A barrel is a naturally evolving environment. As a spirit ages, the organic nature of the wood allows oxygen to interact with all of the components to create those unique, wonderful flavors we know and love. While Bourbon must be aged, by law, in new barrels, many other aged spirits, such as scotch, Canadian whisky, and even rum, depend on flavors that have been captured in a used barrel. Each time an unaged spirit is added to a used barrel, the spirit's aging process will be informed by what was in the barrel beforehand. This is a particularly important considering how vastly different a spirit that has been aged in a new barrel is from a spirit aged in a used barrel. Even finishing a spirit, which typically requires aging the spirit for at least two years in a different barrel, such as a sherry butt or port cask, can be used to layer in yet other flavors. Even something as small as the specific mash bill of a bourbon can greatly affect the flavors in a barrel that a white spirit can access while it rests.
During barrel-aging, the flavors of the wood are infused into the white spirit. But this is only half of the equation. The flavors of the spirit are also suffused into the wood. Thus, when a subsequent new make spirit is added, the flavors of any earlier finished products will be imparted. But this is not an infinite process. As a barrel is reused, its own flavors are leeched away. Over time a neutral environment will result. Each liquid added to the barrel exists in its timeline. And when the product is taken out of a barrel it will not only represent a fixed point in the life cycle of the barrel, but it will also carry the impression of the barrel's history. I never really understood just how this worked until I started experimenting with my own small barrel.
The process is fascinating. The first spirit I aged would be the only one that would be 100 percent affected by the barrel. Because of this, the initial decision-making process is incredibly streamlined. Short of temperature and location decisions, the only remaining decision is when to empty the barrel. It was simply a question of time and taste. But every choice after that would get incrementally more complex. The pisco I added to the barrel second has trace flavors of the rum I started with. The El Presidente cocktail that came next was influenced by both the pisco and the rum. As I started to understand how each decision impacted the next, my choices became more complex and more interesting. The effects of the flavors already in the barrel and how they would influence the next project needed to be accounted for. What kind of cocktail would benefit most from what had come before? This became the underlying theme of the entire process.
Enter the Claridge
I was first introduced to the Claridge Cocktail at a friend's house a couple of years ago. His knowledge of classic cocktails to this day exceeds my own, and I was happy to taste any beverage, new or old, that had captured his attention. For me it was the apricot brandy that made the cocktail so interesting. And yet it was such an old drink. But then again, I have always had a soft spot for classics.
Gary Regan outlined his opinions about the origins of the Claridge a couple of years ago in the San Francisco Chronicle. His research brought him from Harry Craddock's Savoy Cocktail Book, where I first discovered it, to Harry McElhone's 1927 Barflies and Cocktails. McElhone attributes it to "Leon, Bartender, Claridge's Hotel, Champs Elysee." Unfortunately, the trail runs cold thereafter.
Given that the flavors of the El Presidente are bright and fruity, the Claridge seemed like a natural choice to follow it into the barrel.
1 ounce gin
1 ounce dry vermouth
1/2 ounce apricot brandy
1/2 ounce Cointreau
Combine ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Notes on Ingredients: I used Gordon's gin, Bitter Truth apricot brandy, and Dolin dry vermouth.
Fruity and bright, this is a cocktail that depends on the apricot brandy for its success. Delicate, yet still spirit forward, the Claridge is a perfect cocktail to use to test apricot brandies. Being the second cocktail that followed two spirits in my barrel, even after three months the influence of the barrel was slight. The oak of the barrel could be discerned as a hint in the after taste. A certain berry note from the grenadine in the El Presidente was apparent in the mid-palate. But it was an undercurrent of funk from the Wray and Nephew, still apparent after so much time, that hinted at the history of the barrel contained in this new cocktail.