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Toronto bartender’s first barrel-aged Manhattan mostly tastes like wood

After almost five months of aging $400 worth of rye and sweet vermouth in an $150 oak barrel, Jen Agg, co-owner and bartender of Toronto's The Black Hoof, takes her first sip of her newest cocktail, a barrel-aged Manhattan.

She tastes, then tastes some more, before reaching a verdict. "I'm going to go on the record," she says. "I don't care for this."

I have to agree. New oak has not imbued these Manhattans with the desired smooth vanilla, caramel and fruit notes of chardonnay or whisky. It has not mellowed the flavours or brought new nuances. Instead, this batch of rye, sweet vermouth and bitters tastes overpoweringly of wood.

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But that isn't the end of the story, of course. Skilled bartenders such as Ms. Agg don't take an axe to barrels of booze, Eliot Ness-style, when a cocktail doesn't succeed. They learn from their mistakes and tweak until they get it right.

Barrel-aging, once the exclusive domain of vintners and distillers, entered the mixologist's arsenal early last year. Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bartender at Clyde Common in Portland, Ore., developed the technique after sampling a bottle-aged Manhattan at 69 Colebrooke Row in London. "They were delicious," he says.

Inspired, Mr. Morgenthaler put his own spin on aging by maturing his own cocktails in oak barrels. The experiment worked and the first batch of Manhattans sold out in days. And after writing about his discovery on his website in April, 2010, barrel-aging went viral. Elite bartenders from Boston to Brooklyn adopted the technique, and now similarly adventurous barkeeps, such as Ms. Agg, are doing likewise north of the border.

Mr. Morgenthaler has refined his technique since his original announcement, and distills his knowledge into a few simple rules: Milk, juice and other ingredients that will spoil are out; so are spirits that have already seen time in a barrel, such as whisky.

As for the hardware, Mr. Morgenthaler prefers used barrels. "I have a professional hunch that whisky barrels work better," he advises, and he ages his cocktails for two months, on average, though he generally starts tasting after six weeks.

Ms. Agg learned quickly from her mistakes. Three days after the unsuccessful tasting, diners at The Black Hoof enjoy the option of a regular Manhattan or a version that is one-third barrel-aged.

This version works far better. The oaky note remains, but it's a mere accent that no longer overwhelms the bitters and sweet vermouth.

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For her part, Ms. Agg is satisfied. "I'm really happy with how this all came together," she says.

But, as an experienced bartender and cocktail connoisseur, she is still not completely sold on the trend. "One thing I want to make perfectly clear," she adds, "at the end of the day, I think fresh-made cocktails probably taste better. But if you can add an element of oak-barrel aging into it, that's pretty cool."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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