Barrel-Aged Cocktails, Vintage Or New Trend?

barrel aged drinks

Meet the men behind The Standard Pour. Chef Cody Sharp, Bar manager Brian McCullough and Owners Jonathan Rosenberg, James Hamous and Brian Rutt. Photo credit Kevin Marple.

NEW HAVEN, United States — Imagine the scene, people laughing and talking, mouth-watering food and of course delicious barrel-aged drinks. These “new” drinks are steeped in a rich history going back to approximately the year 900 when the Celts began making barrels for their honey wine. Bottled cocktails gained their popularity in the late 1800s and early 1900s and barrel-aged cocktails became a trend in this era directly before Prohibition as well. These cocktails were made in batches and left in barrels until they were ready to be bottled. Bars advertised their drinks as both “barrel-aged” and “bottled”. Coincidentally, the word cocktail did not even show up until around 1806! Rather like clothing, old becomes new again with these aged beverages.

This month I set out to find out what drinks are hot and why on the cuisine scene. I had the privilege of speaking with mixologists, chefs and managers who bring this trend to life every day. Many bars and restaurants in the US serve barrel-aged cocktails: Sanctuaria in Saint Louis, Missouri; The Standard Pour in Dallas; Texas and Tavern Law in Seattle, Washington are excellent examples of establishments doing this trend justice. Get ready to learn that every cocktail really does have a story to tell.

barrel aged drinks

Exterior of Sancturia located in Saint Louis, Missouri. Photo credit Sanctuaria.

Vintage Cocktails With A Twist

Sanctuaria displays 17th and 18th century art from churches all around the world. The main dining room showcases prayers on painted metal that are more than 450 years old. This amazing setting boasts masterfully executed drinks and equally impressive menu to complement its eye-catching decor. At the head of the kitchen is Chef Wil Pelly with his Cuban upbringing and international influences through his time travelling the world. The mixologist, Matt Seiter, started his career in the Andersonville neighbourhood of Chicago and trained at Academy of Spirits. He later joined United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG) in Chicago, and opened a Saint Louis chapter when he returned home in 2009.

barrel aged drinks

Sanctuaria has an eclectic and trendy feel. Photo credit Sanctuaria.

Seiter told me that he heard about barrel-aged cocktails in 2009 but did not have an opportunity to try them out until 2011 when opportunity suddenly knocked. The first opportunity was meeting Jeffrey Morganthaler, who started the barrel aging trend in the United States, at Tales of the Cocktail. The second opportunity was a free barrel from Pritchard’s Distillery. Seiter tells the story:

“So, like I said, after Tales when I was back in St. Louis, a series of occurrences presented itself for to me reach in my back pocket and pull out that idea of doing barrel aged cocktail at Sanctuaria. We had received a barrel from Prichard’s Distillery so that we could put their whiskey in it, place said barrel on the back bar and serve whiskey straight from the barrel right in front of the guest. I was sold. Whiskey being served from a barrel? How cool was that? So we did that. However, we noticed that after a few weeks, the remaining whiskey in the barrel started to change flavour, taking on more oak than we cared for and was no longer a product we wanted to serve. So we dumped the barrel, rebottled the whiskey and asked ourselves, ‘What the hell do we do now?’ Joel and I were discussing this and a few other agendas over a quaint meal at an all-you-eat Chinese buffet. A light went on in my head. “Call Jeff and inquire about this process. Who better to ask than the man himself?” After putting Jeff through a gauntlet of questions and inquiries, the Sanctuaria barrel programme was conceived.”

The Boyd & Blair Distillery gave them their second barrel, which was meant to age the distillery’s vodka, but they did one better by aging a cocktail in it instead. From there, Sanctuaria also went on to age beer because as Seiter puts it: “We also bottle age beers, but not cocktails. There are some beers that drink better with age, just like wine.” A few of these noteworthy beers are Founder’s Breakfast Stout, Goose Island’s Matilda and Overstock Ale 2012 vintage.

Some bars could not have pulled this all off quite as well as Sanctuaria did. This establishment has always been about creativity and experimentation. According to Seiter: “We have always been a bar that is experimental and willing to take chances. From barrel aging cocktails, having cocktails on tap, aging beers, to having the only cocktail bar loyalty programme we know of (our Cocktail Club is based on a menu of 150 cocktails that guests voluntarily submit themselves to and keep journals about it – but that is for another article), nothing has been out of the question at this bar. If something did not work, ok, we now know that. But if it does, we analyse what we did, make adjustments and make it our own.”

Seiter feels that barrel-aged cocktails are popular because, “Everything old is now new again: cocktail recipes from the past, bar techniques, using huge blocks of ice in bars, bottling cocktails, etc. It is all been done before, just 100 years ago. Bartenders today are excited that our chosen job is now being seen and respected as a career, not as a ‘job to have while I figure what I am going to do with my life.’ We are taking pride in that, researching our industry’s past and bringing it back to the status it once held. Barrel aging is just one part of that process.”

Seiter notes the Passato Amante, their first barrel-aged cocktail is the most popular of their cocktails. The Vieux Carré, which is a twist on the classic version. Sanctuaria knows how important it is for the food and beverages to meld into a single experience. They always try to list pairings on their menu and hope that customers will have that “ah-ha” moment when they taste how well they fit together.

