What exactly is cask beer? The simple answer is unfiltered and unpasteurized beer that experiences its carbonation naturally and is served at cellar temperature, around 55 degrees. Rather than injecting the beer with co2, the carbonation occurs through secondary fermentation, which essentially means injecting live yeast into the firkin, the vessel the beer will be served from.
Trying a beer on cask for the first time can be strange. It tastes warmer than draft beer. It’s less carbonated and has a different mouth feel. It’s poured from a different mechanism and requires tools like spiles, shives, spigots and a keystone. But cask beer showcases the taste and aroma of beer in a way that cannot be achieved on draft.
Cask ales are a staple in the U.K. but are gaining massive popularity in the U.S. as well. “I’m a big fan of the traditional English styles,” says Bill Madden, CEO and Chief Executive Brewer at Mad Fox Brewing in Falls Church. Both Mad Fox taprooms have cask beer options; Glover Park has three hand pumps and Falls Church has six. “The goal with cask ale is to have a properly conditioned cask. To have that we have to rotate through the hand pumps,” says Madden, “we are not always at capacity since we must allow space for the others to properly condition in the firkin, then they must be dropped and served at the proper condition and settle. This takes about 24 hours.”
One difficulty with American cask ales is maintaining a balance of flavors. “The unfortunate side of casks is that the firkins have a bung [a hole through which the firkin is filled or emptied]. A lot of things get stuffed in there that shouldn’t be. The American business is often infusing cocoa nibs or other additives in the cask. Not what traditional casks do.” Madden continues; “but to keep current with industry demands we occasionally do some odd stuff. The Funk was a dry-hop Saison that we first did on cask. We got to tasting it and it was a great beer” it has since become a mainstay on draft.
“While it is an old tradition, widespread cask availability is a relatively new concept in the U.S.” says Christopher Leonard, Brewmaster and Operations Manager at Heavy Seas out of Baltimore. The brewery features the largest cask program in the country, producing 50-100 firkins each month. “We focus on our English and American-style ales – IPA, English Pale Ale, Porter, Imperial Stout, ESB and Gold Ale.” According to Leonard, cask beer is part of the foundation upon which Heavy Seas was founded; “the tradition, flavor, style and romance of cask conditioned ales were an inspiration to Hugh Sisson in founding Heavy Seas back in 1995. He had spent time in England and came to love the cask ales there.”
Leonard feels that there is much more to cask beer than simply the flavor; “there is an additional hands-on approach that cask ales provide the consumer – a connection to the brewer if you will – that moves us to continue producing beers this way. Each cask is a living, evolving, unique beer. So, each experience with one of our casks can be exciting and personal.” Because of the live yeast used in secondary fermentation, the beers are actually “alive” when they arrive at the bar. This reduces the shelf life of cask beer and is one of the reasons proper English-made cask ales are a rarity in this country; it is difficult to transport fresh casks over the Atlantic.
“Further, cask beer is a different experience,” Leonard continues, “the decreased carbonation, the cool temperature, the hand pull aerating the beer slightly – all contribute to the full realization of the ingredients singing in harmony. One can truly taste the malts, the hops, the yeast generated esters – all without the intrusion of carbonation or mouth numbing coldness.”
A unique feature that Heavy Seas offers their accounts is the ability to customize the firkins themselves. “We offer our base liquids,” says Leonard, “and provide a ‘menu’ of hops, wood, and TTB exempt ‘adjuncts’ (orange peel, cocoa nibs, coffee beans, cherries, etc.) from which the retailer can choose.” The menu provides over 3 million unique combinations, which ensures that every firkin Heavy Seas produces is special.
Next time you see a cask beer option on the list, give it a try and keep an eye out for Mad Fox and Heavy Seas beers at a bar near you. BM
The barrel-aged cocktail has moved from novelty act to ubiquitous. Peek behind the bar at your favorite watering hole and it’s no longer unusual to see one or several small barrels stashed away. They aren’t there for decor, but instead, house mini science laboratories, chemically imparting the magic of charred oak flavors to the boozy concoctions stored within.
If wood barrels can make everything from whiskey and rum to cognac and wine more flavorful when done correctly, then why can’t they do the same for a cocktail, aging its ingredients together as one? It’s an easy way for bartenders to either add more flavor, change a base flavor, or marry disparate flavors together, while also having a pre-batched cocktail ready to go.
At The Dupont Circle Hotel’s Bar Dupont, GM Chris McNeal has quietly developed an innovative cocktail program which includes a lineup of four barrel-aged cocktails, sourcing 5-liter charred barrels from Filibuster Bourbon. The current list includes a Boulevardier, with bourbon, sweet vermouth and Campari; The Final Ward, with rye whiskey, chartreuse and maraschino liqueur; Remember the Maine, with rye whiskey, house-made cherry heering, sweet vermouth and an absinthe wash; and the Michigan Cherry Manhattan, with cherry vodka, rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters.
Creating the perfect barrel-aged cocktail takes one part patience, one part experimentation, and one part careful, ongoing analysis. Maybe this really is like a mini science lab!
“First use [barrels] generally take on oak quickly and I have a tendency to double the time the second time around,” explains McNeal. Meaning, as he continues to re-use the barrels, he fine-tunes and controls the process to ensure he’s delivering the same result, even as the wood inside the barrel offers different aging properties.
