Any visitor to West Main Crafting Co. has seen the Barrel-Aged section of our cocktail menu. A staple for eight volumes now, the barrel-aged cocktails can sometimes fly under the radar unless one is giving the book a good read. This is partly because our barrel-aged cocktails are a little more familiar—a Manhattan and Negroni have long been featured in this section, only recently joined by a Chrysanthemum and a Sanctuary—and people often get distracted by what they see as more exciting seasonal cocktails. But the testing and delicacy of these cocktails is extreme, matched only by the extraordinary flavors they develop.
Our Beverage Director, Jake Sulek explains: “With barrel-aging, we’re trying to achieve at least one of two goals: ‘aging’ in the traditional sense—joining the cocktail’s flavors with barrel flavors—and oxidizing them. The basics of barrel-aging are fairly common knowledge here in the bluegrass, but for those elsewhere: we are looking to extract wood sugars from the charred, 10l barrels we use, to contribute classic notes of caramel, toffee, and vanilla to the cocktail. Of course, the supply of these compounds in the barrel is finite, and each batch’s time in the barrel is adjusted for how many times we’ve used that barrel.
“Oxidation has a bad connotation for hobbyists. After all, your leftover wine from last weekend oxidizes and turns into gross vinegar. However, the chemical process behind oxidation creates flavors just as distinct and wonderful as barrel flavors. Since the cocktails we barrel-age include wine-based ingredients, we are counting on the oxidation of those elements to create earthy, nutty, and grassy flavors.
“Too often, I see bars and restaurants with tiny barrels poised on the backbar. I often suspect these ‘barrel-aged’ programs are a gimmick: people pour ingredients into a tired barrel and pour them out whenever needed.” Jake and I recall a bar from our last trip to Vegas guilty of this exact strategy—one of our favorite bars there, by a long shot, but more because the bartender was awesome than because their barrel program. “But there is a science behind barrel-aged cocktails, if you have the patience and resources to study and test it. Of course, it needs to be said that neither I nor anyone else would be talking about this if not for Tony Conigliaro and Jeffrey Morganthaler, who deserve all the credit for pioneering barrel- and cellar-aged cocktails.”
In our first year, we decided to run some long-term tests on the aging program and cellar several bottles of aged cocktails from Volume 1. “These tests were wildly instructive,” says Jake, “helping me dial in how different ingredients act and interact over extended periods. Many believe cellared cocktails are a done deal going into the aging period, during which they simply die and become boring. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
At West Main, we’ve found cellared cocktails to be living things, sometimes needing adjustment in advance based on the longevity of ingredients, or the flavors they ultimately reveal. Sometimes they need adjustment after the aging, making small corrections to help boost or massage different dynamics. But after three years of tastings, we’re confident and thrilled to release our first vintage cocktails from Volume 1, a 2.5-year old Manhattan and a 3-year old Turf Club.
This release of our Cellar-aged Manhattan started life in early 2018 as our standard Barrel-Aged Manhattan, inspired by The Only William’s 1892 recipe, with Kentucky rye whiskey, Cocchi di Torino, maraschino liqueur, absinthe, and our house monk bitters (inspired by the OG Abbot’s). Originally part of the barrel program, this cocktail was barrel-aged 6 weeks before being cellared. Right now this 2.5-year cocktail is showing rich notes of chocolate-covered blackberries and toasted hazelnuts.
The 2017 Turf Club is really a true Golden Age classic, built with Old Tom gin, Cocchi di Torino, maraschino liqueur, absinthe, and our bogart bitters (inspired by the OG Boker’s). Right now, this vintage is a creamy combination of gin and vermouth, with subtle notes of licorice root, clover honey, and bubble gum. Honestly it is a transcendent, unique creation we’re supremely proud of and can’t wait to share with people.
Obviously these products aren’t here to stay, though other vintages will be released in the future. We’re uncorking two bottles of these vintage cocktails for Breeder’s Cup, 2020.