Barrel-aged cocktails are all the rage right now, so it would make sense that one of the hottest restaurants in America, Top-Chef winner and Food & Wine Best New Chef Stephanie Izard's Girl and the Goat, would be jumping on the bandwagon. But, with mixologist Ben Schiller at the helm, simply following a trend isn't enough. It has to be done right.
We got a chance to help Schiller prepare one of the first batches of G&TG's barrel-aged Manhattans, and it's not as simple as you might think—do you know exactly how many drops of bitters goes into a "dash?" Follow the entire process with us.
Before the project started, Schiller and Izard took a trip to Kentucky to visit the Buffalo Trace distillery. Apparently it was quite a road trip—two of the best of Chicago's food scene tasting and drinking and tasting and drinking—but they came back with two barrels of a special, single-batch bourbon. Though they're not available to the general public, Buffalo Trace (and many other distilleries) will allow bars and restaurants to buy a specific barrel of bourbon out of the distillery. Unlike the finished "Buffalo Trace" brand, which is blended from many different barrels in such a way that it tastes pretty much the same all the time, these barrels are kept intact, with their unique flavors and textures. "We tasted five different barrels from different parts of the distillery, and they were all totally different," said Schiller. After the barrels were picked, they were bottled into special bottles labeled "Goat Bandit"—the spirit is available to order at the restaurant.
If you go, try ordering the Goat Bandit side-by-side with regular Buffalo Trace to see the difference—the Goat Bandit has strong vanilla notes, and is much smoother than the store-bought product. Having a unique house spirit is a nice touch, but it isn't nearly as complex as aging a cocktail. Here's the key: instead of just collecting the bottles, Schiller and Izard also bought the barrels and had them sent to G&TG.
A barrel-aged Manhattan isn't the most complicated cocktail in the world, but it is still a huge investment. Imagine the cost of 240 bottles (the approximate amount in a barrel) that doesn't go into the bar, but instead sits in a barrel, and on the restaurant's balance sheet, for months at a time! In a city that hadn't had many cocktails of this type, going a bit safe with cocktail choice seemed like the right decision. However, when you make cocktails on this scale, even a simple drink becomes quite a process. Trust me—I opened at least half of the bottles.
Schiller decided to make a 3/1 ratio Manhattan to put in the barrel: 3 parts bourbon to 1 part vermouth, which meant, scaled up, a ratio of about 15 cases of bourbon to 5 cases of vermouth. To combine with the custom Goat Bandit bourbon, Schiller chose Dolin sweet vermouth and the traditional Angostura bitters. But the bitters presented a problem. "How much bitters is in a dash?'" Schiller asked me, and I admitted that I had no idea. On this scale, we might be adding hundreds or thousands of dashes, and that simply wasn't precise enough.
So, Schiller had to do all the measurements. The number of drops in a "dash" also depends on how full the bottle is when the dash is poured. Schiller wouldn't tell us the final amount, but trust me, a lot of thought went into this supposedly simple cocktail. After all of the bottles were opened, poured into the barrel, and tossed out, the barrel was sealed and left to sit in the basement. The cocktail will eventually be aged for a total of 3 months.
We put the cocktails into the barrel about 10 weeks ago, and Schiller is periodically drawing some samples out. The eventual goal is to try line-tastings of different "vintages": try a Manhattan at 1 month, 2 months and 3 months. Schiller also has visions of putting a cocktail through the Solera aging process, moving through different types of barrels: sherry, port and whiskey.
Next time you're at Girl and the Goat, ask if the drink is available—or call ahead and find out before you get there. It's only served as a special, since there simply isn't enough of it to put it on the menu. The cost is $15, which is not bad for a drink you literally can't get anywhere else.