It’s been a long time since 2010, when famed cocktail personality Jeffrey Morganthaler won big with his Barrel-Aged Negroni and kicked off a trend that would lead to barrel-aging anything and everything — not just whiskey, but also beer and coffee beans and even maple syrup. And after a few years of such barrel-aged excess, things have started to calm down. But barrel-aged cocktails, it seems are going to stick around.
In fact, some spots, like the Biltmore area’s The Parlor, are barrel-aging with greater enthusiasm than ever before. The restaurant's cocktail menu features not one barrel-aged cocktail, but three. When one runs out, a new one is there to take its place, often all the better for having waited for its turn in the spotlight.
The star of the current menu is a play on the classic Aviation cocktail, called El Vuelo. And if you know anything about an Aviation, a drink that calls for nearly an ounce of fresh lemon juice, then you already know it's a funny choice for aging. Furthermore, the Aviation cocktail sings of blue skies and citrus summertime, so why would you want to hide it in a dark, charcoal-lined barrel? To make it work, some finagling was in order, and Michael Allmandinger, the Parlor's cocktail guru, had a plan.
“What if we did a Southwestern version?” he asked himself. Mezcal, the increasingly less obscure but very smoky cousin of tequila, would take the place of gin. Instead of fresh lemon juice, Fee Brothers lemon bitters were employed, and instead of tart cherry flavors from the Luxardo liqueur, he chose St. George’s Spiced Pear liqueur for its wintery profile. Along with Gifford-Brand Crème de Violette, the drink was mixed and lumped into charred barrels.
Inside the wooden walls, the high-proof concoction absorbed the byproducts of burnt lignin, a polymer found in wood that releases sugars and vanillin, the molecule predominantly found in vanilla. So that’s what you’ll get barrel-aging: some deep, dark flavors associated with smoke and vanilla. These play wonderfully well with pear and smoky mezcal, lifted by lemon bitters and balanced by a floral creme de violette. The result is beautiful winter Aviation.
"On this second run of barrel-aged cocktails, we're getting more out of the box," Allmandinger says. "We wanted them to be really tasty but also throw some people off at the same time."
It makes sense that Allmandinger’s other two barrel-aged cocktails, a seasonally appropriate Winter Manhattan and Boulevardier (a bourbon, not gin, negroni), were chosen to feature. In the Manhattan, Allmandinger goes for rum as the star liquor, the molasses qualities of which seem primed for barrel-aging, complemented by allspice dram, Disorono, Sweet Vermouth, and pumpkin bitters.
We can’t guarantee the lifespan of these drinks. Since these cocktails are produced in small batches, the faster people drink them, the faster they’re gone forever — until the next batch of something different and, we hope, equally delicious.