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Barrel Aged Cocktails

BarrelsAll the cool kids are doing it, so Summit Sips couldn't wait any longer. We just had to try our hand at barrel-aged cocktails. It sounds like a lot more work than it is, but of all the things we've tried, plenty of homemade ingredients and ice experiments have been a lot harder than putting cocktails into barrels. There's absolutely no reason you can't do this yourself, and that's part of the appeal. Using simple techniques that anyone can master to create amazing, original results is exactly why we write this blog.

You may remember a post from way back when we first visited Portland, Oregon. A couple of drinks at Clyde Common were aged in oak barrels, a technique being pioneered at that time by Jeffrey Morgenthaler. A few months prior to our visit, he posted a short write-up on his blog where he described the successful aging of several spirit-driven cocktails. We tasted his Trident and Negroni, both of which were delicious done this way. Since that time, the idea has grown legs and people all over the world are doing it. Morgenthaler probably deserves credit for popularizing the idea, but let’s face it, aging stuff in bottles, barrels or any other vessel isn’t exactly a new concept. Barrel aging was originally just a byproduct of storage and transportation before it was recognized as an important process itself. Today, we apply the same steps with rum, whiskey, wine—you name it—over the course of several years many of our base spirits depend on the barrel for much of their flavor. But this is a process that usually applies to individual ingredients, not combined cocktails. You can find a reference in Jerry Thomas’s Bar-Tender’s Guide from 1862 that describes putting a cocktail recipe into a cask to age the flavors, but it’s only in the last year or so, thanks to Mr. Morgenthaler, that this idea has started showing up in bars again.

In addition to time in the barrel, this project requires just 2 things: the barrel itself and some booze. Most folks start with used whiskey barrels, but there are pros and cons with this approach. First, a used barrel is probably going to be pretty big (several gallons). That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but there are important considerations. One is that a bigger barrel has less wood surface area for a given volume. In other words, the bigger your barrel, the less wood is in contact with your cocktail and theoretically, the longer it will take to draw flavors from the oak. More importantly, large barrels require more bottles to fill them. Five 750ml bottles fit into one gallon, so even a small three gallon barrel can swallow up an entire case of inventory! This can get expensive, especially for an experiment, and if you decide you don't like your results, you've wasted a lot of good booze.

However, a used barrel also has some important benefits. Some of the finest spirits in the world are aged in used barrels in order to draw upon the additional flavors present in the wood. This idea can also be applied to cocktail aging. Preparing a gin-based recipe such as a Negroni in a used whiskey barrel might allow unique whiskey subtlties to come through. Similarly, a barrel used for wine might be just the ticket to create a mind-blowing Manhattan. There are several sources of used barrels if you go that route, but it might be fun to seek out local vineyards and distilleries. You may have to accept what’s available, but check around and you might meet some interesting people in the process.

A more flexible alternative is to go with a new barrel. Several online sellers offer American white oak barrels in various sizes at very reasonable prices. Small barrels are made exactly the same way as larger ones and have been toasted and charred using the same process. This important step caramelizes the sugars in the wood to so it can impart its wonderful flavors. They are usually sold to people who want to age anything from cooking oil and vinegar to homemade wine and liqueur, and they will work just fine for cocktails. The barrels start at 1 liter and get bigger from there. It may seem like a tiny amount, but we selected the smallest size for several reasons. We're not trying to serve a bunch of customers at a bar, and at only a liter the entire project can be made with ingredients on-hand without a huge economic commitment. After a few samples, the resulting cocktail can be put back into an original bottle. The smaller size will also age quickly with the higher ratio of wood surface to total volume allowing us to quickly reuse the barrel for another recipe. Of course, if the cocktail tastes good, it won’t last long either, so we bought two!

Priming the barrel with water

Priming the barrel with water

Before you can fill your barrel, it needs to be primed. Despite the careful work that goes into making a good barrel, tiny gaps between the staves and around the ends may leak until the wood has swelled. This is to be expected. A barrel is a true craftsman product made from natural materials after all. There are no nails, no glue, and no gaskets, sealants or liners present. Few things have remained as unchanged over the centuries as barrels have. You need to give the inside a good wash and a shake with clean water to empty out any loose bits of charred wood. Then, affix your spigot if you have one and close it. Next, completely fill the barrel with hot water and seal the bung hole. New barrels may come with a removable bung, but if you get a used barrel, you would be wise to make sure you have the means to close it. You don’t want dust or bugs getting in there and you need to minimize evaporation and oxidation. Next, place the water-filled barrel into a sink or on a tray that can catch the leaking water. After a day or two, any leaks should stop. If not, your barrel is defective and you should try to exchange it. Empty the water and you are ready. With the wood now swelled and the gaps naturally sealed, it’s finally time to use your barrel.

