When restaurants and bars take upon themselves the task of aging cocktails in barrels, my reflexive response is, “why?” Of all the various tasks whiskey makers face, sourcing and managing the right oak to turn into barrels and then charring or aging them in the exact formula they have worked on for years may be one of the most time- and labor- consuming tasks they face. It takes years to get the hang of knowing which wood is good and which not so much, for aging spirits.
That’s why I am usually skeptical about barrel-aged cocktail programs, or at least one of the reasons. But when I heard about Philadelphia’s The Fat Ham and their house barrel aged cocktails, well, I paused, because this time, they were promoted as being paired with Southern cuisine in mind.
“Our lead barman Dan Carr utilizes the vanilla and caramel notes from barrel aging to complement Chef Kevin Sbraga’s bold flavors, namely spice (case in point: our Hot Chicken). The barrel aged cocktail program is a great addition to our southern brand. Since Kentucky is the home of bourbon and our bar program features over 180 American whiskeys, it makes for a likely pairing,” communications director for Sbraga Dining Esha Dev wrote me.
They have two barrel aged cocktails on the menu: Stars Fell on Alabama, an “Alabaman take on the Sazerac,” but instead of using brandy or rye, a sweeter, more corn-heavy bourbon with the addition of orange flower water. The barrel aging, she pointed out, adds an oaky richness to the drink as well as completing the softening.
And then there’s the Diamondback, made with rye, apple brandy and yellow chartreuse, wherein barreling is used to merge flavors and soften hard edges.
I wrote to see what Carr had to say about the likely pairings, which is another idea I am not always in tune with, but always willing to be proven wrong. He wrote back: “I enjoy having the Stars Fell on Alabama with the Hot Chicken more so than most bourbon drinks. The cocktail uses a bourbon with a high corn mash bill making it a much sweeter whiskey cocktail. That along with the vanilla notes picked up from the barrel aging help soothe the spicy chicken."
"For the Diamondback, a good dish on our menu is the Pulled Pork BBQ with Grilled Peaches and Sweet Onion. The sassafras syrup and BBQ pork are natural compliments. The vanilla and molasses work nicely with the tangy peach bbq sauce, as does the peppery rye.The apple brandy is complimentary as well."
It’s this sort of approach, ultimate quality of the cocktails aside, that make a barrel aging program relevant. Anyone can throw some stuff into wood to find it changes quite quickly, but keeping the experiments within the concept and attached to other items - Southern style dishes, in this case - makes the work potentially coherent and worth the effort.
Carr did something else interesting recently He barrel-aged orange curaçao for a month, emptied it and then filled it with rye for another month. Turning a rye into a lightly flavored whiskey makes it a perfect cocktail ingredient and one a good bartender can adapt no matter what the ultimate flavor profile.
I haven’t sampled these cocktails or pairings, but if and when I do, I’m hoping they turn out to be as good as they sound.