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The Crunkleton's barrel-aged cocktails raise the bar

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On a recent Thursday evening, Gary Crunkleton sat at the edge of his Chapel Hill bar, electric drill in hand, oblivious to the quiet conversations taking place nearby. Peering over the top of his thick-rimmed glasses, he cut a hole in a charred, 5-gallon barrel to reveal a rye Manhattan—rye whiskey, Italian vermouth and orange bitters—that had been aging for months.

The cocktail is one of six varieties that are mixed and left to blend in barrels at The Crunkleton. The process allows the ingredients in each spirit to integrate more fully than a simple shake will do. And the result is a well-rounded, complex cocktail imbued with the flavors it takes on in a wooden container.

"What I like to do is put quality out there at the expense of quantity," Crunkleton says. That's quite a statement; his bar contains nearly 400 bottles of spirits—an expansive collection that became a cornerstone of the Triangle's cocktail offerings when The Crunkleton opened in July 2010. But his comment is telling of a mature bar and scene. There's no need for one place to stock everything; options for a solid mixed drink abound, as does an audience for such concoctions.

Crunkleton spoke about this in October at Portland Cocktail Week, where he led a class called "Fertile Soil: Growing a Cocktail Culture" for students and peers including Dale DeGroff, the venerable mixologist formerly of New York's Rainbow Room who wrote The Craft of the Cocktail and goes by "King Cocktail." "It seemed like a good fit for me because that's what we're doing here in North Carolina," Crunkleton says.

An academic at heart (before opening his bar, Crunkleton taught high school, established a nonprofit in Charlotte and obtained a graduate certificate in nonprofit management at Duke and UNC), Crunkleton has long advocated for spirits education. He regularly hosts lectures with mixologists and distillers at his bar. He takes his staff to Tales of the Cocktail, a symposium on spirits that's held in New Orleans each year. And he frequently speaks up about what makes a good drink.

After he drilled into the barrel that contained a rye Manhattan mix, Crunkleton stopped by a table where I was seated with friends. Two of us had fresh rye Manhattans, recently shaken. Crunkleton, whose large personality rivals the oversized bowties worn by his staff, kidded us, asking if the drinks tasted like crap. They didn't, we assured him (they were actually quite good). Nonetheless, he took the opportunity to share with us the gospel of the barrel-aged cocktail.

"Frankly, I thought it was a novelty thing," Crunkleton later said of the technique, which took shape nearly a decade ago at the hands of Tony Conigliaro at 69 Colebrooke Row in London. His process, which relied on mixing batches mostly in glass containers, was later "Americanized" by Jeffrey Morgenthaler of the Clyde Common bar at the Ace Hotel in Portland, Ore., who put pre-mixed cocktails into wooden barrels. Crunkleton read about the process on Morgenthaler's blog, and then ordered a barrel to try the process at his own place. "I was really nervous about it because it was an expensive experiment," he says. Crunkleton began with the ingredients for a Negroni—gin, Campari and Italian vermouth—letting them age for four months. The plan was to tap the barrel on the bar's one-year anniversary.

But Crunkleton got antsy and served the cocktail before that date rolled around. "It was delicious," he says. "I got my first taste of what Tony and Jeffrey were doing." Crunkleton promptly ordered additional barrels to age the rye Manhattan and the Martinez: gin, maraschino liqueur and Italian vermouth.

Crunkleton likens the success of the process to making a pot of chili: "When you taste chili when it's brand new, everything is separate—the beans, the broth, the meat—but after it ages a little bit, all of that takes on a flavor of its own that's better than its parts."

In March, Crunkleton upgraded to the 5-gallon containers, which he secures from Black Swan cooperage in Minnesota, and added more barrel-aged drinks to his menu. There's a Vieux Carré (rye whiskey, Cognac, vermouth, Bénédictine, Peychaud's bitters and Angostura bitters), a Rocks and Rye (Wild Turkey, Old Overholt and Pikesville rye whiskey mixed with rock candy crystals) and a Chrysanthemum (gin, absinthe, Cocchi Americano and French vermouth).

"It's beautiful," Crunkleton says of the latter, which pours pale yellow. Age looks good on a cocktail—and a bar.

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