One of the trends circulating through the restaurant and bar scene is the “custom barrel,” which generally involves a bar choosing a specific barrel of whiskey or tequila from a producer that then gets bottled with a custom label bearing the bar’s name. When the food and beverage team at Woodinville’s Willows Lodge and Barking Frog looked into adding customized spirits to their bar program, they wanted to go beyond simply choosing from existing barrels of whiskey. They decided to make something truly local, unique, and collaborative.
Food and beverage director Anthony Berkau said he would love to put a custom whiskey on the menu, but that can take about three years to develop and age so, he switched gears to gin, partnering with Copperworks Distilling Co. in Seattle. The Copperworks team has an affinity for unusual experimentation when it comes to aging gin in unconventional barrels. They’ve tried everything from mezcal to sherry barrels. But, they’ve never aged gin in a wine barrel.
“When Tony approached us with the idea of aging gin in a wine barrel, we got really excited,” said Jason Parker, Copperworks co-founder and president.
But, which wine barrel to choose?
Berkau decided to pursue a white wine barrel and immediately thought of DeLille Cellars’ Chaleur Blanc. He considers it one of the state’s best white wines, possessing tropical notes and capable of aging for a number of years. Berkau proposed his idea to DeLille winemaker Jason Gorski, who, in addition to being a huge gin and tonic fanatic, loved the idea of collaboration. The $1,100 French oak barrel had been filled only once and Gorski probably would have sold it to another winery for $700-$800. But, where’s the fun in that?
As it so happened, the barrel had just been emptied of its Chaleur Blanc. The empty barrel was rinsed and ready to go the same day. Berkau picked it up, recalling that it was still damp from the rinse, and delivered it to Copperworks where it was filled with a fresh batch of gin.
Over the course of the next 8½ months, the team met periodically to taste the gin’s progress. In early November, they reconvened on a sunny afternoon in the distillery’s production room, warm light bouncing off highly lacquered copper stills. They “uncorked” the barrel and siphoned up a sample for the eight of us present. The cask-strength amber liquid still possessed the juniper/fennel aromatic qualities of gin, but layered on top of that were tropical notes of pineapple, citrus, caramel, and green curry with a pleasant whiff of cardamom.
Gorski immediately pointed out how he could taste his barrel — the specific toast of the oak, the hay, and tropical “piña colada” characteristics of the Klipsun vineyard Sauvignon Blanc that goes into DeLille’s Chaleur Blanc. Parker noted that the finish on the gin reminded him of flan — an almost creamy sensation that, while common for a whiskey, is unusual for gin.
“Aromatically, it’s really cool. I mean, when you want to just keep smelling it and smelling it, to me that screams of all the potential it has for a craft cocktail. It’s going to be really versatile in our program,” said Berkau.
Negronis came to several minds at once, and Parker agreed but pointed out that this gin could be used in a rendition of a French 75 or cocktails that are “gentle” with the contributions of other ingredients, so the gin is the feature. “Even a martini, which is called a ‘Martinez’ when made with a brown gin, would be great with some sweet vermouth,” suggested Parker.
The culinary wheels of Barking Frog chef Bobby Moore were already turning. “Right now, we’re making a coconut curry sauce that we serve with seared scallops. It’s made with white wine, but maybe we will substitute this gin for the white wine. Or half and half.” Earlier, Moore noted his appreciation for the way Copperworks approached the use of its gin botanicals in much the same way that he approaches flavors in food.
The “Collaboration Cask” gin was bottled in early December, and all 25 cases were delivered into the hands of the Willows Lodge/Barking Frog culinary and beverage program. Look for it on the cocktail menu throughout the next few seasons as it morphs from warming winter cocktails into crisp spring flavors and summer refreshers.