Freelance Food & Drinks Writer

Barrel-aged bliss

Talk about barrel aging, and you’re usually talking about brown spirits like bourbon or Scotch, or just as likely wine. But at Extra Virgin in the Crossroads, it’s all about the cocktails. Manhattans, Negronis and even Sidecars—bartender Berto Santoro’s been making them by the barrel-full. Why?

Because barrel aging does much the same thing to a cocktail as it does spirits and wine. Melds flavors, smooths edges and creates character. At least that’s what it did to the three gallons of Negronis Santoro decanted last night.

Berto Santoro decanting barrel-aged Negronis at Extra Virgin

The occasion celebrated Santoro’s being named a finalist in the Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition, and a small crowd gathered to see him pull a stopper from the bung and empty his barrel into a glass beverage dispenser. The first taste went to Jenn Tosatto, over from Manifesto. She sipped, then cradled the glass and smiled her approval.

I had to agree. The Negroni is one of my favorite drinks, and I usually make them with equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, garnished with orange. It’s a bracing, yet satisfying drink that strips and refreshes your palate. Santoro beautifully updated the classic with Hendrick’s gin, Aperol (an Italian aperitif that’s lighter and sweeter than Campari), Dolin Rouge and Carpano Antica sweet vermouths and two months in a used bourbon barrel from Tuthilltown Spirits.

Hendrick's + Aperol + Dolin Rouge + Carpano Antica + 2 months = delicious Negroni

It was all there—the vegetal and floral character of the gin; Aperol’s orange and spice; the rich, complex, winey bite of the vermouths—but it was all rounder, more viscous, better.

Santoro’s also serving the last of his Brazilian Sidecar barrel. It includes cachaça, Cointreau, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, lemon bitters and black tea, rested together for two months. Santoro usually then shakes it with agave nectar and fresh lemon juice to bring the Sidecar theme home, but sometimes he sends it out neat as a digestif. That’s how my small taste came, and I would have gladly purchased a whole glass to get more of the citrusy, syrupy, biting deliciousness.

That’s generally the reaction he gets, Santoro says. He started barrel aging Manhattans at the urging of Extra Virgin owner and chef Michael Smith, and the first three-gallon barrels quickly sold out. He switched to a seven-gallon barrel to keep up with demand and plans to crack the latest of those in a few weeks.

That just shows Kansas City is more than ready for the barrel-aging trend touched off when Portland, Ore.-based spirits writer Jeffrey Morgenthaler blogged about his experiments in April 2010. It spread to New York, San Francisco and Boston, according to The New York Times, but the process is actually a very old one. To find out how old, and how it exactly works, go to the Art of Drink.

As for me, I’m just glad it does work. That said, Santoro doesn’t put everything in a barrel. Sunday he’ll be shaking up The Baznegole, a gin-based drink created for the GKCBC. You can sample it in the tasting room, along with the dozen other finalists’ entries.

If you can’t wait until then, check out these kick-off events:

Aug. 18—Jenn Tosatto’s Rock the ‘Hawk happy hour from 5-7p at Manifesto

Aug. 18—Pigs, Platters & Punch Bowls dinner from 7-10p at The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange

Aug. 18 to Aug. 25—Tony Beyer’s hosting a week of food and drink specials at Benton’s Prime Steakhouse

See who else made the cut and vote for your favorite at The Employee Lounge.  Do it today. Do it now. It’s one thing you don’t have to wait for.