See those barrels sitting to the right of Cannova’s Pizzaria bartender, Alan Kolbeck? They’re more than just countertop decorations. Each is the canister for a unique mixture, a combination of professional drink mixing expertise and old fashioned brew-mastery Kolbeck calls barrel aged cocktails.
J: Let’s first talk about what the idea behind all this is and tell me a little bit about how all of it works.
Kolbeck: I got into the barrel aged cocktails and researching it really a couple years ago when I ran across an article online about a bartender out in Portland; Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who does this, who kind of introduced it to the United States. And after playing with some recipes and trying it at home for personal use I talked to Debbie Rasmus, owner of Cannova’s, about us introducing it to our customers. So this past fall I started introducing kind of a modern twist on an Old Fashioned, using bourbon and other high end liqueur spirits to pre-mix everything and age it in an oak barrel, a charred oak barrel that has not been used.
So that’s going to be our first one, and then I’ve created a second cocktail, we’ll call Palo de Mayo. And that’s going to be based on Nicaraguan rum, and it’s going to have other spirits in it: citrus and some Benedictine and vermouth and it’s going to have very intense, somewhat sensual flavors to it.
J: These barrels that you have, they don’t look like full size barrels, but they’re what kind of wood?
Kolbeck: They’re white oak and charred on the interior. And when you come to a liking with your mix, you pour the mix into the oak barrels. And the char and the oak will help marry all the flavors together, and it’ll also impart the flavors of the smoke from the char and the vanilla from the oak.
And you just get these really terrific complexities of the flavors.
J: Now the barrels themselves, where do you get them?Kolbeck: I get these from a company in Texas. There are several companies across the country where you can order wooden barrels, and they range from 1.3 gallons [to] upwards of, I guess 15 gallons. That’s what they’ll sell for consumers.
J: So what happens is that you’ve been experimenting with a concoction inside these oak barrels and at the end you taste them and test them to see exactly how it tastes.
Kolbeck: The [first] one that’s like a modern twist on the Old Fashioned, which we will call The Modern; that one I put in the barrels six weeks ago, and every week, every Monday I try it. Over the course of time you can taste the change and even smell the change in it, in the concoction. And I have a sample of it also, where it hasn’t aged in the oak barrels. It’s the same blend, but it hasn’t been in an oak barrel, just so I could compare the two. And it’s really amazing how the oak and the char blend everything together nicely.
J: Now what’ll happen is patrons of Cannova’s, they’ll come in, order this Modern, and The Modern will range in price, similar to, maybe more than a regular cocktail?
Kolbeck: Because they’re higher end liqueurs, the spirits that are going into it, and the time involved, and the cost of the barrel, they’ll run about the same price as a martini. And it’ll be the same serving. It’ll be a drink that you can either order on the rocks or chilled in a martini glass. And on the rocks it’ll come with a ball ice cube; one large ice cube so it doesn’t dilute it too fast. And there’ll be no muddling of cherries or oranges. All the flavors that you need will be in there. It will come with a cherry and an orange fruit as a side, on a stick.
J: Now the first one that you’ve decided to make, The Modern, could you describe it again?
Kolbeck: That’s a modern twist on the Old Fashioned, and it’s bourbon based, not a brandy, and it has an Italian vermouth in it called Antica Sweet vermouth. It has Benedictine to add a little spice. That is going to be a warming effect you are going to get. It has Solerno, which is a blood orange liqueur. It comes from Italy. And [there is] a little bit of Chambord for cherry and then Bitters.
J: Were you able to find all of these mixes from your local vendor?
Kolbeck: Yeah, being here at a bar we were able to get them from a local distributor. But a place such as Club Liquor does sell everything you would need to do something very similar to this at home.
J: And then when you put it together, how did you know the recipe? Did you just experiment with it yourself? Or is it something that you-
Kolbeck: It really was. You take the size of your barrel, and you take what you pour in a glass, and you sort of mix it at a very small portion first so you don’t have the waste, and then you have to multiply that four-ounce serving, once it’s poured over ice. You have to measure that to equate to 1.3 gallons. So I sat here on a Sunday, with customers when we opened for business. And I put the barrel up on top of the bar to intrigue them. And I just started pouring ingredients into the concoction, kind of knowing where I needed to go. But I wanted them to be part of, “yes, this is a good blend.” There were, I believe, nine customers at the bar, and I poured in all the bourbon, then I started adding the orange and the Benedictine [and] the vermouth. And once we hit a flavor that we all really enjoyed I stopped mixing, and we poured it into the barrel and sealed it.
J: Now when it’s in the barrel does it actually continue to become stronger?
