All photos: Steve Jeter
There are those in the food world who think you can improve any given food or beverage with the addition of bacon. Those people are wrong. The most-reliable route to improving any ingestable: aging it in a wood barrel. This is not, of course, what you might call a quick fix. Quite the opposite, in fact. But the rewards are worth the commitment.
In recent years, the barrel-aging trend has made its way from larger operations like beer breweries buying up used whiskey barrels to repurpose for less traditional products to bars and restaurants buying specially-crafted mini barrels to age pre-mixed cocktails and ingredients in house. Now, BLT Steak is going beyond just offering an aged drink or two at any given time (as can be found at a number of local spots) to featuring an entire barrel-centric menu and offering classes to the public about how to bring the trend home.
On its surface, the process seems simple: the bartenders mix up a big batch of a cocktail, pour it into a tiny wood barrel crafted by a local cooper in Virginia, and then wait. However, the challenge is all in the details. It takes trial and error to develop a recipe that will do best in the barrel, capitalizing on the rounding, mellowing, and instilling of char-flavor that comes from the aging process without losing character or developing off-notes, and then to intuit the precise moment in the aging process at which to pull the finished product. Make a mistake and you’ve lost a whole batch of booze and weeks or months of time.
BLT Steak’s menu shows off several recent successes, taking the restaurant’s overall concept of “updated classics” as cues for the aged drinks. They have taken three very classic drinks, a Negroni, Dark and Stormy, and Brooklyn cocktail, and modernized them a bit while keeping tradition in mind.
The Negroni diverges the most from the classic recipe by swapping Aperol for the usual Campari. This produces a mellower drink with less bitterness, which the bar staff have found to be more accessible to some customers. As a lover of a traditional Negroni, I personally found that the rounding-off of two and a half weeks in wood would have likely been enough to make the drink comfortable on more delicate palates, but this sweeter version is certainly not unpleasant as it is.
An unexpected hit of the program is their twist on the Dark and Stormy, which they have named Bermuda Triangle. This was, without any reservation, the best Dark and Stormy I have ever had, and the care and commitment to doing simple things well really shines through. There are only two essential ingredients, ginger beer and rum, but each one is improved with a subtle creativity. The ginger beer is made in-house and, rather than being force-carbonated via Soda Stream or siphon, it is yeast fermented (stopping before becoming alcoholic) with a Champagne yeast. Just the ginger beer alone would be a sophisticated option for non-drinkers, with a bright fresh ginger juice flavor and spice, delicate carbonation, and pronounced yeast notes. But then it is mixed with a dark rum that has been hanging out in the wood barrel with a bunch of star anise pods – and the result is terrific. The intense anise nose would be too much for a licorice-phobe, but is boldly perfect for the rest of us, and plays beautifully with the gingery spice.
While the Negroni and Bermuda Triangle are limited edition offerings – a batch is made up, aged, and then when that runs out, it’s on to the next creation – the Brooklyn has been established as BLT’s signature cocktail and is likely to be available on the menu for the foreseeable future. This mix of Old Overholt rye whiskey, dry vermouth, maraschino liquor, and a house-made spirit inspired by Amer Picon, is an elegant and delightful. True Amer Picon is not commercially available in the U.S. so, when the BLT staff decided to feature this drink, the first step was to make their own version. That process takes several weeks of infusion, even before the drink can be made and put into the barrel to age. Here the barrel aging really shows what it can do, taking the harsh, hot edge off the Old Overholt and imbuing the drink with pipe tobacco, vanilla, and, well, wood notes that really add depth to the final product.
Attending the barrel-aging class gets one a spot at the bar, some drinks, the advice of the staff, and even a teeny personal barrel to take home and experiment with – a fun time for any serious home-bar nerd. However, those with less commitment or kitchen counter space to dedicate to their own cocktail aging operations will do very well to just stop by the bar and sample (particularly during BLT’s impressive happy hour deals).