To do so, he regularly tastes from each barrel. “I pull a sample in a test tube every week and taste and record the information according to color, taste, texture and character,” he explains.
McNeal opts for the 5-liter barrels for convenience and efficiency. “It’s the smallest I can do here at the bar without running out in a week,” he says. Meanwhile, larger barrels such as 53-gallon and 30-gallon barrels common in the whiskey industry take far longer to impart the same flavors.
Don Ciccio & Figli has gained traction locally with their diverse lineup of high quality liqueurs. Company founder Francesco Amodeo draws from classic recipes rooted in family history and Italian culture, while also incorporating new ideas and techniques of his own.
One such creation is the Amaro delle Sirene, a traditional bitter liqueur with roots to the early 1900’s along the Amalfi Coast. Last made by Monpigar in 1931, Amodeo has brought it back to life at Don Ciccio & Figli. They barrel-age each batch for between 30 and 45 days in 225-L French oak barrels which had previously been used by Amalfi Coast wine producer Marisa Cuomo Winery.
A special edition of the Amaro delle Sirene has also been released. This “Edizione Speciale” of the liqueur has been solera-aged for 12 months, with inspiration coming from the Sherry aging process.
To get in on the fun at home, turn to another local company, Copper Fox Distillery. They sell an at-home barrel-aging kit, complete with a 2-liter charred barrel, two 750ml bottles of unaged cask strength spirits, either their single malt or their rye, and instructions to help guide you along.
This way, you can age your own whiskey, and then when you’re done, you can experiment with barrel-aging your own cocktails, either with that whiskey or with any other spirit.
McNeal offers several tips for those looking to age their own cocktails at home. “Never put any fresh juices in your barrel,” he warns. “Instead, add those ingredients out of the barrel.”
Whiskey is a logical base spirit to choose, while gin works in the right cocktail, and vodka is best avoided. Before just throwing any random combination of ingredients in the barrel, also consider if you think those flavors would work well. McNeal says to ask yourself, “Would this taste good with a little softer, oak edge to it?”
Finally, McNeal advises to, “Make sure you add bold cordials or a second major liquor to enhance the cocktail.” JE
If you’d rather do the sampling than the creating, then here are a few more spots where you can try barrel-aged drinks around town.
Balkan hotspot Ambar offers two barrel-aged concoctions for you to explore, a barrel-aged negroni, and a barrel-aged Manhattan, each priced at $12. Ambar: 523 8th St. SE; 202-813-3039; www.ambarrestaurant.com
Bibiana Osteria Enoteca
During the holiday season, Bibiana unleashes their 25 cocktail countdown to Christmas, with enough seasonal drinks to take you straight from the start of the month to the holiday. All priced at $12, one is a barrel-aged negroni which rests all year long, a full 12 months, for the occasion. Bibiana Osteria Enoteca: 1100 New York Ave. NW; 202-216-9550; www.bibianadc.com
Bourbon keeps a rotating collection of seasonal barrel-aged cocktails in stock, generally with four available at a time. They age each for a month. All priced at $14, recent selections included a spiced Sazerac and a Manhattan. Bourbon: 2321 18th St. NW; 202-332-0800; www.bourbondc.com
At Lupo Verde, where Amodeo serves as beverage director, he created the Alexis cocktail, featuring his barrel-aged Amaro Delle Sirene. Priced at $13, the cocktail also includes bourbon, Don Ciccio & Figli’s walnut liqueur, Nocino and orange bitters. Lupo Verde: 1401 T St. NW; 202-827-4752; www.lupoverdedc.com
Masa 14 has three barrel-aged cocktails on hand depending on which base spirit you prefer. All priced at $13, there’s a barrel-aged negroni, barrel-aged Masa Manhattan, and barrel-aged The Ascot, with tequila, Luxardo Cherry liqueur and Lillet Blanc. Masa 14: 1825 14th St. NW; 202-328-1414; www.richardsandoval.com/masa14
Blue Duck Tavern
Park Hyatt Washington’s Blue Duck Tavern is offering a play on the classic Vieux Carre, called the Meridian Hill. They use all white, unaged spirits, and then barrel-age the cocktail together. The drink includes George Dickel white whiskey, Domaine D’espérance White Armagnac, Amontillado Sherry, white port, and bitters. You can also try a non-barrel aged version side-by-side to compare the effects of the aging process. Blue Duck Tavern at Park Hyatt Washington: 1201 24th St. NW; 202-789-1234; www.parkwashington.hyatt.com
The barrel-aged Manhattan at the Rye Bar, located in the Capella Hotel in Georgetown, may set you back a pretty penny at $22 per drink but it also may be the best Manhattan of any kind in town, made with Dad’s Hat rye whiskey, and full-size barrels for aging. Rye Bar: 1050 31st St. NW; 202-617-2400; www.capellahotels.com
The Royal makes their own vermouth in house, barrel-aging a huge batch and then serving it on tap at the bar for $8. The result is entirely distinctive to most other vermouths, a bit of a mix between a dry and sweet style. They also use that signature vermouth in a seasonally changing list of cocktails. The Royal: 501 Florida Ave. NW; 202-332-7777; www.theroyaldc.com