One of the biggest problems I have when it comes to making cocktails is, uhh, making them. Cocktails, even simple ones, are a pain in the ass; they require things like multiple ingredients, garnishes, measuring implements, and of course when pouring whiskey or lime juice out of whatever bottle you inevitably break the meniscus curve on the jigger and wind up with a very sticky kitchen counter. One of the main things I miss about bars is just the ability to pay someone else to make that mess for me. If I’m drinking at home, I’d prefer to stick to the simplicity of wine.
But I do love a good cocktail, and aside from getting them to-go from my favorite local bars, I’ve had to figure out how to make them on my own. And I’ve found the best bet for both ease and giving my future, lazy self a gift, is aging them. It’s all the ease of punch, without having to drink a whole bowl at once and make yourself very ill.
Things like barrel-aged cocktails have been a lure at cocktail bars for a while, with most people tracing their popularity back to Portland’s Clyde Common. But aging cocktails, no matter the vessel, has been a tradition for hundreds of years. One of the most traditionally aged cocktails is also seasonally appropriate: eggnog. Nicholas Bennett, beverage director at NYC bar Porchlight, says he always has a batch of aged eggnog in his fridge, and has experimented with aging the drink for up to three years (you can learn more about that in this video he made about it, complete with puppets). “What ends up happening is the eggs, all the proteins and protein strands in the eggs kind of break down in the alcohol, so you get this much more enjoyable, softer, just easy to drink flavor,” he says.
Bennett notes that scientists agree aged eggnog is safe, even safer than eggnog made with fresh eggs. But even if nog isn’t your thing, Bennett says nearly any cocktail can be aged. You just need the right equipment. Cocktails like eggnog or which have ingredients like sugar or citrus require a sterile, airtight glass or plastic container, and need to be stored in a fridge. But for aging something like a Manhattan, a Martini, or another high-proof cocktail, you’ll want a wooden barrel, which can be found at plenty of bar supply stores, and can just leave on your counter or bar. “You’ll get to see an interaction between the spirits and the liquid and the wood and the sugars and flavor from the wood over a very short amount of time,” says Bennett.
Some of the most popular barrel-aged cocktails have been high-proof, because the sugars in the wood help mellow some of the bitterness and bite a cup full of liquor can deliver. But aging isn’t just for things like Negronis. Sother Teague of Amor y Amargo has long experimented with aged sours, and says that sherry-based cocktails like an Adonis or a Bamboo might age well too. However, Bennett says that whatever you’re making, this isn’t the place to use up that cheap rum you don’t really like sitting at the back of your bar. “If I was going to age some whiskey that I genuinely don’t enjoy drinking right at the beginning, I’m probably not going to really enjoy it quite as much,” he says. If aging enhances the natural flavors of liquor, you probably have to enjoy those natural flavors first.
Part of the joy of aging cocktails is tasting the change over time. You can make yourself a Manhattan the night you put a batch in the barrel, and try it three weeks later, and then again in six weeks, to see how you like it. It’s a fun little project for all those months the sun decides to go away in the middle of the workday! But the biggest joy is giving yourself a gift for the future. Today I may have energy, but because of the behavior of the aforementioned sun, it is likely that in the coming weeks I will not. At that time, I will be glad that, a few days ago, I dumped a bunch of whiskey, vermouth and bitters into a barrel and that it’s ready to drink whenever I want. And that it might be better than anything I’d make fresh.