The Best way to Add Speed and Consistency to your Cocktail Program

| Eli Shapiro | Team Articles

I have been in the hospitality industry for over a dozen years.  My first job ever was at the age of 14 making pizzas.  I liked making pizza, I liked making people happy.  Little did I know that I would be a lifer or a hospitality career professional.  I always considered my "start" at the hospitality profession many years later when I started working part time in bars as a doorguy.  I quickly realized that making people happy made me happy.  The transition from full time desk jockey to hospitality was not as smooth as I would have liked it, but it made me adapt and become better.  

I was a solid door guy, the friendly face that welcomed guests in, and also the dickhead to tell you to gtfoh at the end of the night.  Working the door was fine, but I wanted more.  I was good with people, so they gave me a shot at becoming a bartender.  I wasn't good, or didn't know drinks, or how to make them, but I cared, I wanted to learn, I wanted to get better.  I excelled at trying hard, and that made other people care about teaching me.  I learned from hundreds-thousands of the best in the industry.  

I have worked in over 20 different bars, nightclubs, restaurants, music venues, and cocktail lounges all over New England and New York.  Most of my experience has been behind the bar as either a barback, bartender, or bar manager.  I have won many cocktail competitions, lost more, and learned from some straight up legends.  I have traveled to distilleries around the world to learn about spirits: Ireland, Mexico, Kentucky, Tennessee, to name a few.  

At this point, some may consider me a bonafide expert, but I have a never ending thirst for knowledge and improvement.  This quest for knowledge and experimentation is what led me to the concept of barrel-aged cocktails.

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What are Barrel-Aged Cocktails?

Barrel-aged cocktails are fully batched, meaning all of the ingredients in the recipe are measured and poured and aged in a barrel.  

Why Barrel-AgedCocktails?

I was inspired by whiskey.  Bourbon to be specific.  Bourbon is a corn based distillate that comes out of the still clear in appearance--the same look as water (a still is an apparatus used to distill liquid mixtures by heating to selectively boil and then cool to condense vapor).  In bourbon, only water can be added to the liquid that has been aging in the barrels.  More specifically, all of the color, and much of the flavor of bourbon comes from the wood in which it is aged in (think vanilla, caramel).  I wanted to build off this principle and utilized it for this barrel-aged cocktail process.

The Benefits

If you think about bourbon, it goes into the barrels clear from the stills.  It is literally as clear as water before it goes into new american oak barrels.  Most of the magic, the flavor, and ALL of the color occurs from that toasted or charred wood.  When an entire cocktail enters the barrel, it mellows out, adds color, flavor, and MOST IMPORTANTLY adds value.  

I absolutely love how much time it saves.  Instead of the bartender measuring out 2 parts bourbon, 1 part sweet vermouth, 1/2 part dry vermouth, 1/2 part amaro, 2 dashes angostura bitters, 4 dashes rhubarb bitters (even the fastest bartender in the world couldn't accomplish this in under 10 seconds), the bartender merely measures out 3 oz of pre-batched liquid and stirs it with ice and served.  The time it takes to measure out 5 ingredients is more time than it takes to measure one ingredient, so the barrel is really reducing five steps to one.

What’s the deal with barrels?  Why do they matter?

Prior to filling the barrels, they need to be proofed (barrels are made from staves {individual pieces of wood} without any adhesive).  Barrels need to be soaked in water to swell the wood up so that it remains air tight.  A barrel is filled with a specific cocktail (approximately 19 liters)  All barrel-aged cocktails are purely spirit based (no juices, no product that can spoil).  After at least a month of aging, some liquid is removed and put into cheater bottles to keep on display or behind the bar.  All barrel-aged cocktails utilize the solera concept, meaning that when liquid is removed from the barrels (to be bottled), new liquid is filled on top, mixing with the aged liquid that remains inside the barrel.   

There are many different kinds of wood that barrels are made from.  Bourbon, for example, has to be aged in New American Oak that has been charred or toasted on the inside.  The more toasted/charred the barrel, the faster and more drastic the changes occur in the liquid.  Cognac for example has to be aged in limousin oak.  The liquid is influenced by the type of wood and the time it is spent in it.  The longer the liquid spends in the barrel, the more color and flavor come out.  If using a previously used barrel, it will incorporate that influence (for example if we aged a cocktail or spirit in a used tequila barrel, it will taste more like tequila).  Spirits are sometimes finished in a sherry cask that brings some sweetness and balance into the flavor, so why not do it for cocktails as well?

“Best Practices” to the Process

Label & date.  I like to write out all ingredients and measurements on the barrel to avoid confusion.  You also want to know how long the liquid has been aging in that barrel.  

Utilize the solera style system.  Basically what that means is removing some of the aged liquid and adding new (unaged liquid/batched cocktails) liquid on top.  When the bar would pour these barrel-aged cocktails, they wouldn’t run over to the barrels on the display wall and pour it from the spigot into the mixing glass every time a barrel aged cocktail was ordered--that would be slow and inefficient.  Prior to shift, they would fill at least 6 “cheater” bottles behind the bar for easy access, and newly batched unaged cocktails would be added into the barrel and mix with the currently aging liquid.

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What’s the impact on beverage cost?

By batching cocktails in large format it reduces the risk of human error when making the cocktails and generally allows for a more fixed beverage cost.

How many different flavors?

I’ve used at least 15 different barrel-aged cocktails.  The best sellers would be:  Manhattan, Negroni, Boulevardier, Mr. Perfect, Vieux Carré.  

In theory, you can barrel-age just about anything.

Is there any noticeable benefit from the guest side that they would want to order, for example, a barrel-aged Manhattan over a regular Manhattan? Are there flavor pros and cons for some of those classics people are used to?

When using new american oak there are lots of vanilla and caramel flavors that come from the charred wood.  Different barrels(wood) have a different flavor profile and add different flavors and colors.  Whereas sometimes the guests will exclaim it's the best Manhattan or Negroni they've ever had because the time the liquid has to mellow out in the barrel and really blend together in balance.  

However, if guests have a certain preference or brand loyalty to a specific spirit, it may cause them to opt for the non barrel-aged version.

Barrel-aged cocktails are a good way to increase efficiency, consistency, and value.  For doing large scale high end cocktails, it is a no-brainer and should be implemented at any bar.  

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