Getting hip to barrel aged cocktails

“Have you checked out [insert hipster bar name here]?” asked an old friend stopping by for a late night drink.

“I have not,” I said, noting that working all night shifts doesn’t often allow for much nighttime carousing. Early morning carousing perhaps, but then that is a different story entirely.

“What did you think?” I asked.

“They are really into what they are doing,” she said.

Cryptic to be sure, but eventually I found myself in the neighborhood and decided to swing by.

It took some time to get the bartenders attention. Now I’m just an observer, but has anyone else noticed that the more visible piercings and tattoos that someone has, the slower they seem to go? Add in a funny hat and things can sometimes come to a standstill. Mr. hipster-dude was busy muddling and stirring and straining all kinds of things. He even strained his vodka martinis through a tiny colander. I don’t know what he was straining out-it was just vodka-but it sure looked cool. Unfortunately for us waiting, all that extra activity meant that we continued to wait, and wait, and wait.

Finally, it was our turn.

I ordered two Templeton Rye manhattans with Antica vermouth, no bitters, up, with brandied cherries, before turning to my guest, secure in the knowledge that I had imparted all the information necessary to make two very simple drinks.

“Do you want to try our barrel aged Manhattan instead?” he asked gesturing at the little wooden barrels standing on end behind the bar.

“No thank you,” I said.

“They are the best things ever.”

“No I’m OK,” I said.

“I blend bourbon and let it sit for several days,” he said.

“That’s great,” I said. “But really I’m…”

“When it’s just right, I blend in a special house made vermouth,” he continued. “And then let it sit for an additional week…”

The bartender in me suddenly couldn’t resist a question.

“Don’t you have problems with the vermouth oxidizing?” I asked.

“No,” he said obviously surprised to be asked such a question. Spiel wielders often don’t like to be interrupted. “Vermouth is a liquor,” he said. “So it doesn’t go bad.”

Vermouth is not liquor; it is a type of wine, an aromatized wine to be exact. Not to be confused with a fortified wine, like Madeira or port, which are fortified with brandy as an anti-spoiling agent. In fact, Madeira wine is subjected to extremes known to spoil most wine deliberately. The idea being that if the wine is subjected to heat and oxidization first, than it won’t suffer from their effects afterwards. True enough, however a common type of still wine spoilage is still referred to as madeiration, and is characterized by an off flavor, and an off color, something reminiscent to caramel. And Madeira itself is, well, an acquired taste to say the least.

According to the feds, vermouth may contain some distilled spirits but only as “an extractive or solvent.” Yummy, the feds certainly have a way with words.

Those same feds also stipulate that the distilled spirits be “no greater quantity than is necessary to extract and hold in solution the flavoring materials.” Further regulations are involved, with the most salient being that the alcohol content cannot exceed 24 percent. Realistically much vermouth produced today is 16 percent or lower in alcohol. On par with much still wine.

All of which means one very important thing. Vermouth goes bad, just like any wine. Most premium vermouth producers will tell you to refrigerate theirs after opening. Unfortunately refrigeration only slows down the process, it doesn’t stop it. Two week old refrigerated vermouth doesn’t taste anything like freshly opened vermouth, and two week old unrefrigerated vermouth is almost certainly maderized, and not in the good way.

So storing vermouth on an unrefrigerated shelf in a porous wooden barrel virtually assures that the vermouth in that barrel will spoil, regardless of whether it’s mixed with whiskey or not. And if the vermouth spoils, I’m guessing the cocktail made with it isn’t going to be very tasty. Call it a guess.

Leading me to these thoughts:

-Sweet, or red vermouth is actually made with white wine and then colored with caramel.

-Barrel aged cocktails are all the rage, but who really knows what’s really in that barrel? And, more importantly, how long it’s been there.

-“He’s just not that into you,” can refer to relationships or bartenders, but still sucks either way.