Aged Cocktails

I’m rather interested in the effects of age on things. Not only my beautiful but increasingly creaky body (baldness is a sign of distinguishedness) but also drinks. As someone whose main gig involves whisky I spend a lot of time with aged spirits after they’ve come out of the cask but the actual process of ageing isn’t one that is open for most people to examine. I’ve grabbed a few bits and pieces of late and intend to do some experimenting with ageing drinks…

Firstly, I’ve been interested in the concept of ageing cocktails ever since I foolishly said “Surely, filling a bottle with a cocktail won’t let it change over time – there’s not enough oxygen for there to be a reaction” to Tony Conigliaro, master of cocktail science and recently writer of the Fat Duck Cookbook of the drinks world – Drinks. He gave me a much more sympathetic look than I deserved and explained that under a certain level of alcohol (26% ABV if I remember correctly) the preservative effects of the booze become less effective, allowing the various ingredients in the cocktail to break down and change over time, in a similar manner to the bottle maturation of wines rather than the almost-but-not-quite stasis of high strength spirits in glass. He then poured both a year old Manhattan and one that had been made freshly by him, and, as expected, they were worlds apart – the fresh Manhattan was one of the best I’d ever tried, but the aged one had become much more integrated and mellow, with new flavours and alterations to the cherry and spice mix of the fresh cocktail that I should probably have written better notes on.

Since then I’ve been meaning to investigate the relatively easily tested world of bottle maturation, but have never quite got around to it until recently. When it comes to ageing drinks bottle-ageing is pretty much the easiest: make a drink; stick it in a bottle; leave it for a while. However, the combined character flaws of a lack of patience and general laziness mean that the closest I’ve got to making up a bottle of cocktail to age was the day I took a flask of Negroni to a picnic – it aged for slightly less than 2 hours and then I went to sleep in Regents Park. Finally I’ve actually got round to spending the 2 minutes required to make a bottled cocktail to leave for a while.

I went for my favourite – the Negroni. I used the standard simple recipe using newly opened ingredients so that I can easily compare it to a an almost identical one made fresh further down the line:

  • 150ml Tanqueray 43.1% Gin
  • 150ml Campari
  • 150ml Gancia Rosso

It’s a very simple and uncomplicated negroni, using a medium/light vermouth, a solidly ginny gin and Campari, rather than mixes of bitters that many bartenders have been trying since the drink’s explosion in popularity over the last few years. I plan to put another bottle down in about 3 months so that I can compare a 6 month, 3 month and fresh cocktail, but that will very much depend on my organisational ability and how much I need a drink at Christmas…

Bottle ageing is very much about allowing the ingredients to do their thing with little external influence, whereas at the other end of the spectrum you get the unpredictable world of barrel ageing, where pretty much everything is involved in changing the drink. Not only do you have the influence of wood, but also oxidisation from the air circulating around the porous barrel and all of the regular internal development of the spirit itself. From my various short conversations with those much more up on the science of these things than I you are looking at three areas of influence – additive (stuff being added to the spirit), subtractive (stuff being removed from the spirit) and transformative (changes in the spirit itself). They’re all connected and all three areas influence each other, but in general it’s black magic that is still being researched.

The recent trend of barrel ageing cocktails has come from the world of bartenders and I first saw it (as I have many things) through Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s blog. Having a fairly unique cocktail on your menu that takes a chunk of time to prepare is one thing, but having a cocktail that takes months of lead time is very much a crowd pleaser, even if the at-the-time preparation is a simple stir with ice and garnish – an excellent combination of being able to charge more (although evaporation from the barrel will happily eat into your profit margin) at the same time as reducing the toll on the bartender at the time, with a simple serve and no faffing about.

However, getting a small barrel to play with at home has been difficult until recently, when a few retailers, including my employers, have started selling small barrels and kits to help mature your own spirits. I’ve grabbed one and have ‘great plans’ involving maturing every form of white spirit under the sun before finally, when the wood has given up its initial powerful punch, mellowing some cocktails. Or there’s plan number two, involving a barrel full of sherry and a lot of sherry finishing of bourbon matured whisky. We’ll see which idea wins…

At the moment I’ve had Wasmund’s wood smoked rye spirit in the cask for a couple of weeks and it’s already tinged with quite an impressive amount of reddy brown from the cask. My initial fill of water, to test the cask for leaks, ended up fairly yellow after a couple of hours (and has now settled out to be a mild yellow with a lot of chunks of wood at the bottom of the bottle) so it seems that the cask is as active as I had hoped/feared – we’ll see how long it takes before it starts mellowing out a bit.

Anyways, expect more random posts on aged drinks as my experiments continue…

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