TNT Diner

Always better with age: A Tacoma tour of 5 barrel-aged cocktails to try

As Pacific Grill’s general manager Franco D’Amico puts it, “there’s not a lot of pageantry” to making barrel-aged cocktails.

He explains: Take some ingredients (of the very expensive variety), put them in a wood barrel and let them sit. And sit. And sit. And sit.

Anywhere between a month and 45 days later, an aged cocktail results. At Pacific Grill in downtown Tacoma, they pour two kinds. While two are ready to serve, two more are in the barrels, slowly maturing.

Aged cocktails have long been a trend in big cities known for cocktail culture, but slow as molasses to percolate into Tacoma bars. I’ve found the cocktails at four bars here, with one more debuting a barrel-aged cocktail next week.

WHAT ARE THEY, EXACTLY?

Bourbon is a spirit that must sit in wood barrels to deepen its character. Making barrel-aged cocktails simply applies that same method. As with bourbon, a mixed cocktail mingling inside a wood cask softens the edges, making whatever’s poured in there a kinder, gentler sort of cocktail. Just about anything can be added that you typically would use in a mixed cocktail. (Exceptions include dairy, juice or anything with a high sugar content that could spoil.)

The best cocktails to age are the classics. Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, sazeracs and Negronis make the finest barrel-aged cocktails because those slap-you-in-the-face cocktails become more flavorful, but with less sharp edges, over wood.

HOW DOES THIS MAGIC WORK?

A couple of processes are happening inside the barrel.

“The process of infusion is really important. The liquor will actually absorb some of the (flavor) from the oak,” said Attila Szabo, co-owner of Tacoma’s WildFin American Grill and Stack 571. Both restaurants have versions of barrel-aged cocktails on the menu. He’s been serving barrel-aged cocktails at his other restaurants for about four years.

Additionally, oxidation occurs. That process is the bane of wine’s existence, but for spirits, it actually improves the flavor, said Szabo.

“It brings in a nutty flavor component. And because you’re dealing with high alcohol content, the oxidation process is very slow and subtle as opposed to wine, where the oxidation would kill the flavor. In this case it’s so slow and subtle, it adds another flavor dimension to the drink.”

Finally, he said the sugars in the oak “knock off all the rough edges from the beverage. That’s the extraction part. As the cocktail extracts the natural sugars in the oak, it rounds everything out.”

He added, “It’s like stew. It’s always best a day or two after you make it because the flavors have a chance to meld and blend. All the parts that give you that harshness and sharpness that can come with spirits, they tend to fade into the background, and you bring out the complexities of all the different ingredients and flavors.”

WHY DON’T MORE BARS MAKE THEM?

I perused the menus of more than 20 bars in the area and kept coming back empty. Why do so few Tacoma bars make them?

Storage and cost are factors. First, barrels, even the 2-liter kind, are expensive and take up space. The more cocktails you serve, the more barrels you’ll need. Second, it’s typical to dump $300 of ingredients into a barrel that won’t make a profit for close to two months. That’s a carrying cost a lot of restaurants don’t want to bother with. Third, diners around here simply aren’t familiar with them. It takes a certain kind of diner to shell out the extra cost of a barrel-aged cocktail. Most are in the $13-$15 range.

Here are five to try

1. Black walnut honey Old Fashioned, $15.

Where: Pacific Grill, 1502 Pacific Ave. Tacoma; 253-627-3535; pacificgrilltacoma.com.

“Our best seller is the Old Fashioned,” said D’Amico. “We bought the barrels from Heritage Distilling, and the aging on that one is excellent.”

The Old Fashioned components include Eagle Rare 10-year Kentucky bourbon, black walnut, cherry and orange bitters.

“It’s actually pretty dangerous because you don’t realize what you’re drinking,” he added.

Indeed, the high-octane cocktail drank easily, with warm swirls of walnut and cherry behind the bourbon. The cocktail was served as a good Old Fashioned should be, poured over a big, blocky ice cube that melted slowly, with a spear of orange peel and brandied cherry.

2. House Negroni, $15.

Where: Pacific Grill.

“We use Heritage’s Elk Rider gin in that three-ingredient drink,” said D’Amico. Typically, a Negroni is gin, vermouth and the aperitif Campari.

Pacific Grill’s version blends Campari with a more muted element. “We take Campari’s little brother, Aperol. It’s Campari light. You don’t get the same level of bitterness that makes Campari such a great bitter. Aperol is a softer version. It’s subtle and a little more elegant Negroni,” he said. The vermouth is Carpano Antica Formula vermouth.

I want to call it a Negroni with training wheels with pronounced citrus and wood and a whisper of bitterness that offered slow-building sharpness in the background of this smooth sipper. It was served chilled in a rocks glass with another of those block ice cubes and a broad curl of orange peel.

3. Barrel-aged Manhattan, $13.50.

Where: WildFin American Grill, 5115 Grand Loop, Tacoma; 253-267-1772; wildfinamericangrill.com.

The barrel-aged Manhattan at WildFin ages for six weeks on wood. Szabo said the oxidation process added that warm nuttiness I detected.

Tatoosh whiskey was at the base with a splash of Benedictine, the herbal liqueur, as well as Fee Brothers bitters and vermouth. The drink opened with mellow bitterness, but quickly faded to smoky. Mild sweetness meant this was not a cocktail with training wheels, but the flavor tasted softer than a typical Manhattan. It was served chilled, up and in a martini glass.

Coming next: WildFin will retire its apple whiskey Old Fashioned in favor of a more classic barrel-aged Old Fashioned made with John Jacob rye.

4. Barrel-aged sazerac, $12.95.

Where: Stack 571, 5061 Main St., Tacoma; 253-301-2962; stack571.com.

Rye is one of those spirits many find obnoxiously strong, myself included on occasion. Rittenhouse rye in Stack 571’s barrel-aged sazerac carried the spirit of an aggressive rye, but was softened to the point that woody sweetness bypassed the rye. This was the most tame sazerac I’ve ever enjoyed. It was finished with a light application of absinthe and Peychaud’s bitters, served chilled and up in a rocks glass. It carried a tinge of sweetness.

Coming next: The restaurant’s barrel-aged boulevardier is leaving the menu soon. Also try the restaurant’s double improved barrel-aged whiskey cocktail (it was out when I visited).

5. Cask-aged Old Fashioned, $12.

Where: Stanley and Seafort’s, 115 E. 34th St., Tacoma; 253-473-7300; stanleyandseaforts.com.

With Old Forester bourbon and Solerno Blood Orange liqueur at the base, this Old Fashioned already was off to a good start with a pronounced sweet, smoky flavor in this 30-day aged cocktail. Newcomers who find Old Fashioneds too strong will appreciate the syrupiness and the finish of cherry bitters.

Experienced cocktail drinkers won’t appreciate the rocks glass filled to the top with watery ice, which diluted the flavor. Order with light ice.

COMING SOON TO ASADO

The Argentinian steakhouse Asado (2810 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-272-7770; asadotacoma.com) will be bringing something new to Tacoma, a tequila barrel-aged cocktail. Tacoma-based cocktail consultant Tim Flippin has been perfecting his cocktails for three years. The Asado cocktail will combine tequila, pomegranate-infused tequila, anisette and an orange liqueur that blends four kinds of citrus. “It has a bit of a peppery character. What you get with the tequila and anisette, you get a spiciness right off the bat, and the spice lingers,” said Flippin. The Sunspot cocktail should debut next week.

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