What happens when you take a gin drink (like a Martinez: gin, maraschino liqueur, sweet vermouth, and bitters) and let it sit in a bourbon barrel for eight weeks? You get a superior version of the drink you started with, that’s what. As bartenders in Boston, San Francisco, New York, Portland, and Chicago have recently discovered, letting a gin-based cocktail sit for a bit in a used, charred-oak barrel does something to round out and soften the flavors of the ingredients. Why gin? As Boston’s Temple Bar ‘tender Hugh Reynolds explains, "Gin is one of the few spirits with botanicals powerful enough to stand up to the char and whiskey characteristics of the barrels."
He further explains that aging whiskey in whiskey barrels is redundant, and trying to age vodka in there would be "futile, as it would result in a spirit that very closely resembles whiskey." Temple Bar debuted their aged Negronis over the weekend.
Portland bar star and cocktail blogger Jeff Morgenthaler launched the trend Stateside, inspired by London bartender Tony Conigliaro, who was aging drinks in glass bottles for upwards of a year. Morgenthaler decided to try this out with a Manhattan at his bar Clyde Common, pouring it into an oak cask used for aging Madeira. The results were good enough that he ordered some bourbon barrels from Tuthilltown Distillery in New York, and tried aging a Negroni. "The sweet vermouth so slightly oxidized, the color paler and rosier than the original, the mid-palate softly mingled with whiskey, the finish long and lingering with oak tannins," he writes. "We knew we were on to something." The Times agreed and wrote up Morgenthaler’s experiment in their T magazine in June.
Summit Bar on the Lower East Side in New York was the first out of the gate there with an aged Negroni variation called Lions in London ($16), and after a leaky cask set them back, Dram in Williamsburg is set to unveil an aged Martinez shortly.
In San Francisco, Blackbird bartender Brent Butler also took the cue, buying four barrels from Tuthilltown over the summer and starting to age Martinezes as well as a drink created by Morgenthaler, the Norwegian Wood (aquavit, Apple Jack, sweet vermouth, yellow Chartreuse, bitters). The results have been extremely popular with Blackbird’s clientele, who spend the extra $2 (the barrel-aged drinks are $10, versus the usual cocktail price of $8) for something extra delicious. "We’ve had people come in and order one regular Martinez and one barrel-aged one side by side," says Blackbird owner Shawn Vergara. "And they always say they can really taste the difference. It has some subtle woody notes." Adds Butler: "It’s like all the ingredients meld into one ingredient in the barrel."
Blackbird is quickly running out of their current batch of barrel-aged Martinezes, and all the batches have sold out fast. Vergara promises some new varieties when the bar’s drink menu updates again in the next month or so.