Barrel Aged Cocktails – Really?

I was in a bar the other day, as is my want, and I felt the urge for a cocktail.

I happened to have picked this bar specially, not just because I know it does good drinks but more specifically because I knew a certain bartender was working there. This guy makes damn fine drinks, one of those talented ass hats who seem to be able to perfectly balance a drink every time, after presumably selling his sole or members of his family to the devil.

Anyway it was a bit of a trek and by the time I got there I was really looking forward to my hand-crafted cocktail, one made just for me with that care and attention that makes ordering a good drink the enjoyable experience it is. Then something happened, I didn’t see it coming, it blindsided me, left me at a loss for words and the conversation went something like this:

Him “Hello my good man, how are you today?”

It seems he had taken to talking, as well as dressing like, a 1920’s spiv but hey let’s not hold that against him, he is creating a persona, one that he hopes will get him extra tips from his loyal customers. I mean who wouldn’t tip a time travelling bartender?

Me “I’m very well thank you old boy but damned parched”

Hmmm it seems twat talk is infectious

Him “Well let’s get that fixed for you right away. Let me grab you our cocktail menu”

Me “Thanks, I’m pretty sure I know what I want but I’d love to have a look and maybe a beer whilst I do.”

After a little flick through the menu nothing took my fancy away from my original thought, sometimes you just have a hankering and today that hankering was strong I wanted a Rye Manhattan so I ordered one.

Me “Can I order a Rye Manhattan please?


Him “Certainly sir would you like…” I knew the question that was coming – sweet, dry or perfect, I had my answer ready to go “….our barrel aged Manhattan?”

Me “Sweet please….”

Both of us “What?”

Me “Did you ask me if I wanted a barrel aged Manhattan?”
Him “Yes sir it’s the latest trend in mixology”

Latest trend it may be but as a concept it has been around for more than 100 years and was re-introduced by Tony C ages ago but this wasn’t the time to open up that can of bartender one up-man-ship worms. I was thirsty I wanted a Manhattan.

Me “The Rye that you are going to use in my Manhattan, was that aged in barrels?”
Him “Yes I believe so.”
Me “Presumably by someone with decades of experience at his job who probably learnt his trade from his father. However you think you can do a better ageing job on his product?”
Him “Yes…. Well no. It’s the whole cocktail that’s aged it isn’t ‘better’ it’s just ‘different’”
Me “Ahhh I see so it is taking the Manhattan cocktail and making it taste different?”
Him “Yes, yes that’s it”

It appeared he was happy again now.

Me “Excellent. In that case can I have a Rye Manhattan, sweet please?”
Him “Ummm… Barrel aged?”
Me “Ohhhh for F@”*s sake…..”

My beef isn’t with this bartender (hence me not naming him) and for the record the Manhattan he MADE me was awesome. My beef is with this barrel aged cocktail thing. In this industry we seem to have become obsessed with the notion that the longer something is aged the better it is.

Balls! For a start I (and I am willing to bet most of you if you’re honest with yourselves) almost always prefer the mid aged rum in a range over the excessively aged product. A product should be aged the right amount of time not the longest and as with most things in the world we all have different opinions on what that right amount of time is per product. Some may prefer the Glenfiddich 12 over it’s equally well loved and expertly made brother the Glenfiddich 18.

Mmmmm yes please....

It is this that makes ordering a cocktail so much fun and more importantly so personal and individual. Two people may come into your bar, let’s make them twins, let’s make them Swedish, let’s make them leggy and blonde and….. okay too much detail.

Two people come into your bar, both the same age, same job, same taste in music and films, same desire for a drink, they both order an Old Fashioned one prefers it with Makers and the other with Four Roses are either of them wrong? Well yes actually, they both are, it should be Woodford Reserve but still it is their choice, their right to choose the bourbon they prefer.

Barrel Aged Cocktails take that choice away from them. Barrel Aged cocktails give that choice to a bartender who has never met them and who probably isn’t the person serving them in the bar.

Part of the joy of having a cocktail in a top bar is having it made freshly for you, by a human, using his or her skill and ability to adjust it slightly to suit each individual customers preference.

There are two categories when it comes to aged cocktails – barrel aged and bottle aged. First up let’s get this out of the way… bottle aged cocktails are RTD’s, fuck off and move on.

Barrel aged cocktails however make a little more sense, the time spent in these barrels will alter the taste slightly with oxidation and extraction (although how much of this goes on in a short period of time in a barrel which probably last had a spirit in it in weeks if not months ago I question).

I am not arguing that they change the taste of the cocktail slightly and I am sure that some people prefer it like that but this is surely not the point. What happened to the craft of the bartender? One person makes the mix up and puts it in a barrel, that takes away the individuality of the drink. Of course a great bar should look for consistency in its drinks no matter who is serving you but there is also the little something different that each bartender brings to the drink that makes the experience fun and unique.

People will argue that Barrel Aged Cocktails are fun and unique as well, and yes right now they are because they are new and still reasonably rare. My worry with this is the fact that the cocktail itself is 100% responsible for this and the bartender 0% – that is a scary world as far as I am concerned.

Sure bars only have a few of these drinks on their lists at the moment but let’s allow our minds to go wild for a second and imagine that some bar owners are only in the business to make money (I know, I know a crazy concept but bear with me). A greedy bar owner must be loving the thought of this Barrel Aged Cocktail trend really taking off, let’s imagine a series of bars only serving Barrel Aged Cocktails…

Only one really talented and therefore expensive bartender to employ to make up the cocktails to put in the barrels, the rest can be service staff and therefore cheap. The products are all pre-made meaning, except for a little bit of fresh fruit for garnish, waste will be almost non-existent, meaning less costs.

The drinks can be made in bulk and shipped off to the various venues which means massive cost savings. Oh and let’s not forget people charge extra for Barrel Aged Cocktails so extra money there too. A millionaire is born. Another MacDonalds or Wetherspoons enters the high streets.

Across the country, bars shut, bartenders struggle to find work, suddenly the street corners are full of people with signs saying ‘Will Flair for Cash’ and Big Issue sellers hold out small silver trays.  Our wonderful industry starts to crumble and whose fault is it? Yours, yours for offering me that fucking Barrel Aged Manhattan you fuck stick….

Okay that might be a little extreme, but not beyond the relms of possibility after all if you look back to when ageing cocktails first began a decade or so ago it was done to help speed up service and keep consistence, basically to create a service bar, basically to create the above concept.

Experimentation is fun and new trends are what has kept this industry so damn interesting over the years but let’s not get carried away. Barrel Aged Cocktails do nothing for me but then neither does Jake Gyllenhaal and I believe he is surprisingly popular too, but let’s make sure they are additions to a bars offering and don’t take away from the main attraction in the best venues – the staff that work there.