THE ART OF AGEING
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.
SO WHAT IS AGEING?
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