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Making room at the bar

The competition at the bar continues to heat up. Often that translates into a larger and more eclectic inventory—and a larger footprint.

To make room for some spirituous projects, Big Jones in Chicago recently expanded its bar, creating a more open feel. “We have a new bitters and tinctures program and we needed more shelves,” says bar manager David Devaney. More space was needed for barrel-aging cocktails, too. Plus, the restaurant, which specializes in Southern cooking, already had an impressive Bourbon collection but wanted to amp up its whiskey offerings.

Devaney has been busy concocting an array of exotic bitters and tinctures from roots, herbs, berries and fruits. “Big Jones is a sustainable, green-certified restaurant, so we use local products whenever possible,” he says. So far the bitters line-up includes cocoa nib, allspice, orange, three-pepper, eucalyptus and elderflower, as well as rose hip and chicory. He’s also compounded blood orange and roasted corn tinctures. These high-alcohol flavor extractions top drinks off aromatically and tie ingredients together.

Packing a punch

Big Jones has built a reputation with punches based on historic recipes, like the St. Charles Punch (ca. 1900), a mixture of brandy, rum, Port and Curaçao. The potent punches seemed a natural for barrel aging. Devaney uses a three-gallon barrel to maximize wood contact; the charred American oak adds vanilla notes as cocktails age. First shot in the barrel went to American Orange Punch (ca. 1829), the lubricant of an inauguration party for Andrew Jackson, according to menu copy. Brandy, rum, Curaçao and oleo-saccharum (a sugar-orange peel mixture) mature in cask. It’s served from the barrel, finished with Edmund Fitzgerald Great Lakes Porter and garnished with seasonal fruit.

DIY barrel aging

Thinking about getting into barrel aging your own cocktails? The procedure isn’t too expensive or complicated, but done correctly yields a smoother, more complex drink. The concept was championed in this country by Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon, and has been embraced by bartenders around the country. Here’s how to get started.

Choose a cocktail

Stirred drinks work best, those employing just spirits, liqueurs and bitters. Negronis and Manhattans are popular choices for aging. Fresh ingredients used in shaken cocktails tend to fade or spoil during their time in wood. Juices and other components can always be used to finish a drink at the time of service.

Source and prepare the barrel 

Barrels come in all sizes; a 2- to 5-gallon size works best for this project. You may be able to purchase used barrels from local micro-distilleries; new barrels can be obtained from online suppliers. Used barrels are less aggressive in terms of oak flavors; charring the inside adds color and complexity to the final product. Before use, fill the barrel with clean water and let it soak for a couple of days; this swells the wood and tightens the seams so it won’t leak.

Mix and fill 

Figure out the amount needed for your barrel and scale up your recipe. Mix well in a large container for thorough distribution of the ingredients, and taste to determine if the proportions are correct. Funnel through the bung hole into the barrel and stop up with the bung.

Wait 

Let the wood do its mellowing magic. Alcohol extracts color from the char and vanillin flavors from the oak. Sugars from the wood tame acidity; oxidation adds complexity. Residual liquid from the barrel’s previous occupant may also find its way into the mix. Taste weekly to determine progress; maturation time depends upon the ingredients and size of the barrel.

Serve

Dispense directly from the barrel or decant the liquid into clean bottles. Stir with ice, strain into appropriate glassware and garnish.

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