What you need to know—and a lit­tle more—about age­ing cock­tails and spir­its


What you need to know—and a lit­tle more—about age­ing cock­tails and spir­its

There are many ad­van­tages to youth. En­ergy, zest, un­bri­dled en­thu­si­asm, a bold gungho for life. But th­ese can also trans­late, in mis­guided times, to reck­less­ness and ar­ro­gant fool-har­di­ness. Those among us who have ac­cu­mu­lated a few more years in life re­alise that ex­tra time mel­lows one, rounds off rough edges, while per­spec­tives deepen and be­come more com­plex with ex­pe­ri­ence, even as things slow down in gen­eral. In the great scheme of things, this same pat­tern holds true for many foods too—from aged cheese to aged premium cuts of beef, wines and co­gnacs mel­low­ing in the cel­lar, and in­deed cock­tails.

Age­ing cock­tails is not ab­so­lutely new, but it has been gain­ing mo­men­tum in re­cent years and seems likely to stay as a nec­es­sary fea­ture of any re­ally good craft bar. The age­ing process can trans­form a drink from a boozy spir­ited con­coc­tion to a mel­low, so­phis­ti­cated and com­plex one, and it is just the thing that in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated drinkers want.

The only way to truly ap­pre­ci­ate the meta­mor­pho­sis is to drink it. Com­par­ing an aged ne­groni to one freshly made by Gabriel Car­los, the as­sis­tant head bar­tender of Man­hat­tan, the ma­ture cock­tail is clearly the more el­e­gant elixir. Rounded and bal­anced, with deeper, sub­tle flavours of caramel and vanilla, it has had its edgy acid­ity smoothened out, re­sult­ing in a mel­low, silky, com­plex nec­tar, com­pared to the zingy for­ward­ness of the fresh one. “Once you have tasted an aged ne­groni, you can never go back to a fresh one,” he says with a wink. In­deed, how true. And like with age, this is some­thing to be savoured slowly, not rushed through.

Aptly, Man­hat­tan at The Re­gent Sin­ga­pore, re­cently crowned Asia’s No. 1 bar and the world’s sev­enth best, eas­ily claims the ti­tle of Mother of All Cock­tail Age­ing Pro­grammes in Sin­ga­pore. Opened in 2014, they were the first to in­tro­duce the art of age­ing cock­tails to the lo­cal bar scene, and the launch of their rick­house and sol­era sys­tem—an­other first here—sent many lo­cal drinkers and jour­nal­ists scram­bling for their dic­tio­nar­ies. It boasts over 100 bar­rels of cock­tails age­ing at any one time, in­clud­ing li­ba­tions like its sig­na­ture sol­era-aged ne­groni, Sin­ga­pore Sling, Corpse Re­viver and El Pres­i­dente.


As with all great de­vel­op­ments in food, the prac­tice of age­ing wines and spir­its was dis­cov­ered by ac­ci­dent while ship­ping wines in days of yore over long dis­tances. Stored in wooden oak bar­rels, they sat in the ship’s hold out of sun­light, but sub­ject to changes in tem­per­a­ture in the day then at night, in their long sea jour­ney. By the time they reached their des­ti­na­tion, the wines had changed, be­com­ing smoother and deeper in flavour, tak­ing on notes from the wood they were en­sconced in and mak­ing a much more de­light­ful drink. Sim­i­larly it hap­pened too with rum, which was stored on board ships as sup­plies for the sailors. The Vi­ta­min C in it kept scurvy at bay. A happy by-prod­uct was that the rum had changed into a smoother, more de­lec­ta­ble li­ba­tion over time.

Sim­i­larly, age­ing a cock­tail in­volves putting the con­coc­tion in wooden bar­rels to ma­ture and mel­low, and take on ex­tra flavours and char­ac­ter­is­tics over time. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, at the end of the age­ing process, the flavour pro­file of the cock­tail is “usu­ally more mel­low and bal­anced, but at the same time also more com­plex”, says Cedric Mendoza, the head bar­tender of Man­hat­tan.

