Roll Out The Barrel

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Story by Dave Eckert

They’ve been around a long time, but they’ve never been more popular or more delicious. I’m referring to barrel-aged cocktails. If you’ve visited some of the metro’s top bars and restaurants, you’ve likely seen the cute little barrels on shelves and countertops. Perhaps you’ve even tried a few of the cocktails aging inside, and maybe even have a favorite or two. For those of you who haven’t, I have some information and suggestions to help change that.

The idea of aging cocktails dates all the way back to the late 19th century when bartenders filled their pre-mixed drinks in glass bottles for storage and sales. Not long after, around 1910, the American Company Heublein, Inc. published an ad promoting pre-mixed and wood-aged cocktails. The ad apparently went over like a lead balloon as the practice was ignored for nearly a century. Then, in 2004, London bartender Toni Conigliaro tried his hand at barrel aging a series of classic cocktails. Two failures followed before Conigliaro’s cocktail creations became hits. Later, in 2009, American bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler joined in the practice and barrel-aged cocktails exploded into a worldwide phenomenon!

Not to get bogged down in the science of barrel-aged cocktails, but I think it’s important to understand what happens during the process, which is broken down into three steps.


EXTRACTION

  • Alcohol extracts flavor and color from the barrel.

SUBTRACTION

  • Removal of unfavorable products through filtering. A charred barrel becomes a charcoal filter, roadblocking undesirable flavors and aromas, resulting in a smoother content.

OXIDATION

  • A barrel breathes due to it being porous, allowing the contents to react with the surrounding air, producing new aromas, rounding out the flavors, and helping blend it all together.

With the three reactions happening in concert, the cocktails possess a greater depth of flavor and the drink becomes more cohesive and smoother. But it takes the right cocktail in the proper barrel for the optimal amount of time for that to happen. When it does, I call it “cocktail magic!”

You will find such magic at the always excellent Founders’ Lounge at the Kauffman Center for Performing Arts where Kevin Fossland uses barrels from several  local distilleries to create uniquely delicious barrel-aged cocktails. “The initial selling point to the program was efficiency, as it enabled us to serve more cocktails faster.  Everyone coming to Kauffman has a limited amount of time before the show if they dine with us in the Founders’ Lounge. We wanted to create a great cocktail list that we could execute in a timely fashion without sacrificing quality,” Fossland shared. “We currently serve four barrel-aged cocktails: a Kansas Manhattan with Union Horse, a Negroni with Tom’s Town, a barreled Boulevardier with West Bottoms, and a drink featuring Holladay’s Soft Red Wheat Whiskey.”

Fossland says the barrel-aged cocktail program was a great start for the back bar in Founders’, and he’s always looking to expand the offerings in both variety and location. “I hope to add at least one new addition for the remaining season and use the summer to research and experiment for additional offerings to be presented in the fall season. We’re also looking to possibly expand these cocktails for the bars upstairs before the show and during intermission. We have a good thing going. I’m hoping to deliver it throughout the building,” Fossland said. “The Founders’ Lounge cocktail menu is not limited to the barrel program but still highlights spirits from the Kansas City area. It’s a good balance to the menu as the barreled cocktails aren’t for everyone. But, I am happy to report they’ve been popular.”

I’ve tried them. Take my word for it, you should, too.

I also had the chance to visit with Steve Revare – Co-Owner of Tom’s Town Distillery. Tom’s Town sells barrels to a number of establishments around town, including The Founders’ Lounge, for barrel-aged cocktail programs. Revare says interest is definitely growing. “You have to have the right staff. People who are dedicated to making really intricate, beautiful, and delicious craft cocktails. People who have the knowledge, passion, and will take the time to do it right,” Revare shared.

I asked Revare what he particularly enjoys about barrel-aged cocktails. “The thing I like about it is the creativity, and someone that’s going to go the extra mile to make that drink really special,” Revare stated. 

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