Brooklyn Comes of Age: The Rise of Barrel Aged Cocktails

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Without doubt, Threes Brewing has a lot to offer. Situated on the northern edge of Gowanus, the 5000-square-foot space is home to a 15-barrel craft brewery, a music venue, an events space, a rotating list of über-trendy pop up kitchens, a cozy coffee shop, a beer garden and a full bar serving super fresh beer, fine wine and an impressive array of spirits. The first stop for many Threes visitors is the rear taproom, where a long bar shows off a custom draft system and chalkboards list the day’s offerings overhead. Behind the bar, industrial shelving units separate the main space from the private brewhouse, their austere metal shelves lined elegantly with branded growlers, flower-filled glass jars and a handful of small oak barrels.

To an unindoctrinated beer drinker, these barrels might appear as mere decoration, an aesthetically-pleasing nod to the bespoke brewing traditions that inspire so many modern craft brewers and bar owners. But, like any smart New York resident, Threes knows better than to let valuable real estate go to waste: this is Threes’ barrel aged cocktail program. These little wooden vessels are 100% functional, filled with carefully blended alcoholic concoctions just waiting to be tapped and imbibed by curious drinkers.

“People seem genuinely intrigued,” explains co-owner Andrew Unterberg. “Aging cocktails is a relatively new practice, but by no means do we claim to be the first. It fits our overall ethos for Threes as a place for constant experimentation and creativity — we’re really enjoying how these unique flavors change with each passing day.”

While most beer enthusiasts like myself associate barrel aging with big, boozy stouts and complex, puckery sours, a growing number of hobbyists and professional barkeeps have been playing around with more potent ageables, and Threes is just one of the more recent players entering the game. Carroll Gardens’ Char No. 4 and fellow Gowanus-based newcomer Royal Palms Shuffle Club have also been hawking the matured mixes for some time, yet, as a stand-alone brewery, Threes’ has a unique and valuable position. By collaborating with a brewing team stationed just a few feet away, Threes’ bar crew is able to compare the effects of barrel aging on a multitude of different liquids, deepening their understanding of wood’s intricate powers.

“A significant component of brewery will be barrel aging beers,” says Unterberg. “We currently have several beers aging in barrels, which we plan to release in bottles over the coming year. The oak barrels we age our beer in are far larger than our cocktail barrels, so there won’t be a commercial cross over, but we may use some of the smaller cocktail barrels for pilot brew research. The smaller the barrel, the faster the flavors will be imparted because of the increased surface area.”

Just like in brewing, not all tipples play nicely in wooden barrels. But, when the right spirits combine, the process can vastly impact the desired drink’s final flavor. Developing a great barrel aged cocktail takes a certain amount of creativity, know-how and trial and error.

 

“It’s a cocktail that time and patience creates,” Unterberg notes. “The barrels will sit for weeks at room temperature, so cocktails with exclusively liquor in the mix, including bitters, are best. The oak lends vanilla and smoke notes. Oxidation can add really interesting flavors and a lot of the fusel alcohols get removed, mellowing out any harsh bite. You get a very smooth, balanced cocktail.”

Unterberg and his barmates began their barrel aged journey much like aspiring brewers plant the seed for future breweries — as a hobbyist, experimenting with different barrels and blends around the house. Now, as a professional, he enjoys seeing customers inspired by Threes’ program. “We’ve had more than one [person] come back to the bar to say that they’ve started barrel aging at home,” he says. “We love that.”

One such hobbyist is Jacob Kramer-Duffield, a digital analytics and audience development consultant who lives in nearby Fort Greene. Jacob’s been tinkering with the method for years, beginning with ad-lib brewed-in-a-bag Aquavit, moving on to more refined homemade bitters and finally incorporating a few small new and used oak barrels into his process.

“On a trip to Seattle a few years ago, I went to a great cocktail bar, Canon, with a friend who I’d also gotten into infusions. There, I had probably the best cocktail of my life — a barrel-aged Diplomat, on tap,” he remembers, detailing his barrel aged origin story. “So I knew I needed to make one, and upon coming back to Brooklyn, got myself a barrel from Van Brunt Stillhouse and got to work. That was fall of 2013, I think, and I now have four barrels.”

While barrel aging can be a fickle and time-consuming method, talented devotees like Kramer-Duffield are thrilled to lead the barrel aged crusade, echoing the early years of American craft beer when a few passionate evangelists sold the nation on wild new flavors and the quality of small batch production. Like Unterberg, Kramer-Duffield is happy to see the trend cropping up around the city, even the emergence has been as slow as the barrel aging process itself.

“I really dig [Chinatown’s] Experimental Cocktail Club’s bottled, carbonated cocktails, but most of my favorite cocktail spots in New York — Hotel Delmano, Little Branch, Dick & Jane’s — really excel in showing off the skill of their bartenders in the moment,” he says. “Though, I haven’t seen barreled cocktails really take off in NYC to the extent that they have elsewhere, like Seattle, where it seems every good restaurant has several different barrels at any given time. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time, though.”

Eager to taste some of these curious libations for yourself? While Kramer-Duffield is still honing his craft and only producing batches for personal use, Threes’ barrel aged menu is ripe for the picking over at their Douglass Street bar.

“Right now, we’re aging both individual spirits and cocktails,” reports Unterberg. “We’ve got barrels of gin, tequila, apple brandy and rye, which allow us to experiment with a variety of cocktails. We’re also aging a number of our in-house cocktails, such as our Martinez. In the vein of never taking ourselves too seriously, I will add that we’ve got the makings of a Long Island Iced Tea aging nicely.”

A Long Island Iced Tea that doesn’t sting like sugar-sweet gasoline? Sounds like a very sophisticated party. I’m in.

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