Behind the Bar Stick People

This Bartender Is Making Wood-Fired Cocktails. But How Do They Taste?

Alan Weiner

Trifecta, owned by Portland, Ore., chef and baker Ken Forkish, is upscale yet rustic and decisively Northwestern, with an emphasis on the seasonal and local. The food here makes Trifecta a destination-worthy restaurant, but it’s what’s coming from the bar that’s really turning heads.

Colin Carroll’s drinks focus mostly on the classics: Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Martini. But Trifecta also offers something unique and defining with his wood-fired cocktails—drinks infused with a variety of charred woods.

Trifecta. Alan Weiner

When he took over the bar program in the summer of 2014, the restaurant had only been open about eight months. The previous manager had quit suddenly, and Carroll was brought in. The staff had already worked on a wood-fired cocktail program, but the management wanted to ditch it.

“They had this attitude that it wasn’t good and no one wanted it,” says Carroll. “I thought the exact opposite. I thought, This is going to be the thing that we do.”

It was a chance trip to Sheridan Fruit Co. for some produce that helped guide Carroll’s decision. The grocery store, open for more than a century, offered an array of woods for smoking meat in its deli section. “That was the lightbulb moment,” he says. “Trifecta only had oak, but Sheridan had maybe 15 different types of wood. I realized that we could use different kinds to access different flavors.”

Charred Maplewood Tipperary. Marielle Dezurick

And Carroll went to work, flipping through cocktail books for classic recipes that might lend themselves to some lumber love.

It was the Alaska cocktail, with gin and Yellow Chartreuse (Carroll’s also gets fino sherry and some orange bitters), that made him think, “Oh, damn, this could actually be a thing.” Charred orange wood was the infusion he went with, helping to mellow and round out the bracing herbaceousness of the drink.

As time went on, he found other winning combinations, such as red oak in a Boulevardier or sugar maple with a Tipperary. But the Alaska has never left the menu.

Syrups at Trifecta. Alan Weiner

The process to make the drinks is simple but time consuming, says Carroll. A hunk of wood the size of a baseball is placed into the wood-fired oven, where it’s charred black until the edges start to develop gray ash and embers; it’s then taken out and doused.

Bartenders then batch out a cocktail, usually around a half-gallon, and put the drink and burnt wood into a sous vide container and cook it for around six to eight hours, depending on the wood and the drink. The heat (low enough to avoid boiling off any alcohol) and the agitation infuse the subtle flavors of the wood into the drink, mellowing it and adding amazing complexity. It’s then filtered out and bottled, ready to be stirred over ice and served.

Alan Weiner

The result means not a lot of presentation for the guests but a briskly made drink—a benefit in a restaurant as busy as Trifecta.

“Everything we do here is a lot of effort on the back end. You get a dynamic drink without a lot of work on the front end. When there’s a hundred people in the restaurant and the majority are ordering cocktails, you need to be quick and efficient.”

Colin Carroll. Alan Weiner

Wood-fired cocktails aren’t the only creative endeavor Carroll has embarked on with his drinks menu. He also clarifies milk punches, makes coffee with amari for White Russians and freezes Martinis.

But the wood-fired drinks are the restaurant’s signature. “It’s a really well-made drink and one that you can only get here,” he says. “You can find a good Alaska or Manhattan everywhere, but this makes it unique. It’s inherently Portland. If I had to move to, say, L.A. or somewhere, I’d have to leave this behind.”