“You are bring­ing out flavours when the spirit soaks in the tan­nins and nut­ti­ness of the wood. The end prod­uct usu­ally has a bal­anced fin­ish and gen­tler mouth­feel.” But it is a trick to bal­ance all the dif­fer­en­tials in this mar­riage, as the spir­its, wood, its treat­ment and a plethora of other fac­tors will af­fect the fi­nal out­come. This is where art and ex­pe­ri­ence come in.


“Dif­fer­ent bar­rels leave dif­fer­ent notes to the liq­uid, and every wood is dif­fer­ent from each other,” says Dario Knox, head mixol­o­gist from The Other Room. “A vir­gin Amer­i­can oak, for ex­am­ple, will leave beau­ti­ful vanilla notes to the liq­uid, while a French oak bar­rel will im­part spicy notes and darker flavours. From Ja­panese oak to Span­ish oak to other kinds of woods even, the com­bi­na­tions are end­less.” This mas­ter mixol­o­gist would know, as all the liquors and spir­its in his bar un­dergo a care­fully crafted age­ing process de­vel­oped by the man him­self. Whiskies, rums, bour­bons and cock­tails are all trans­formed into su­perex­clu­sive, lim­ited edi­tion li­ba­tions.

How the wood has been treated also makes a dif­fer­ence. Bar­rels which have been charred (tra­di­tion­ally, to dis­in­fect them) will lend an ad­di­tional layer of deeper, charred, caramel notes, for in­stance. Some bar­tenders also like to fin­ish the bar­rels with other liq­uids be­fore age­ing cock­tails or spir­its in them. At Man­hat­tan’s rick­house, the new Amer­i­can oak bar­rels they pre­fer are of­ten fin­ished with port, sherry, whisky, even espresso, to add yet an­other layer of flavour. That means fill­ing a bar­rel with any of th­ese and leav­ing it to soak for a week or two, be­fore pour­ing out the con­tents. (And in case you’re won­der­ing, the liq­uids used to fin­ish the bar­rels are used for other cock­tails, for they too, would have taken on an ex­tra di­men­sion with some time in the wood. Noth­ing is lost.)

Adds Knox: “On top of the ex­change of flavours from the wood to the liq­uid, the lo­ca­tion where the bar­rel is placed makes a dif­fer­ence too, con­sid­er­ing that the bar­rel is a breath­ing or­gan­ism and there­fore, it will get pen­e­trated by the air sur­round­ing the bar­rel, car­ry­ing notes of the en­vi­ron­ment. (Think about a bar­rel age­ing next to sea; io­dine notes will be present).”

As if all th­ese vari­ants are not enough of a jug­gle, Car­los re­minds us that the in­di­vid­ual bar­rel, too, changes with every batch of spir­its or cock­tails it ages. A new bar­rel im­parts its flavours and aro­mas onto the cock­tail very quickly, and within the first two weeks, Car­los says, the changes are re­mark­able. But given time, even those flavours are slowly leeched out of the bar­rels. Be­ing a por­ous thing, the bar­rel too changes, and af­fects each batch of cock­tail dif­fer­ently. On av­er­age, Man­hat­tan ages its cock­tails for about six weeks. Then he ges­tures to the shelves and shelves of 13.3 litre cus­tomised bar­rels around him in the rick­house and adds: “I can never tell ex­actly how each cock­tail or spirit will turn out af­ter age­ing in th­ese bar­rels, or ex­actly how long they need to be aged for. The only way to tell is to taste it and de­cide. They are dif­fer­ent every time.”


