Barrel-aging is Kentucky's most prestigious industry, but contrary to popular belief, there is not bourbon flowing down the mountainsides. Particularly not in Bell County, the dry county where I was raised. Dry counties are where they distill the entrepreneurial spirit: moonshine!
You don't forget your first taste of the stuff. I was 11. (The only hard alcohol I knew prior to that was the gin off of my dad's ice cubes.) And while I can appreciate the nuances from batch to batch, the best thing moonshine did for me was lay a solid foundation for my love of bourbon. I can't say that my experience with barrel-aged Negronis was all that different.
I appreciate bitters, but doing shots of Fernet Branca is much like pulling slugs from the jug. It's just a performance to prove that I can hang. And Campari is a caliber of medicinal bitters that I have yet to linger over and appreciate. Because Campari is so present in a Negroni, it hasn't been a cocktail that I would lay down hard earned cash for.
But when I heard that Temple Bar in Cambridge was aging Negronis in a charred oak, single-malt whiskey barrel, I felt like this could really turn things around for me.
The barrel-aging trend is mostly credited to Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon. Taking a cue from the cocktail genius of the west, Hugh Reynolds of Temple Bar uncorked his first batch of Negronis in October. Temple Bar uses a whiskey barrel from New York's Tuthilltown Spirits for their alchemy.
Into the cask goes gin, campari, and sweet vermouth. The gin is from Berkshire Mountain Distillers, the vermouth is Carpano Antica. Over a couple of weeks (the first batch premiered after an eight week aging) the cocktail transforms into a rounder, smoother, extremely drinkable version of itself.
The pungent medicinal qualities of the un-aged Negroni evolve into a cocktail as gentle as a Creamsicle. The orange seemed so much more integrated into the aged cocktail that I had to ask if it was one of the ingredients in the barrel. It isn't. But the barrel aging process yields a cocktail that truly deserves to be appreciated for all its complexities. If you can get your hands on one, do!