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It’s all in the wood

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The Nation

AS BARTENDERS regularly prove, cocktail creation is endless and especially in this day and age anything can be used to make a jaw-dropping drink. While the world of cocktail keeps spinning, the classics remain, delighting the palates of cocktail lovers with comforting, familiar flavours. But a classic recipe does not have to be all too predictable. One of the techniques to revamp a timeless mix is to age it in a wood barrel the way you would wine or whisky. 
Ageing cocktails in wood barrels can soften harsh edges and add layers of flavour. The simple technique focuses on the basics of barrel ageing. Spirit-based cocktails containing fresh ingredients that spoil over time tend to lend themselves best to barrel ageing. Among the many classics to benefit from the technique is the negroni, thanks to its herbaceous ingredients that age well in wood. 
The negroni is a cocktail that has left its mark on the history of the aperitif and is known throughout the world. Invented in 1919-20 by Count Camillo Negroni, legend has it that one night, bored with his usual cocktail, the Count visited the Caffe Casoni in Florence and asked the bartender, Fosco Scarselli, to add a dash of gin to his Americano rather than soda. Scarselli used his imagination and added an orange garnish rather than the typical lemon garnish of the Americano to signify that it was a different drink. Soon after the Count’s usual became the Negroni, a surprisingly simple mix of Campari, gin and vermouth. 
Bottles and barrels were not originally designed to impart flavour to spirits or cocktails but rather to store them. Over time, something interesting happened and people realised the effect they had on spirits, and they evolved into tools in their own right. 
The barrel has been kicking around since the Celts, long before mutton-chopped mixologists and pre-Prohibition cocktails. Barrels were first hollowed-out from the trunk of a tree and the ends were covered in animal hide. That didn’t work very successfully because animal hides gave the contents a funny taste. Fortunately, staves were invented and gave the barrel its famous shape. From the early 18th century, trade started becoming much more rampant and barrels became an essential part of trade.
The glass bottle is quite a bit more recent. It began as the primary vessel for transporting alcohol in the 17th century. Not that mixed drinks were particularly in vogue before then; indeed, the first printed mention of the word “cocktail” didn’t crop up until 1806. At that time, interestingly enough, cocktails appear to have been stored in wooden casks, and transferred to bottles for service. What that meant was that by default, most cocktails were barrel-aged, or perhaps more accurately cask-aged. 
According to renowned mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler, to age a negroni you first need to soak a used whiskey barrel with warm water for at least 48 hours to swell the staves and prevent leaking. Then make a large batch of negroni, pour the mixture in the barrel and seal it. After ageing for at least 6 weeks, decant the barrel through a fine-meshed sieve into a large container to remove sediments. 
There you have it, an aged negroni that is more refined and smooth, ready to be served on ice, along with an orange peel. 
Aged negroni is served nightly at The Bamboo Bar, located at Mandarin Oriental Hotel Bangkok. 
It is open daily from 5pm to 1am. Call (02) 659 9000.

Published : March 10, 2016

By : You’ve heard of ageing whisky