A new barrel is going to add a lot of toasted oak to whatever you put in it, so once primed (see above) you may wish to fill it with something other than your cocktail first. This will mellow the oak effect and help to recreate the benefit of a used barrel. If you want to condition your wood with something like whiskey, wine or Madeira before aging a cocktail, plan for several weeks or months to allow the wood to take on some of that flavor. You might end up with a uniquely oaked version of whatever you select which you could put back into the original bottles or use in the kitchen to make wonderful reduction sauces. Whether you decide to condition the wood first or not, eventually you’ll have a barrel that is primed and ready for your cocktail. Pick your recipe accordingly and scale the proportions to match your barrel’s volume. We created a spreadsheet that might help you with that. For our 1 liter barrels we settled on two cocktails, Jamie Boudreau’s White Hook and Jim Meehan’s Newark.

Barrel Aged Newark (1 Liter)
19.5 oz Applejack
9.5 oz sweet vermouth
2.5 oz Fernet-Branca
2.5 oz maraschino liqueur

Barrel Aged White Hook (1 Liter)
19.5 oz white whiskey
9.5 oz sweet vermouth
5 oz maraschino liqueur

Barrel Aged CocktailsIt’s wise not to choose a cocktail that contains anything that could spoil. For example, fresh lime juice may not last very long at room temperature. Also, anything that contains fat such as a cocktail with cream isn’t going to work either. While there are techniques for clarifying fruit juice to reduce the likelihood that it will turn on you, it’s better to steer away from such recipes and focus on drinks that contain only spirits and liqueur. These ingredients have virtually indefinite shelf-life and the alcohol content helps to preserve them. Alcohol also extracts the flavor from the wood similar to an infusing process. Drinks like the Manhattan or the Negroni are perfect candidates, but the choice is up to you. A shortcut often used by winemakers is to age in glass containers with wood chips that are toasted and cut in ways that maximize their surface area. The effects may be similar, and some people find it far easier to go the oak chip infusion route, but we like the tradition of using barrels.

If your volume is small, you may be able to premix your ingredients and add everything at once. For larger barrels you’ll be measuring in fractions of bottles. In either case, it helps to use a funnel when pouring your recipe into the barrel. Just make sure the spigot is closed first! Finally, seal the bung hole and find a good place to store the barrel while you wait. How long do you wait? We are talking about weeks or months not years, but it’s completely up to you. Time alone is the only variable you control at this point, but there are so many factors that affect the process you are going to have to taste it as you go. Heat, humidity, the size of the barrel, whether it’s new or used, the final alcohol content of your recipe—these will all affect the outcome. Give it a few weeks before you taste it and try to have an unaged version of your cocktail around for comparison. Eventually, you should detect a transformation of flavors. Consider the fact that when you normally mix a cocktail, it is consumed within minutes, but here, the vermouth will slowly oxidize, ingredients will have time to combine in ways you’ve never tasted, and the wood will start to contribute color and aroma as all of the flavors mingle. It can help to date your barrel and keep track of what’s inside. Tasting notes will help you recognize changes over time, and if you have multiple barrels, mark them and track their use in a journal. If you end up with a delicious masterpiece, you may want to recreate it.

Filling the barrelOur cocktails have been in contact with wood for just over a week, so it’s too soon to start testing the results, but we’ll post a conclusion in Part 2 when we judge that the time is right. When that time does come, the barrel should be emptied and the cocktail stored in glass bottles. Some bits of wood may have fallen loose inside, so it’s important to remove these bits by filtering through cheesecloth. It’s hard to speculate what effect our barrels will have on the recipes we selected, but we don’t see how they can possibly hurt. Since we chose not to condition the wood with something else first, we don’t expect our results to include flavors from anything but the toasted oak, and we are OK with that. Our White Hook recipe uses 125-proof Buffalo Trace White Dog so we are very excited to find out how this Kentucky distillate performs in the barrel with the other ingredients. Our Newark is already a favorite, so we are looking forward to tasting the effect oak will have on Applejack and Fernet-Branca. Check back in a few weeks when we post the results and to find out what we plan to make next. In the mean time, we are curious about your experience with barrel-aged cocktails. Have we inspired you to try it yourself? Let us know in the comments below.

The results are in! Click here to read the exciting conclusion!

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