Kolbeck: Not necessarily stronger. There’s an oxidization process that happens during this period, and it’s very miniscule. But you know wood does have pores, so there’s evaporation. I think they call it the devil’s cut or the angel’s cut.
It doesn’t necessarily get stronger in alcohol. Everything balances out. The flavors just marry. If you tasted the stuff that wasn’t aged in the oak barrel, it would be harsher. You would taste the liquor, that kind of burning sensation that bourbon would give you or any other hard liquor. This here, it’s very smooth. Everything, it’s just like it’s all wrapped around each other.
J: Now no one else in the area does this, not that I know of.
Kolbeck: Not that I know of. I’ve been to a lot of establishments, and I haven’t seen it anywhere locally. There’s a place in Milwaukee that does it, and I believe that’s the closest.
J: I’ve seen, maybe at some Mexican Restaurants they’ll have a concoction that they made with different fruits mixed with tequila, right? But nobody else is doing something similar to this.
Kolbeck: No one else is doing this. We do infuse vodkas here. We have a coffee, a vanilla and a ginger vodka we infuse for mixed cocktails. [One place] does infuse tequilas. Other places are doing infused drinks, but it’s a lot different. This isn’t just infusion, it goes above and beyond that.
J: It’s also aged.
Kolbeck: Yes, it’s also aged, correct, yes.
J: Now go into the second one that you’re doing.
Kolbeck: The second one is going to be called Polo de Mayo. And it’s a seven-year-old Nicaraguan rum, kind of a golden color, very nice flavor on its own. And that’s been mixed with an orange liqueur, Benedictine, again, Antica Sweet vermouth. The Polo de Mayo is a festival in Nicaragua that happens every May. And it translates as maypole. And it’s a very sensual and intense festival for the Nicaraguans, and this drink was sort of made to have that intensity to it, with the amount of rum that’s in it and the strength of the Benedictine. And I think the sensuousness is also coming from the citrus flavors, the vanilla and the smoky flavors.
J: Now this event that happens in Nicaragua, that’s primarily a rum [drinking] community?
Kolbeck: Many of the Caribbean countries are obviously very rum based consumers.
J: So this recipe is kind of where you kept that in mind, put it into the oak barrels, and tried to figure out, “how does this taste at the end?”
Kolbeck: Correct. And again, this was on a Sunday, and I really enjoy getting the customers’ thumbs up or thumbs down as we’re mixing it. And there was maybe a half dozen of us there that night. And I’m mixing it until we all say, “yeah, this is a really nice mix”. Everyone really enjoyed it, and that’s when we again barreled it and sealed it. That’s been now, three weeks on this one, and it’s married extremely well.
J: And is there a third one that’s coming?
Kolbeck: The third one [is] called Vieux Carré, which is named after the French Quarter in New Orleans. It’s a New Orleans drink from the 1930’s. But that one I don’t have a sample of yet.
And as we empty each barrel, as it hits a point where we’re satisfied with the flavor, we will then bottle it. We will put it into bottles and then we’ll cork it and label the bottles. And we’ll immediately start a new drink in that same barrel, but not the same drink. Like when I empty out the Polo de Mayo, I’m going to start in that one maybe a Manhattan. And the bourbon will pick up the flavors of the rum, and the drink that was in there before, the rum and the Salerno and stuff like that.
J: Now the third drink, if it’s coming from New Orleans what’s the base liquor?
Kolbeck: I’m going to be using a Sazerac rye, which is a Louisiana rye; cognac; sweet vermouth [and] Benedictine. I think you’ll kind of see, there’s a trend where I use a lot of sweet vermouth and Benedictine. The Benedictine adds a wonderful spice to drinks and it’s not overpowering. And I always use a high-end sweet vermouth called Antica; Caparno Antica, which is an Italian vermouth, but it’s really a terrific drink. And then it has a pastis and an angostura there and in the bouquet.
J: Is there a club that does this? Are there a group of enthusiasts that do this?
Kolbeck: There’s blogs you can follow. I don’t blog myself. I don’t follow other people’s blogs. But there are blogs out there that other bartenders have. I’m sure they’re tweeting what they’re doing, what their bar is doing. It’s never a route that I’ve followed myself. And there may very well be a social networking club that bartenders across the country say, “I’m doing this, I’m doing that.”
If you Google barrel aged cocktails, you will find a wealth of information. There’s places that sell charred oak. You can create your own cocktail at home in a gallon jar you can get at Wal-Mart for seven dollars and you can throw a piece of charred oak in it or un-charred oak if you wish and you can just let it age at home.