by Adrienne So
Barrel-aged cocktails have quickly become a staple at higher-end cocktail bars. The practice rounds off the hot edge of the alcohol, enriches the cocktail’s flavor and infuses it with the aroma of charred wood. However, it’s difficult to keep adequate supplies of each cocktail on hand and coordinate with seasonal menus, especially when most have to be aged so far in advance. With a balance of technology old and new, Portland, Oregon’s Trifecta Tavern offers up its own take on barrel-aging and the resulting unique cocktails—like a Manhattan with charred bone marrow—make it a must-visit.
Bar manager Colin Carroll decided to use the bar’s proximity to the tavern’s kitchen equipment to sidestep and improve upon the lengthy barrel-aging process. Carroll purchases different varieties of wood chunks from a local meat counter and chars them in the restaurant’s wood-fired oven. Then he batches out the cocktail, places them in the restaurant’s sous vide with pieces of charred wood, and heats the concoction to just below alcohol’s evaporation point for six to eighteen hours. The spirits are fully infused with rich, full flavor overnight and ready to serve the next day—rather than after months of storage.
“It’s a very controlled environment. We’re taking kitchen techniques and translating them to the bar program,” Carroll said in a phone interview with CH. This approach also allows for far more experimentation on Carroll’s part. “One of the things about barrel-aging is that you’re limited to charred American oak,” he says, referring to the type of wood that is used to make wine and whiskey barrels.
Carroll, who has worked as a bartender at some of Portland’s most beloved local joints, like the Sweet Hereafter and the Bye & Bye, has experimented with orange wood, cherrywood and different kinds of maple. “We tried sassafras and it worked horribly,” he says. “Some things just weren’t meant to be.”
Some of Carroll’s drinks with the infused spirits include a bone marrow Manhattan, made with bourbon and charred bone marrow and garnished with a house-made balsamic vinegar cherry; a Bobby Burns, made with charred sugar maple, vermouth and Benedictine, and an Alaska made with charred orange wood, Union gin, yellow Chartreuse, Fino sherry and orange bitters. “Maple works well with the smoked flavors of scotch, whereas orange wood has a lighter, sharper flavor,” he says.
Prepping the cocktails beforehand also allows Carroll to serve drinks quickly and
efficiently. “It’s not one of those drinks that takes seven minutes to prepare,” he says. “At Trifecta, there’s fourteen people at the bar but we have the rest of the restaurant to serve. They can’t see us lighting stuff on fire. What they’re left with is the drink… You can make something mediocre and spackle on a lot of stuff, or put in the effort on the front end. It seems to be working so far.”
To sample Carroll’s experiments, visit Trifecta Tavern at 726 SE 6th Avenue, Portland, Oregon.
Portrait courtesy of Trifecta Tavern, all others by Alan Weiner