Not every spirit or al­co­holic delight ben­e­fits from time in the bar­rel. For Knox, the best cock­tails to ma­ture in bar­rels are “those with a higher ABV and very low con­cen­tra­tion of sug­ars”. Mendoza echoes the widely held prin­ci­ple that ver­mouths and sher­ries are good for the bar­rel. “Their acidic char­ac­ter­is­tics draw out flavour from the wood faster com­pared to less acidic in­gre­di­ents, which makes the Ne­groni a per­fect cock­tail to age in­side a bar­rel,” he says. Not sur­pris­ingly, the sig­na­ture cock­tail from the rick­house is its sol­era-aged ne­groni com­pris­ing St. Ge­orge dry rye gin, Ci­tadelle gin, Cam­pari, Man­cino Rosso Ver­mouth, Tem­pus Fugit Gran Clas­sico bit­ters.

Other cock­tails that go into the rick­house are Rob Roy, Man­hat­tan, Saz­erac and even its own ver­sion of the Sin­ga­pore Sling. Guest bar­tenders at Man­hat­tan also get to bar­rel age a cock­tail of their mak­ing, the re­sult of which is served up as aw­fully ex­clu­sive lim­ited edi­tions. At The Other Room, Knox’s wildest age­ing ex­per­i­ment in­volved age­ing a bar­rel un­der­wa­ter for over two months in sea­wa­ter. “The re­sult was a great io­dine note to a beau­ti­ful Re­posado Te­quila Martinez,” he says.

Be­yond cock­tails, Knox takes bar­rel age­ing a step fur­ther and cask fin­ishes an ex­ten­sive se­lec­tion of whiskies, bour­bons and rums in-house, us­ing old bar­rels that had once ma­tured other spir­its, wines and liqueurs. In fact, The Other Room is the only bar in the

world where, in his words, “all the prod­ucts go through a process of fin­ish­ing ....we are the only ones to cre­ate th­ese fin­ish­ings”. Wholly ex­clu­sive to the bar, this is the craft of age­ing at its most sub­lime.

Knox ex­plains how this works: “The first mat­u­ra­tion of a spirit in bar­rel re­quires sev­eral years ac­cord­ing to the end re­sult that the mas­ter dis­tiller has in mind. The sec­ond mat­u­ra­tion in bar­rel, or cask fin­ish­ing, re­quires shorter time frames as the ob­jec­tive is to only fin­ish the spirit and not to over­load it again with flavours. Usu­ally cask fin­ish­ing takes place in bar­rels that have pre­vi­ously stored a dif­fer­ent prod­uct within their walls such as wine, sherry, port, madeira, sauterne, just to name a few.” In th­ese used bar­rels, the ghosts of spir­its past ex­ert an in­flu­ence on the li­ba­tions now within them, which is ex­actly what the ex­perts want. Sherry and port casks im­bue a wine and raisin note, while bour­bon casks give an ex­tra layer vanilla and wood flavours.

Knox lists as must-tries: Di­plo­matico Reserva Ex­clu­siva Amon­til­lado Sherry Cask Fin­ished, Cadenhead Bruich­lad­dich 20 Di­plo­matico Reserva Ex­clu­siva Cask Fin­ished and Wood­ford Re­serve French Oak Fin­ished. But on the menu, there are over 50 aged rums and whiskies, never mind what other grand nec­tars can be found off menu. Read­ing it gives you an idea of the com­plex art of lay­er­ing and fin­ish­ing spir­its: Ben­ri­ach 20 brandy and peach li­quer cask fin­ished, Kavalan Ex Bour­bon Al­barino and Mosca­tel cask fin­ished... The list goes on.

Man­hat­tan’s sig­na­ture sol­era-aged ne­groni

Above The Other Room boasts one of the most ex­ten­sive age­ing and cask-fin­ish­ing pro­grammes in the world

Be­low The Other Room’s Punch cock­tail from its ‘se­cret’ menu. It con­tains an undis­closed aged spirit

Above Man­hat­tan in­tro­duced Sin­ga­pore to its first rick­house and sol­era sys­tem

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