On the list of things benefitting from time in a barrel--wine, whiskey, pantless cartoon prospectors--hand-crafted cocktails have traditionally been absent.
But with the help of mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler at Portland, Ore.'s Clyde Common, barrel-aged cocktails have swept spirit menus from coast to coast. In fact, the National Restaurant Association named on-site barrel-aged drinks as one of the top 10 trends in drinks and cocktails for 2013.
"We started our barrel-aging program almost a year and a half ago," explained Mai Thai head bartender Michael Reed. "Usually, we've got one in service and one that's going to take it's place, that way we've always got something to offer on our menu."
To make a barrel-aged drink, Mai Thai bar staff mix a large batch of one of their signature cocktails--like The Moonraker, with Leopold Bros. Georgia peach whiskey, cognac, Cocchi Americano and absinthe--and then pour the boozy brew into a 5-liter new American oak barrel to age.
"One of the advantages of doing barrel programs is that you can make it regular and consistent, and you can take a product that is a little bit harsh and you can give it that extra nurture in the barrel and its going to round out," said Reed.
Alavita, the recently opened Italian concept from Fork owner Cameron Lumsden, also boasts barrel-aged cocktails on its menu.
"We were just looking for something to separate us, set us apart from other cocktail programs," said Lumsden. "And we think what's great about the barrel-aged cocktail program is the fact that it's a very consistent drink."
Alavita, which has close to a dozen 3- and 5-gallon toasted-oak whiskey barrels, currently features four barrel-aged cocktails on its menu: a Negroni, a Manhattan, the Rock 'n' Rye and a house cocktail called Alavita, which uses Crater Lake gin, St. Germain, sweet vermouth and bitters.
In Lumsden's opinion, barrel-aging spirits for six to seven weeks helps to soften their harsh, boozy notes and adds a friendly vanilla tone to the drinks.
"What it does is, it exposes people to maybe different kinds of cocktails that they wouldn't normally order," said Lumsden.
For Reed, barrel-aging drinks is a way to expedite the often labor-intensive process of making craft cocktails.
"It takes longer to get drinks out because technique is more important in how we do it. ... If you can figure out ways in which certain cocktails are already batched and prepped, then you can produce a really nice product that doesn't take as long because you've done most of the work already," said Reed.