Trendy barrel-aged cocktails prove the best things in life do get better with age
What makes good cocktails great? Barrel-ageing.
As much as I love beer, I am partial to a good cocktail too. My first taste of a barrel-aged cocktail was at the Polo Club, The Oberoi, Bengaluru. Called the Angel’s Share, it brings together vodka, Martini Rosso, Cointreau and Campari, with some orange bitters. This mix is then aged in a wine barrel for around 15 days. The chilled drink is smooth and one sip in, you know that this is one to savour and not chug. Curiosity got the better of me and I decided see just how far the trend of barrel-aged drinks has gotten in India.
“Barrels have been used to age and mature everything that was earlier left alone," says Shatbhi Basu, director, STIR Academy of Bartending, Mumbai. “Clear spirits like Grappa, Cachaca and Pisco have used it to create new flavours. We also have barrel-aged gins and vodkas. Barrel-aged cocktails are a natural progression, thanks to the curiosity of the intelligent bartender!”
A good cocktail can be made great, through barrel-ageing, says Devati, Basumallick, assistant manager — F&B, The Polo Club, The Oberoi. “The technique's purpose is to change the cocktail's character and flavour, mellowing the mix in the same way wines and distilled spirits are aged. The barrel takes away acidity, that underlying note of heat, a little of that harshness. The charred oak softens the pungency, while imparting vanilla and caramel notes. The faint oxidation through porous wood adds subtle character to the cocktail.”
Ageing intensifies the density of the ingredients used in a cocktail, highlighting the "earthy, nutty and woody essences of the drink,” says Noah Barnes, F&B director, The Hungry Monkey, New Delhi, adding, “This of course depends on the alcohol used and the ingredients”. Among the aged cocktails served up here is the Barrel Old Fashioned, which takes the classic and ages it in an oak barrel. Noah strongly believes that such cocktails are best savoured on the rocks.
The creation of these cocktails always has the pulse of the drinker in mind. While for some mixologists and bartenders, it may be about reinventing old classics, for others it is about being nspired to create new concoctions. Abhishek Shevade, bar chef, Bar UNO, JW Marriott, Bengaluru serves up an Aged Rum and an Aged Negroni. Drawing inspiration from the cocktail bar Savoy in the USA, he believes that such an introduction is timed just right, in the city and the country. “The ageing of cocktails is done for a duration of 7, 14 or 21 days. The 7-day aged cocktail is called a young cocktail. The 14 and 21-days aged cocktails are stronger and more flavourful in taste as well as aromas”.
Among the best alcohol bases are rum, bourbon, scotch, rye whiskey and tequila. Says Chong Sherpa, bar trainer, PCO, Vasant Vihar, New Delhi, “Barrel aged cocktails provide exclusivity like no other. You can age a range of classics to add whole new complexity to it. It’s the potato head theory, you change an ingredient in a classic cocktail and it becomes a whole new drink. I would say the scope is limited to one’s imagination only”. Illustrating this thought is a drink that PCO serves — the Romeo Y Julieta. Traditionally made by stirring Jamaican rum, sweet Vermouth and Campari, the cocktail shares its name with the iconic cigar. In the PCO version, the barrel is smoked with the cigar and the cocktail is aged in it for a month. Sipping on the drink is like smoking a cigar alongside; the smokiness and woody flavours adding to the sweet notes of the rum’s molasses.
While the sky is the limit, there are a few pointers to keep in mind, as experts like Shatbhi will tell you. First and foremost, the cocktail itself must be of a certain depth to allow for positive ageing. She gives the example of a classic cocktail Negroni. She says, “The depth of Negroni comes from Campari and Vermouth. Depending on the barrel you use, ex-red wine, ex-sherry, ex-Bourbon or even new wood, each of these will have a completely different impact on the drink. A wine or sherry barrel will give both — colour and flavour — to the cocktail as wine, which is a simple fermented beverage, will soak into the wood. An ex-spirit barrel, on the other hand, will take away a lot of the colour and flavour leaving softer influences. A new oak barrel will absorb from the cocktail and leach more wood and tannin into the drink. The end result is that it is the same drink, different outcomes”.
Talking about the future of aged-cocktails, Ajit Balgi, founder of Happy High, a wine and spirit experiential company in Mumbai, says, “Aged cocktails in today's scheme of things are a safer innovation bet as opposed to liquid nitrogen experiments. They are popular for their finish and sweet nuances. We are still experimenting with these cocktails in India, and innovations or localisation could happen with use of local indigenous spirits like Feni and agave spirits and flavours. We have a long way to go, the first hurdle being the availability of barrels in the country. A small 1-litre barrel takes about a month to age and a 2-litre can go up to four months. One has to ensure that the liquid that goes in (has) at least 50 percent alcohol”.
So what can we see in barrel-aged cocktails going forward? Abhishek Shevade says that the concept of garden-to-table is what he is working on and imagines having drinks with homegrown spices and herbs. Chong Sherpa feels that there is a possibility of cocktails being aged in edible leathers and charred barrels leading to a whole new range of creativity! Meanwhile, Devati Basumallick is mulling over prolonging the duration of the ageing. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have something that you can call a vintage cocktail?” she asks. We know our answer's a resounding yes!
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