

“The last batch we sold out completely in 20 days, all six liters of it,” Amodeo said. “It actually takes longer to make than it takes to sell.”

One of the drinks is a take on the classic Negroni made with London dry gin and two Italian products, orange-herbal bitters and sweet vermouth. Wood aging “completely changes the flavor of the liquor,” Amodeo said. “It takes you to another level. And it is something that you cannot buy already made.”

Sipped alongside a mixed-to-order Negroni, the wood-aged version “tastes completely different,” Amodeo said. “It is crazy how different the flavors are.”

Also gaining distinction in wood is his other specialty, the Katia, made from rye whiskey, Italian bitters and two products he makes in house, marasca cherry liqueur and chocolate bitters.

Each cocktail is priced at $14. “We want to keep it fun and affordable so people will want to come back and try them again,” Amodeo said.

Is aging here to stay? Beverage expert Brian Van Flandern of Creative Cocktail Consultants in New York City thinks so.

“I think it is not a fad, but a trend, although it is a niche trend,” Van Flandern said. “It is not going to be incredibly mainstream, unless someone gets the idea to perfect aged cocktails and transfer them to glass and provide them to restaurants.”

Van Flandern said the best cocktails for aging are simple mixtures of one or two liquors, like Manhattans and Martinis. Drinks made with lighter spirits like gin, vodka and light rum gain more character than those made with darker, more assertive spirits. Poor candidates for aging are drinks with ingredients that spoil during long spells in the barrel, such as fruit juices, including citrus, and dairy products.

Van Flandern noted the importance of the barrel in a successful aged cocktail.

“If the barrel was previously seasoned with whiskey, sherry or tequila, that will influence the final flavor of the cocktail, which is highly desirable,” he said.

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