Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
When I look in the mirror every morning and spot another white hair in my goatee, or notice that the hair atop my head looks a bit thinner, or when I wake up with body aches from unknown causes, I always chalk it up to the unwanted consequences of aging. Or, when my SUV starts making noises that do not sound at all like the purr of a brand new engine, or when the desktop or laptop slows to a crawl and needs to be rebooted several times a day. Even inanimate aging seems inevitable.
There are times, however, when aging isn’t just welcomed, but actually desired . . . like when milk from totally grass-fed vacche rosse, or red cows, from the Reggio-Emilia region in northern Italy, is allowed to curdle naturally and then drained, salted and aged for 30 to 40 months. That process produces not just the famed Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, but also the Vacche Rosse Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese of the gods. Buttery, rich and salty with crunchy bits of crystalized amino acids and loads of umami, it is meant to be savored either as is or with a few precious drops of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, or true balsamic vinegar.
The True Balsamic Vinegar
After the juices of the Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes have cooked slowly for 12 to 24 hours until reduced by half, they are barreled and fermented with natural yeasts for up to three weeks. They are then aged in wooden barrels that allow acetic acid bacteria to convert the alcohol to acetic acid, producing a rudimentary form of balsamic vinegar. As the aging progresses, several different wooden barrels are employed, including oak, mulberry, ash, chestnut, cherry, juniper and acacia. Aging results in evaporation, so the barrels get progressively smaller. Once the vinegar has aged for 12 years, it is bottled as affinato (fine), vecchio (old) for vinegar 15 to 20 years old and extra vecchio for vinegar 20 to 25 years old.
The barrels are never fully drained — just topped off with a newer volume of younger vinegar. Needless to say, these aren’t the “balsamic” vinegars you find at your local supermarket, unless your neighborhood happens to be Beverly Hills. A small 100ml (just over 3 ounces) bottle costs between $75 and $200, depending on the age of the vinegar. Clearly, these vinegars are not meant for vinaigrettes. The precious drops are either drizzled on Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, gourmet ice creams or vine-ripened fruits.
What to Drink?
The answer to that question should be obvious — not coffee, soda or water. Cheese’s partner on the dining table is that other fermented beverage, vino! Fruitier, higher acid white wines pair with most cheeses because the fruit flavors in white wine complement the rich and salty qualities of most cheeses, just as fruit compotes pair with cheese. There are also several red wines that marry well with cheese.
One red wine in particular complements Parmigiano-Reggiano the same way that aged Balsamico di Modena works. Amarone di Valpolicella has those same sweet and sour flavors as a great Balsamico, just not as intense so that you can enjoy a full glass of Amarone instead of just a few precious drops. The aging with Amarone di Valpolicella doesn’t involve letting those bottles age for years in your wine cellar — it occurs before the grapes are even pressed.
Traditionally, ripe Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes in looser bunches are left to dry slowly on straw mats for 120 days, thus concentrating their flavors and sugars. The additional aging time also causes chemical polymerization of the tannins in the grape skins, balancing the flavor profile of the finished wine. After four months, the semidried grapes are pressed and then fermented like traditional Valpolicella (the same Valpolicella wines found in your local supermarket), but the additional dry aging creates a richer, concentrated wine like the concentration found in Balsamico.
What Else Ages Well?
Other than Lena Horne, Rita Moreno and Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin, distilled spirits improve with age. There’s something about letting any distilled spirit rest quietly in a wooden barrel for a year or two, or 12, that mellows the alcohol and introduces a host of aromas and flavors that change it from simple moonshine to elegant libation. As Col. Sherman Potter from M*A*S*H once stated, “There’s not enough o’s in smooth to describe it.”
Of course, this extended aging increases the cost of the final product since three-year-old bourbon is usually in the $25 range, while 12-year-old bourbon is in the $50 range and 20-year-old bourbon is way up there in $$$ heaven.
Spirits aged at the distillery aren’t the only way of sampling the favorable effects of aging. The younger generation of mixologists are creating their own barrel-aged cocktails right here in the 50th. The new speakeasy, Harry’s Hardware Emporium, has a whole wall of barrel-aged cocktails. Christian Self of Bevy has a wide range of barrel-aged cocktails, too, and so does 12th Ave Grill, whose barrel-aged Nolet gin (one of my favorite gins) is always behind the bar.
So instead of paying big bucks for 20-year-old whiskey, or ponying up $15 to $20 for these barrel-aged cocktails, how about creating your own in the privacy of your home?
Oak Barrels for Sale
Several years ago, I started aging my own libations after reading a cocktail blog site and following the writer’s lead on securing oak barrels from the website https://www.oakbarrelsltd.com. Although expensive (no surprise for the 50th), the shipping rates were at least within reason since you can craft at least five different cocktails from one barrel.
But the rates started climbing to the point where the cost for shipping four barrels was the same as the four barrels themselves, so I searched the next best site, Amazon.com, which not only sold oak barrels, but also shipped some for free or charged just a nominal fee. I’ve been crafting my own barrel-aged cocktails ever since — some for personal consumption and others that I bottle for gifts.
Prepping the oak barrel is actually pretty simple. First, you turn the barrel upside down so that the wood chips inside the barrel come out through the top bunghole. Next, you carefully pound the spigot into the barrel with a rubber mallet and fill the barrel with water, capping the bunghole and letting it sit quietly for about a week. In the first few days, you may notice water dripping from the spigot or between the staves. Once the water soaks into the wood and expands, however, it creates a water-tight seal, although I still keep the barrel in a plastic storage container that holds more than the liquid inside, just in case of a catastrophic barrel failure.
Drain the water after a week and then fill it with your cocktail of choice and let it sit for two weeks. The charred inner surface of the barrel “softens” the alcohol and adds its own flavor nuances. Each cocktail after that will take an additional week to age. When I reach that fifth cocktail creation, I usually add pure gin to create my own barrel-aged gin, which comes out just a little lighter than straight whiskey.
So, does barrel-aging actually improve the quality of the cocktail? My first libation was a barrel-aged Manhattan using rye whiskey, French vermouth and a healthy dose of Angostura bitters. The Mrs., who prefers sweeter cocktails and usually winces when she sips whiskey-based drinks, sampled a “fresh” Manhattan made with the same rye whiskey, vermouth and bitters. Cough, cough, cough . . .
Then she sipped the barrel-aged version. Mmm . . . She actually pulled the glass away for a second sip, and then a third when I tried to retrieve it. Success, if I may say so myself . . . and just for the cost of an oak barrel and several weeks of aging.
Now that’s my idea of aging . . .
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”