Time in a barrel: A look at Chapel Tavern’s proprietary cocktail-aging system

In the competitive world of bars, there’s a constant search to find ingredients that can make an establishment shine, from house-made bitters and blends to one-of-a-kind whiskeys. The search for ways to put one’s stamp on a cocktail is never-ending—but no element of a cocktail is as sought after and elusive as time.  

It is difficult to create the character that time can give a cocktail—unless you’re putting very expensive, aged spirits in the glass. Over at Chapel Tavern, the staff have set out to make an evolving cocktail that uses time as an ingredient, no DeLorean required. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, cocktail mastermind Duncan Mitchell, the previous owner of Chapel Tavern, and current owner Sean Stitt asked themselves: What if you used the old-world method of solera aging to age a classic cocktail?  

Solera aging is a Spanish method of barrel aging developed in the 18th century so winemakers could blend younger wine with older wine to get a balanced, more homogenized product. Winemakers would fill barrels with the product and pull the product out from the bottom; every time they took some out, they added new product to the top. Think of it like this: You make a punch for a party and put it in a container with a faucet on the bottom; people pour their drinks from the faucet; as the container empties, you add more punch to the top—and the party never stops. 

“The idea was rooted in functionality, to take the proven methods of solera and apply them to cocktails,” Stitt said. 

Why does this complicated aging method make beverages—and, in the case, of Chapel Tavern, cocktails—taste better? Barrel aging does three critical things to alcohol. First, it imparts the barrel flavor and notes of vanilla, spice and caramel, which are all stored in the wood and are only accessible through contact time. Second, it helps evaporate ethanol flavors that make alcoholic beverages seem harsh; some call the liquid that evaporates “the angel’s share.” Lastly, the time in the barrel helps bind the flavors to become more balanced. Just like your soup tastes better the next day, so do specific cocktails when they have time to sit together.  

Now take all the benefits of barrel aging a cocktail, and multiply them by 12. That’s what they are doing at Chapel Tavern: Twelve small barrels and a maze of copper pipes now line one of the walls. It’s a system that took a whole team of craftspeople to create. 

The principal mad engineer of this concept was Cooper Richardson, who dreamed up a system unlike any I have seen before. The copper pipes allow each barrel to fill the one in front of it, to blend the contents of 12 barrels in harmony. The last barrel fills a holding container, and a pump system fills the topmost barrel with a new cocktail in an artful dance that is equal parts method and madness. (Richardson donated a large portion of his payment for this project to Boosted Diplomas, a nonprofit that he co-founded which strives to increase the graduation rate for local high school students in the foster system.) 

The traditions, craftsmanship and general madness only matter if what goes into your glass is delicious. The cocktail that the team at Chapel landed on to fill this system is a variation of the negroni called boulevardier, an equal-parts cocktail made from bourbon, Campari and vermouth. The proprietary and secret version of the Boulevardier that bar manager Mark Nesbitt and bartender Lex Niemann dreamed up is intended to become better in a system like this.  

“It becomes necessarily inconsistent,” Nesbitt said. “Each time you come in, it will have different barrel qualities. … It is an evolving cocktail.”  

There will be a terroir inherent to the cocktail due to the fact that the system sits above one of the busiest bars in Reno, which causes a change in humidity on busy nights. Temperature changes through the seasons will also affect the drink.  

“It’s a living part of Chapel Tavern that tastes like Chapel Tavern and only Chapel Tavern,” Nesbitt said, beaming with pride. 

Of all the cocktail ingredients available, ambition is the flavor that impresses me the most. It takes a bold and brave group of folks to invest their time and energy into something like this. No matter what the end product of this project is, the flavor you will taste in the Solera Aged Boulevardier at Chapel Tavern is the ambition of some bar dorks who said, “Let’s try that.” 

“We are taking a storied and beloved cocktail and, through local artists and a few insane people, creating something you can’t have anywhere else,” said Stitt.