Every Christmas as a kid, without fail, I’d spy a big box of truffles on the kitchen counter and greedily pop one in my mouth. And every Christmas, without fail, that sweet chocolate taste would give way to a jarringly bitter alcoholic center.
Lately, chocolate makers are embracing spirits in a new way and with delicious results. In some of these boozy chocolates, the alcohol itself is included in the mix. Chocolatier Michael Recchiuti’s recipe for burnt caramel–amaro truffles in my book, for example, features a ganache made with Fernet-Branca, cream, burnt caramel, and chocolate.
Other bean-to-bar craftsmen are infusing cocoa nibs with the taste of bourbon, whiskey, and other spirits by aging them in barrels, creating mellower-tasting chocolate with just a hint of alcoholic kick. This new-wave spiked chocolate is exceedingly nuanced — a far cry from the boozy bombs of my childhood.
Bean-to-bar chocolate is chocolate made from scratch. Makers buy whole cocoa beans and then roast, grind, and turn them into chocolate, often in small batches, with great attention to detail and an emphasis on flavor.
“Aging the nibs in a fresh whiskey barrel has an interesting affect on the final flavor of the chocolate,” says Robbie Stout of Ritual Chocolate, which ages nibs in High West Distillery bourbon whiskey barrels for a few months. He says this isn’t the whiskey bomb of years past but a chocolate that “highlights the oak flavors from a bourbon barrel. We’re getting vanilla, nougat, and oak in the chocolate and not so much alcohol or whiskey flavor.”
The end result is akin to a fantastic pairing. The spirit emphasizes certain notes in the chocolate, creating a tasty third flavor.
I’m not the only one who thinks so. Barrel-aged bars are popping up across the country from makers like Askinosie, Raaka, and Harper Macaw. Fruition Chocolate’s Hudson Valley bourbon dark milk bar has won awards from the Northwest Chocolate Festival, the International Chocolate Awards, and the Good Food Awards. William Mullan of Raaka Chocolate says its bourbon cask-aged bar, which has won an award from the Good Food Awards, is its best seller because it “has specialty taste appeal but is also understandable to casual customers.”
In other words, these new types of bars are not only for drinkers but also for chocolate lovers of all types. Take Nathan Miller Chocolate’s rum raisin chocolate and strawberry rye whiskey chocolate, which drive home how these infusions can be used to create playful takes on classic combinations and new favorites. Of course, they’re all “adult bars,” says Stout. “Not because they’re boozy but just because it helps to have some mature taste buds.” Still, he notes that whiskey lovers will dig this bar in particular.
So should you pair a whiskey bar with whiskey and a rum bar with rum? Absolutely, says Mullan. But don’t limit yourself: Because these bars have just a hint of those spirits, they can also pair with other beverages.
“Our bourbon cask-aged bar is one of our most pair-friendly bars,” Mullan says, noting that it works well with bourbon and whiskey as well as dry hard ciders.
Meanwhile mixologist Justin Lavenue, owner of the Roosevelt Room and the Eleanor, says that with chocolate, “I’m reaching for mezcal first and foremost.” A variety of spirits pairs well with these boozy chocolates; when writing my book, I devoted a whole section to chocolate and spirit pairings. (Options include rum with milk chocolate, tequila and white chocolate, or gin alongside earthy, Tanzanian dark chocolate.)
In other words: Booze, meet your new best friend.