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The Promiscuous Barrel

By Roger Kamholz in Food on Jan 18, 2011 8:20PM

2011_1_barrel_manh_small.jpgWinemakers, distillers and brewers have been aging their handiwork in barrels for centuries. It does magical things. Seeing an opportunity to experiment, bartenders have recently adopted the practice, too, aging cocktails in large batches using barrels obtained second-hand from distilleries. Hearing that a barrel-aged Manhattan recently appeared on The Violet Hour's menu, we paid a visit to taste what all the fuss is about.

The Manhattan recipe TVH used included Weller 107 Bourbon, Punt e Mes Italian Vermouth and Angostura bitters. The ingredients were mixed and barrel-aged for eight weeks. Interestingly, TVH's barrel was actually obtained third-hand; originally used at the Four Roses Bourbon distillery, the barrel then took up residence at Goose Island Brewery, where it was used to age its lustrous Bourbon Country Stout. To complete the drink at the bar, they add Cocchi Americano, the herbal aperitif made from white wine, to the aged ingredients and garnish with a orange peel. The result is an awfully good cocktail: the barrel-aging process deepens the flavors overall - especially the bitter component, which here goes further to complement the sweetness of the Vermouth. The drink also seems richer and fuller-bodied - like two Manhattans in one. (As it happens, barrel-aging isn't TVH's only foray into timeworn practices lately; the bartenders recently started blogging and serving bowls of punch.)

The Violet Hour isn't the only bar in Chicago with barrels in the back room. Grant Achatz and Craig Schoettler seem to be amassing a stockpile of aged cocktails for the forthcoming Aviary. Benjamin Schiller, BOKA Restaurant Group's head bartender, is also aging Manhattans to serve as a flight (one, two and three months old) at Girl & the Goat. We expect Schiller has more barrel-aged cocktails up his sleeve, too; he recently noted on Facebook that he's in the market for Port and Sherry casks. The only flaw with these aged cocktails, of course, is that we have to somehow wait patiently for them to be ready to drink.

The Violet Hour is located at 1520 North Damen Avenue.