Unless you've been living under a rock for the last year -- or you simply aren't a cocktail geek -- you know that the hottest trend to hit the mixology scene is barrel-aged cocktails. The idea of aging pre-made cocktails seems to have been bouncing around for several years, but Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler came up with the idea of using wooden barrels for the aging process. From there, thanks in part to his blogging about the results, the trend went viral among bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts. Everything from Manhattans and Negronis to Remember The Maines can now be found resting in used oak barrels at more ambitious bars worldwide, waiting for oxidation and the tannins in the oak to work their magic.
I was skeptical about barrel-aged cocktails, in much the same way I was skeptical about, say, the meal-in-a-cocktail trend which was all the rage a couple of years ago. But on further reflection, it's really not the same thing at all. After all, it's obvious that wood aging has tremendous transformative powers -- it's why we age everything from sherry to Scotch in it. So it's not exactly gimmicky to want to find out what happens when we age multiple ingredients together. Any remaining cynicism I still had was swiftly erased with the first sip of a barrel-aged Martinez cocktail at New York City's PDT and I was sold. The wood aging created a softer, fuller, and richer cocktail, turning what's normally a great drink into a work of art.
As the father of a one-year-old, I do most of my drinking at home. And as a resident in a crowded New York City apartment, I don't have room for a barrel to age my own cocktails. Nor, to be honest, do I particularly want to buy, mix and age several gallons worth of booze at one time. Clearly, there's a void here that needs filling. And High West, a Utah-based distillery, is as far as I know the first brand to step into the breach. They've started manufacturing "The 36th Vote," a barrel-aged Manhattan cocktail that they've bottled for the convenience of amateur drinkers everywhere.
Pre-made cocktails sold at retail, until now, have mostly been chemical-saturated, barely-alcoholic versions of staples like Jack-and-Coke, or bottled martinis you can buy for a couple bucks a pop at your local low-end liquor emporium. But the 36th Vote is a whole 'nuther animal -- a pre-made that uses quality ingredients and is made in limited quantities by people who not only know what they're doing, but who give a damn about the finished product. Not only does it not suck, it's a cocktail that bartenders or home mixologists would be proud to have created and happy to drink.
High West is a saloon/restaurant in Park City that also happens to have a ridiculously fine distillery. Over the last few years it's put out, in addition to other spirits, some of the finest rye whiskeys I've had the pleasure to try. All, improbably, while being based in the state that has given us Orrin Hatch and every single Osmond sibling. Their latest project, "The 36th Vote" Barreled Manhattan, is known as such because, again defying stereotypes, Utah was the state which cast the 36th and deciding vote to end Prohibition in 1933. Go figure, right?
The 36th Vote consists of High West's own 95% rye whiskey (meaning 95% of the grain used to distill it is rye, a high percentage even for rye whiskeys) along with sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters. Since it's illegal to repackage liquor which has already had its Federal Excise Tax paid for, they had to buy the vermouth in bulk at wholesale. The 36th Vote employs a pre-Prohibition standard 2:1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth (I prefer 3:1 myself), so that's no small deal.
Still, even without a high-end vermouth like Dolin or Carpano Antica, the un-aged blend beats the Manhattans you'll find in most watering holes, thanks to the powerful flavor of High West's whiskey. The vermouth doesn't weigh down the cocktail, which is spicy, bold, a little peppery and surprisingly dry. And the healthy dash of Angostura brightens up the whole affair.
Mind you, that's the blend that hasn't been aged -- which is only available to writers, bartenders and spirits geeks who want to do a little A/B testing side by side with the aged version. Which I did. And, wow, what a difference a few months' worth of American oak and a little oxygen make. In the un-aged cocktail, as with any standard Manhattan you drink at home or in a bar, you can taste the separate components. After a few months of aging, however, the whiskey, vermouth and bitters blend seamlessly to form one harmonious whole; it's virtually impossible to separate the flavors on the palate. The slight oxidation smooths out the harsher bitter tones of the bitters and vermouth, making them rich and tangy, almost chocolatey. And the oak breaks down the rye's alcoholic bite (the percentage of alcohol goes down somewhat during aging) but fills out the flavor beautifully. It's wonderful chilled, of course, but The 36th Vote is also delicious taken neat, at room temperature -- something I can't say about any other "regular" Manhattan I've ever tried.
I'm hoping that barrel aging turns out to be a legitimate step in the evolution of the cocktail, not just a fly-by-night trend. And I hope that The 36th Vote's breaking of the suckiness barrier for bottled cocktails isn't just a one-off. Rather, like Chuck Yeager's breaking the sound barrier or Roger Bannister's first four-minute mile, it should open the door to further explorations of the genre. I'm keeping my fingers crossed and a chilled cocktail glass at the ready.