This article first appeared in the 2020 Interiors issue of Ottawa Magazine.
A small group of amateur mixologists gathers around a table at Taproom 260 in Orleans; we’re burning orange peels with cigarette lighters and carving lemons with zesters and cheese graters. Before us are three glasses, each holding a few sips of brown liquor.
Standing at the head of the table is Jeffrey Roberts or, as my classmate boasts, “Ottawa’s best bartender.” Roberts is explaining how aging regular mass produced alcohol in oak barrels creates deep, complex flavours. Two weeks, a month, a couple of months inside an American white oak cask can coax out some intense flavours.
That’s the magic of the barrel. When the inside of an oak barrel is exposed to flames — that is, toasted or charred — the vessel develops the kinds of natural smoke, fruit, and vanilla notes expected in fine wine. Barrel-aged spirits are now at the centre of the craft-cocktail movement, a trend that scoffs at basic screwdrivers and rum and Cokes in favour of meticulously assembled drinks.
Roberts’ new distribution business, Urban Barrel, seeks to take the fine art of fancy drinks to ambitious at-home imbibers — to people who want to age their small batch whiskies, rums, and tequilas on the counter next to the toaster.
Roberts discovered the magic for himself about 10 years ago at a mixology trade event in New Orleans. It was an aged sazerac that did it: the official cocktail of New Orleans, sazeracs normally combine rye whiskey, absinthe or Herbsaint, Peychaud’s Bitters, sugar, and lemon peel. When the first sip hit Roberts’ lips, his eyes widened into saucers. “I just fell in love with the flavours and contrast, and I was amazed a barrel could do that in such a short period of time. You can have such beautiful flavours that distillers aren’t able to achieve,” he says.
At 40, Roberts has spent half his life behind various bars. In fact, he worked for the previous tenant of Taproom 260 for 10 years: D’Arcy McGee’s, formerly run by Roberts’ friend and mentor, the late Jim Morrison. “He let me spread my wings behind the bar,” says Roberts. “For as many good ideas as I’ve had, I’ve had some bad ideas too. He grounded me and told me point-blank, ‘Move on. That’s not a good idea.’ ”
One of his better ideas was Urban Barchef, which he started in 2012 as a mobile craft-cocktail service for private events and venues. More recently, Roberts has been transitioning his business endeavours into the distribution side — first with Urban Barrel and soon with a brand new distillery, Loch and Barrel, in Petawawa.
Though he still imports barrels from the United States because of volume needs, he’s recently found a cooper — another word for barrel maker — in Carp who can produce some of them. As Joe Thomson of Carp’s County Cooperage explains, toasting and charring are the secret to barrel aging. When a small fire is lit inside an open barrel, the flames unlock notes of wood, smoke, and vanilla. Those flavours lend themselves to whatever comes next — a port or perhaps a sherry.
The second secret is that every subsequent liquid builds on the flavour of the last, creating unique and complex blends. A wine cask can lend a fruity, spicy finish to a Glaswegian scotch, while butter ripple schnapps can lend caramel notes to a Kentucky bourbon.
These secrets are out now. The global craft-cocktail movement is embracing barrel aging, and the market is lining up for it. Roberts points to the 2019 edition of the Ottawa Valley Craft Beer and Spirits Festival, where a small crew pumped out craft cocktails for eight solid hours. “We made a barrel-aged maple whisky sour with a nice kiss of red wine on the top. I garnished it with lemon zest, orange zest, and some fresh pepper. And we literally made around 350 of these cocktails,” says Roberts. “I don’t mean to take centre stage. I just really enjoy the art of making cocktails.”