- Julia Thiel
- Barrel-aged vodka, still in the barrel at Chicago Distilling Company
Barrel-aged gin is having a moment. Barrel-aged cocktails are everywhere. Barrel-aged vodka, however—not so much. And that alone was enough reason for Two mixologist Graham Crowe and Chicago Distilling Company owner Jay DiPrizio to want to make one. “I had never had a barrel-aged vodka before,” Crowe says. “That intrigued us. Like, why haven’t we had this?”
One possibility, of course, is that people don’t make it because it doesn’t taste good (much like cocktails that combine Campari and Indian cream liqueur). Or maybe there’s just been a lack of interest. Many spirits fans avoid vodka, which by definition is supposed to be tasteless, in favor of stuff with some flavor. Crowe is not one of these people. “I’ve never met a spirit I didn’t like,” he says. He prefers vodka in cocktails that use fresh-squeezed juices and purees because “it really takes on that freshness without distorting it.”
Crowe had tried Chicago Distilling Company’s barrel-aged gin, which is finished in new oak barrels, and asked Jay (who co-owns the distillery with his wife, Noelle, and brother, Vince) whether Chicago Distilling could make a barrel-aged vodka for Two. As it happens, CDC is in the middle of developing a malt whiskey program and had an empty barrel in which one of the whiskeys had recently been finished; in late January they filled it with the distillery’s Ceres Vodka.
- Julia Thiel
- Vince DiPrizio pulling the first of the vodka out of the barrel
I recently stopped by the distillery to try the six-week-aged vodka. Noelle DiPrizio explained that the mash for each malt whiskey they make is developed in the style of a specific beer, and the barrel that the vodka was in had been used to age their stout—meaning that the whiskey uses malt grains that would go into a typical stout recipe (unlike beer, however, the mash for whiskey doesn’t include any hops). The whiskey spent three months in the barrel and was currently in holding containers waiting to be filtered and brought down to the right proof before being bottled.
Vince DiPrizio unstoppered the barrel and pulled out a little of the vodka; in the glass it was the palest gold, so light that in small quantities it looked clear. Noelle noted that because the barrel had previously been used to age another spirit, it wouldn’t give the vodka as much flavor or color as if it were a new barrel (which it was when the whiskey went into it)—but because wood is porous, it would have absorbed some of the whiskey flavor and imparted it on the vodka.
We tasted both the unaged Ceres vodka—which I won’t comment on because as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a vodka fan—and the barrel-aged version. I was impressed by how much the aging had smoothed and mellowed the vodka. It didn’t taste anything like whiskey or stout, but there were faint notes of chocolate, caramel, and oak, together with a sweet spiciness. While it’s not something I’d want to drink straight all the time, I liked it a whole lot better than regular vodka.
Jay DiPrizio says that vodka isn’t among his favorite spirits, and he rarely drinks it outside the distillery. “Before I tasted [the barrel-aged version], I was skeptical,” he says. “But I actually really enjoyed it. It reminded me of a small category, mostly unknown, called light whiskey. It’s a blend of spirits that has at least 5 percent whiskey.”
The barrel-aged vodka will go on the menu at Two later this week, but it doesn’t have a name yet because it’s awaiting label approval. Crowe is planning to offer it as part of a flight that also includes Ceres vodka and the Two house blend of Angel’s Envy bourbon, as well as in various cocktails. He’s thinking of using it in a Boulevardier, a Negroni, or a classic gimlet, as well as seasonal smashes once fruit starts coming back into season.