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Guest Blog Post: President of the Charleston Bartenders Guild

John Aquino
President, USBG Charleston Chapter
Owner, Natural Blonde Bloody Mary Mix
BS Bio-Chemistry
I've been in the bar industry for 30 years this year, and I've seen all of the trends come and go, but the last 10 years have been SPECTACULAR! From molecular to the return of the classics, new tools and old ways (ice blocks, eg.), and the boom of hand crafted spirits, bitters, mixers and modifiers, it's not unlike comparing technological advances from 1900-1950 to 1951-2000. When the crazy stuff began 10 years ago, most of the innovators kept their secrets to themselves, and rightly so. Finally, these guys saw $$$ and started writing books about their styles and techniques, and that info launched a whole new wave of young, eager, creative mixologists who took pride in KNOWING the craft and KNOWING the products down to a cellular level.
With a background in Bio-Chemistry, I bought as many books as I could that went to that intricate level, experimenting with the techniques and trying to at least stay even with the trends. While there are several great books that delve into that realm, the book I got the most from (at first) that has a direct influence on my application using the staves Chris provided is "Craft Cocktails at Home", by Kevin Liu. I made a LOT of lemon- and orange-cellos for my former restaurants, but it would take 3 weeks minimum before they were ready. Kevin talks about cutting that time into hours by sous vide-ing the infusion. By pouring your spirit (I recommend 100 proof over pure grain) into a mason jar with the citrus peel, and using the sous vide method at a temp of 50 Celsius (122.5 Fahrenheit) for 4 to 5 hours, it creates the same effect as the 3 to 4 week infusion.
The science behind the 50 Celsius is integral...peels contain oils, which is what you want to extract for flavor, but anything over 125 F totally breaks down the cellular structure of the peel and the bitter components contained within. Keeping the temp at 50C maintains the integrity of the peel's cells and promotes maximum oil extraction without breakdown. I used the same principle with the wood staves. 1 stave per litre of spirit, 50C for 4 hours. Since this was my first try, and I don't have a plethora of booze to practice with, I stayed with what I knew, and it turned out great! I used Dickel 8 year Sour Mash with a cherry stave, and Michael Collins 10 year Single Barrel Irish Whiskey with a French Oak stave.
The cellular structure of wood varies from tree to tree, and I am not sure how the treatment Chris uses changes that, but the results were that the overall taste for both was MUCH smoother than before, with the flavors infused being slightly more than subtle. I think the cherry would benefit from a few more hours in the bath. The staves are still in the bottles, and I will leave them there to report on the imparting flavors over the next few months.
The applications are numerous for this product: from clear spirits to browns, from as-is to charred, even in pre-mixed bottled classic cocktails or vermouths....I'm even going to try them in a few bottles of red wine I can vacuum seal for a while. Another idea I have is to reuse the staves when the bottles are empty in another medium, like the whiskeys aged in old madeira or port barrels. Maybe the Dickel soaked cherry stave in beer or a sherry. I'm accepting all ideas! My final thoughts are that the science behind what this product is meant to do,either by using  applications to speed up the process or just letting it soak, and the versatility of creating more or less "flavor" based on char or even splitting it up for a more subtle approach, warrant some interest by our bartending community. Try it out and see what you worked well for me!
Stay Frosty!
John Aquino

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