No One Likes To Drink Alone…Pair It With Good Eats

The Standard Pour has plenty in common with Sanctuaria, but its atmosphere is quite different. Rather than a Victorian art feel, The Standard Pour has a warm and “homey” feel with its dark woods, double-sided chesterfield sofa and a pub ambiance. Co-owner James Hamous describes it as, “TSP decor in raw thought…The Standard Pour is meant to feel like your 3rd home. A place that is comfortable enough to sit around in everyday and be able to relax in the company of friends. A design that is centred around a double-sided chesterfield couch to remind us that we are at home amongst friends. Its raw brick and dark woods in low amber lighting are set to transport you off of main street America and allow you to feel immersed in an old neighbourhood pub.”

barrel aged drinks

A view of the main dining room at The Standard Pour. Photo credit Kevin Marple.

Nothing says home like good foods and the executive chef, Cody Sharp, says he finds it important to create dishes that complement their drink menu. “I have always tried to find balance between spirits/wine and food. The bar staff puts a lot of time and effort into crafting all the cocktails at Standard Pour, so I feel it is important that the food reflect the same level of craftsmanship,” says Sharp. Their goal is to be the restaurant you love for the food but they have really great drinks too.

The Standard Pour, affectionately known by aficionados and staff alike, opened in March of 2012. Since then they have been wowing and experimenting with both food and drink with great success. Barrel-aged cocktails have been a part of TSP’s heritage from day one. Brian McCullough, bar manager, explains: “We have done several barrel aged cocktails. It is all an experiment in faith really. You get more bitter character sometimes from the aging process as well as rich flavours sometimes. It is interesting to see how the blend of a cocktail can vary when aged in older or used barrels. I first did one at TSP in a Single Malt Barrel from Balcones. I simply re-aged three of their whiskeys blended together for about 6 months. It was amazing how it came out, rich and toffee flavours were huge.” The one thing that every mixologist seems to highlight is the fact that these cocktails are like carefully aged works of art. You put your tastes, your ideas and your time into something you hope people will rave about.

barrel aged drinks

The Moscow Mule is one of the many popular drinks at The Standard Pour. Photo credit Kevin Marple.

McCullough continues: “Bourbon cocktails, Old Fashioneds, Moscow Mules are our most popular, however we offer a large list of cocktails.” He is also quick to point out that barrel-aged cocktails are popular with bartenders and mixologist because:

Well bartenders love spirits. It is natural to want to sort of copy the aging process by getting small barrels and getting creative. It is what we do.

TSP sets its standards high and aims to please when it comes to both good eats and savoury beverages.

barrel aged drinks

Shrimp and grits is one of the savory items on the menu at The Standard Pour. Photo credit Kevin Marple.

Not Just A Bar

Tavern Law bills itself as “skilfully crafted cocktails, classic comfort food”. This creative crowd has crafted their institution as a speakeasy. The bar specialises in pre-Prohibition and Prohibition era alcoholic beverages and mouth-watering food. General manager, Michael Cadden of Tavern Law notes: “Barrel aging spirits that normally do not touch a barrel is hot right now. Big Gin, Oola and Copperworks all are making a barrel aged gin!” According to Cadden:

The barrel aged cocktail at the moment is Tapitio Tequila 110 proof that has been fat washed with coconut oil and Oaxacan coffee beans and barrel aged with Regan’s Orange Bitters and Bitterman’s Xocolatl Mole bitters. Then we add a little demerara simple, stir and garnish with an lemon zest. I call it The Guadalajara.

This Seattle gem opened in 2009 and has been going strong from day one. The bar is named for the 1832 statue that allowed inns and saloons to serve alcohol without being obligated to require the patron to rent a room for the night. Everything right down to the decor pays homage to a bygone era. The menu is even written on a chalkboard! Another interesting titbit Cadden shares is: “Here at Tavern Law we are trying barrel aged pickling brine, to pickle our veggies with. It is still a little experimental at the moment, but very exciting results so far.” Tavern Law cultivates an exquisite experience at every turn with gourmet dishes and well-thought out beverages. It certainly does the home of the rebirth of barrel-aged cocktails justice.

On The Ball Or Should We Say On The Barrel?

These great places are staying on top of it when it comes to cocktails, not to mention amazing cuisine. They are not just about food and drinks, but about the whole experience. Any trend can fall flat without proper execution, and these three establishments are on top of every detail. Let’s drink to your health and theirs.

Drop us a line and tell us what you think about this trend, we will email you a copy of the full interview with Matt Seiter including his ideas about “The Naked Agenda” and “The Chili Agenda.”

Courtesy of: Matt Seiter, James Hamous, Cody Sharp, Brian McCullough and Michael Cadden | Websites: Sanctuaria sanctuariastl.com | The Standard Pour: www.tspdallas.com | Tavern Law: www.mccrackentough.com/tavernlaw/
Shire Lyon About the author

Paid Search advertiser by profession and writer by passion. She also owns the blog, It's the Small Stuff, www.itsthesmallstuf.com. She holds a Bachelor’s in Communication and a Web Design Certificate. Her delight in fine cuisine and new gastronomic trends coupled with her obsession for writing help her bring cuisine trends to an international audience.

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