Tempered Spirits

Homemade Cocktails — Experiments, Critiques & Travels

High Times at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic

As some of you know, the Manhattan Cocktail Classic was held here in New York a few weeks back. And I nearly missed it. Serves me right for not paying more attention to the cocktailian side of life.

It had been a typically busy week in NYC. Somehow, I’d managed to squeeze in visits to a couple new bars and, as a result of those visits, a trip to Astor Wine & Spirits, my go-to spot for the good stuff. For those who’ve never been, Astor occupies a big chunk of a brick building at the corner of Lafayette and East 4th Street in Manhattan, and has one of the best inventories of spirits on the East coast. They also offer classes and tasting sessions for us drinkers at the Astor Center, located above the store. On my way out the door that day, I spotted the following:

Saturday, May 10th

AN ASTOR AFFAIR: Spirits Tasting for Cocktail Making

Barrel-Aged Cocktails with High West’s David Perkins

Discoveries from the Back Bar: Exclusive Spirits Tasting


“Wait, what? The Manhattan Cocktail Classic! This weekend!?”

Needless to say, a quick check showed that the main events were booked solid — and it was certainly too late for the opening gala, a massive cocktail party held at the New York Public Library — but a couple nice options remained, including the tasting seminars at Astor. You longtime readers may know that I’m a fan of High West, and have exchanged a few electronic words with David Perkins in the past, so I figured it was time to meet the man in person and sip some barrel-aged cocktails.

The evening started with access to the Astor Affair tasting event (really the main show for the evening, open to the public later on), featuring boozy samples, cocktails, punches, and chitchat with folks from Combier (a tasty range, especially the rose liqueur), Vermont-based, honey-centric Barr Hill (the Aged Tom gin is fantastic), Bittermens (unique and intriguing), High West and Mount Gay.

While us seminar-goers were ushered into Astor’s sleek classrooms, we were handed a Penicillin (made with HW Campfire in lieu of full-blooded Scotch, so a tad less smoky and in-your-face) — not a bad way to liven up the crowd, especially when combined with a few wisecracks about Mormons (all in good fun) and how much booze we were going to consume during the evening.

Mr. Perkins — who’s just about the most down-to-earth, affable, bio-chemist-turned-distiller you’d ever meet — launched right into our topic for the evening: barrel-aged cocktails, which High West has been bottling and selling for a few years now. The main idea was to compare two freshly-made cocktails, the Manhattan and the Boulevardier, against High West’s barrel-aged versions, and to taste each cocktail’s base components.

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Supplied with tasting samples of each drinks’ components, bar tools, ice, and a bit of instruction of mixing basics, we set to passing around the bottles and mixing up our drinks…

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First up, the Manhattan, a combo of High West Double Rye (their baseline rye, and a good whiskey for mixing, not as rich in flavor as some others, though), Vya sweet vermouth (which I’d never had on its own; very sweet, heavy on dates and cinnamon), and Angostura bitters. Made fresh, the drink has lighter, crisper feel and flavor, with an emphasis on the whiskey and its spices, especially cinnamon. The barrel-aged version is a bit sweeter and thicker, with an emphasis on orange peel (H.W. adds a bit of Angostura orange to its blend) and grape — the grape is closer in its nature to the sweet, concentrated flavor of sherry, or dried dates. It’s not as lively or spicy, but rounded out, mellow.

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As David explained, most of these differences are the result of the interaction between the booze and the barrel during the aging process, the oak contributing structure and body to the liquid mixture, not to mention flavors of caramel, additional glucose, vanillin, and tannins (which give a velvety mouthfeel). The charred barrel also removes off-flavors and smooths out any harsh, oddball contrasts. Basically, aging concentrates and further blends the components’ flavors while sweetening and restructuring the drink. Better? Worse? All depends on your mood and personal taste.

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That last bit about smoothing out clashing flavors is really where barrel-aging can help out a cocktail, especially one where you have a bunch of bold ingredients competing with one another for dominance. After spending a few months in a barrel together, they learn how to get along with one another. The mollifying effect provided by barrel-aging is a fantastic way to introduce the harsher flavors in the cocktail world, like Campari and its bitter cousins, to the novice drinker. Perhaps for this reason, Negronis are one of the most popular candidates for aging — I’ve spotted aged versions on bar menus for a number of years — and its understandable that High West would pick a Negroni variation, the Boulevardier, for bottling. Made with American Prairie Bourbon (a somewhat youngish-tasting bourbon, with a nice dose of oak, vanilla, and dark cherries), Vya, and Gran Classico, a Swiss cousin to Campari that emphasizes herbs and spice rather than bitterness and citrus.

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While our freshly-mixed Boulevardiers were good, they lacked the sweet, rich boldness of one made with, say, a deeper, rye-heavy bourbon, Carpano, and Campari — so, bit thin and edgy with spice. The barrel-aged version shone in comparison, its higher sugar content rounding out and thickening up the cocktail and allowing flavors of citrus peel and bass notes of spices to come through.

A lively (read: tipsy) Q&A session followed, and I did pick up a few other tips for all of us cocktailians:

  1. When “nosing” or smelling spirits before tasting them, inhale through your nose, but leave your mouth open while doing so. You’ll get less of a blast of alcohol in your sinuses and more of the flavor of the spirit.
  2. To preserve optimum flavor in your spirits, David recommends finishing the bottle within 1.5 years — a shorter time is even better, especially if the bottle is less than half full. The more oxygen is allowed in the bottle, the faster the spirit will lose its original flavor and develop funky off-flavors, the result of alcohol breaking down into aldehydes.
  3. The High West team hasn’t had much luck aging cocktails in those small, DIY aging kit barrels that have been popping up recently. Yes, it takes less time due to the decreased size, but the cocktail tends to pick up more thin, oaky flavors and less sugar and char. You’ll just have to make up a huge batch of that barrel-aged Negroni you’ve been wanting to try.

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All in all, a great tasting session, and a great chance to learn some of the chemistry that occurs when a cocktail is barrel-aged. Those of us who stuck around afterward got a chance to talk with David and (of course) sample a few things that High West has in the works. I won’t say much, except that one involves aging in syrah casks (for those of you who’ve had Scotch finished in sherry casks, it’s a similar effect) and the other involves some lively, “young” whiskey from the old Seagram’s distillery. Keep your eyes open!

Photos & text by IJL.

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