Listen to Austin 360 Radio

The Bonneville’s cocktail program explores barrel-aging

Arianna Auber
aauber@statesman.com

At Sunday’s Pajama Brunch, the Bonneville will serve up a cocktail that’s already becoming a signature of its bar program.

The Bloody Mary has all the trappings of your typical weekend morning drink — that pepper-fueled kick you might need to get your day started after a long night out — but with a couple of twists.

For one, the bar staff infused Starlite Vodka with black peppercorns, Szechuan peppercorns, dried chiles and fresh basil, but they didn’t stop there. They let the infusion age for about four to six weeks in one of the three small oak barrels that rest along center shelves on the bar’s back wall. At brunches, they serve the vodka in the Barrel Aged Bloody Mary with house-made mix (the mass market stuff wouldn’t cut it for them) topped with house-pickled radish and green beans.

Whiskey and other spirits gain so much of their character, flavor and color when they’re aged in barrels during the distillation process. So what happens when bartenders put the booze back in the barrels? It’s a growing trend that husband-and-wife owners of the Bonneville, Jennifer Costello and Chris Hurley, wanted to explore. The Starlite Vodka experiment certainly isn’t their first.

“We’re big fans of old classic cocktails, but we like to repurpose them to make them different,” Costello said.

A prime example of that is the Bonneville: a play on the Paloma with Espolon Silver tequila, fresh Texas grapefruit juice and a spiced cinnamon syrup. The tequila hasn’t been infused with any additional ingredients or spent some time maturing in one of the oak barrels, although plenty of the other spirits in the Bonneville cocktails have been.

Costello said the barrel-aging program kicked off going whole hog. She and the bar staff didn’t just age a single spirit — they aged a cocktail, a Manhattan made with Templeton Rye, and liked the end result.

“The barrels take the edge off the alcohol,” Costello said. “They deepen the flavor of the cocktail.”

That’s an effect you’d expect from wood-maturing either a spirit or a drink, she said. As the Manhattan aged for several weeks, the oaky notes of the barrel combined with the richness of the rye and vermouth, muting some of the heat of the alcohol but only enhancing the rest of the flavors.

Another effect of barrel-aging a cocktail is that it’s going to be all mixed and ready to go when it’s time to serve, no extra preparation required. (Sadly, though, the Manhattan isn’t currently available at the Bonneville.)

Since that initial experiment, the Bonneville bar staff hasn’t matured any other cocktails, but has added tequila, rum and vodka to the barrels, playing around with the left-behind flavors in the wood from past aging. For example, they noticed that by reusing the casks, spirits they poured in later took on each other’s flavors in addition to the ever-more-subtle wood notes. “The vodka picked up the sweetness of the rum we’d aged just before it,” Costello said.

Infusions are also a big component of the Bonneville’s cocktail program, and as the Barrel Aged Bloody Mary showcases, the bar staff isn’t afraid to both infuse and barrel age for one cocktail.

Sometimes, though, the infusions are all that’s needed. I tried peach-infused bourbon on my recent visit to the downtown restaurant, and it’s honestly one of the best things I’ve had in awhile, with the gentle burst of sweet peach mellowing out — and at the same time accentuating — the big, boozy punch of bourbon. It’s got the starring role in the Bonneville’s Peach and Ginger Old-Fashioned, but a brilliant solo show doesn’t need supporting players. I wanted to sip the whiskey neat.

I expect that’s how some people might feel about the vodka in the Barrel Aged Bloody Mary. It can actually come two ways: either as a full-blown cocktail with the house-made mix and vegetable accoutrements, or as a more-stripped down version with only the vodka and hot sauce (depending on how you’re feeling that morning, Costello said).

Sunday is the Bonneville’s first Pajama Brunch (10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.). If you show up in your PJs, you’ll get a free mimosa, but forking out some money for the Bloody Mary will be worth it, too.