Aging in barrels and staying fresh in Napa
In the shifting sea of drink menus around San Francisco, one of the world's leading cocktail cities, excellent cocktails have long been the standard rather than the stand-out. Keeping up on trends can be exhausting — but staying abreast of a great mixology culture can be well worth the hefty bar tabs. This week, we examine two new shakes to the cocktail scene that hail from outside city limits — and have us asking the bartender for another round.
Thanks to Jeffrey Morgenthaler of southeast Portland, Ore.'s Clyde Common restaurant, the barrel-aged cocktail phenomenon has taken off over the past year. If you're new to the aging scene, here's the gist: take an already brilliant drink — Morgenthaler finds his muse in a classic negroni — and age it in a barrel for weeks or months, letting the flavors meld into a more integrated whole.
And barrel-aged cocktails have made it to the Bay Area in a big way. Joel Teitelbaum of Zero Zero launched a barrel-aged negroni of his own earlier this spring. Made with Beefeater gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, and aged in an American oak barrel for three months, it's a sexy, lush version — even deeper than an iconic negroni when you taste the two side by side. Still thirsty? Head in a slightly different direction with Teitelbaum's negroni bianco: Leopold's gin, infused Cocchi, and white vermouth.
On a recent trip across the bay to Oakland's forward-thinking Adesso, I tried a house barrel-aged martini made with Karlsson's Gold vodka, an already unusual (read: flavorful and high quality) spirit. The white vermouth and vodka meld into a sophisticated, layered martini.
If you see a barrel-aged cocktail on a menu, order it — and quickly, since a bar's stock of these beauties can run out rapidly. Even better, sample one next to its young version to fully comprehend the difference a little oak aging can make. It's a trend whose novelty may pass eventually, but the barrel aging technique can put a new spin on your favorite cocktail.
Sonoma County has long had one of the best bartenders in the country in Scott Beattie, formerly of Cyrus and now at Spoonbar, even if wine country on the whole continues to be far better known for, well, the wine. But a cocktail renaissance seems to be on the rise.
In early 2009, a wave of new restaurants debuted, including Bardessono in Yountville, whose farm-fresh cocktail menu was assembled by SF experts like Thad Vogler. Around the same time, old school-spirited Jack & Tony's opened in Santa Rosa, heavy on boozy cocktail classics and whiskey selections. Sweeping change did not follow; nor has the wine country become a cocktail mecca. Yet slowly, steadily, it has been gaining momentum.
Healdsburg's Spoonbar serves some of the best cocktails anywhere. Recently, beloved culinary destinations like Terra opened a more casual bar focused around — you guessed it — cocktails. At Bar Terra, you can get a Jack Rose or a Rob Roy as easily as a glass of Cep Vineyards rosé.
One of the best places for cocktails in Sonoma county is Medlock Ames' Alexander Valley Bar. It's a winery, but if you arrive after 5 p.m., walk around to the back side of the tasting room. There you'll find a retro-casual bar with design touches of Prohibition and the Wild West mingling with a vintage photo booth and a bar lined with herbs and citrus. Cocktails like the Verdant Virtue/Vice exemplify the garden fresh harvest of ingredients from Medlock's own backyard. Hendrick's Gin and green Chartreuse are amplified with mint, basil, rosemary, cucumber, and lime to yield refreshing beauty. A nocino manhattan plays heavier and muskier with Buck Bourbon, Carpano Antica, and the nuttiness of nocino walnut liqueur.
And while wine still reigns in Napa and Sonoma counties, contests like Charbay and Perfect Puree's second annual wine country cocktail competition, held May 16, showcase the increasing array of talent in both counties. It may not be up with the big cities yet, but the region has caught onto the cocktail renaissance, infusing it with its fresh local flair. It would seem that the wine country is not just for winos anymore.
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