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Barrel Aged Cocktails Part 2

Barrel Aged Newark and WhitehookClick here for Part 1 to find out how this started.

Several weeks ago we featured a technique involving oak barrels and batched cocktails. In that post we described some of the details to help anyone get started aging their own cocktails in barrels. After many weeks of anxious anticipation (and a few sips along the way) we are finally able to share our results. Was it worth the wait? Are the cocktails really that good after sitting in charred oak barrels for over a month? Should you try this yourself? In a word, absolutely positively beyond-a-doubt YES.

You can see from the images that we reused empty bottles from the original base spirits and decorated them with the taped-on paper labels we made for the barrels while they were aging. We probably should grab a marker and write the dates that the barrels were opened and the contents dumped, but we were too excited. They will be consumed quickly anyway, but it might help to know the timing for each cocktail down the road as the barrels begin to lose their oaky influence. So, how did they turn out? Well, each recipe had a slightly different time in contact with the wood. It's subjective because you have to force yourself to take small samples every weekend to check the progress. Ok, it's not exactly torture, but after about four weeks of taste-testing, our Newark was finished—or at least by our judgement, it was really tasting delicious. At the same time, the Whitehook was still retaining much of its white whiskey backbone. We allowed that one to remain in the new barrel for about six weeks before its flavor mellowed. But when it did, a smooth, caramel and lightly toasted oak flavor settled in, and wow, is it delicious.

 

Barrel Aged Newark and WhitehookFinishing the barrel aged cocktail experiment is a pretty straightforward process. At this point, you have already opened the spigot several times over the weeks to test the progress. The only difference at the end is that you are dumping the entire contents into bottles. It can help to elevate the barrel over a vessel large enough to accommodate the full volume. You need to strain the cocktail to remove any bits of charred wood that may have fallen loose. Beyond that, all that remains is pouring your aged beauty into glass bottles. Hopefully, you saved your original bottles or you have something set aside for storage. Once you have your precious elixir bottled, it's time for a taste. It's the easiest drink you will ever make. Just measure out a few ounces, stir with ice and strain into a chilled glass.

Perhaps the Newark should have matured a little longer. It's hard to discern very much oak char or toasted notes in this one. Maybe this cocktail is just too complex to benefit from oak flavors directly, but this is still an overwhelming success because the aging process itself helped unite the herbal character of the Fernet-Branca with the maraschino, and everything tastes complex and amazing. You can't really tell that the base spirit is Applejack anymore because of how everything is so nicely integrated. If you have ever made lasagna and enjoyed the leftovers a day later, you know how time alone can affect and often improve the combination of flavors. That's what's going on with our aged Newark. Upon emptying the barrel, we immediately refilled it with a Negroni, keeping track that this will be an aged, Newarked Negroni when it's ready, and the next cocktail will have a unique lineage as well. We figured it makes sense to rotate to a gin-based drink in this barrel after whiskey just to keep things interesting.

The Whitehook's story is slightly different but equally compelling. If you recall, this is basically a Red Hook variant using white whiskey in lieu of rye. In our case, it's Buffalo Trace White Dog which is a predominantly corn-based mash distillate normally destined to become bourbon, but before it goes into the barrel. Of course, we aren't getting six years of seasonal transformation like they do in Frankfort. There, the whiskey ages and mellows moving in and out of wood each spring and autumn to build flavor. Using this product was a daring choice because of how strongly the corn flavors dominate. At 125-proof we didn't really know what to expect from a small, new oak barrel, so after four weeks we decided it needed more time. Our final taste test revealed that just two more extra weeks of aging had done wonders to reduce the overpowering aspects of the white dog. Its presence remains, but it is toned down to a more welcoming level. We can also observe color changes and the sweetest kiss of caramel and wood. It's perfect.

We are still looking over our inventory to decide what should enter the Whitehook barrel next. Perhaps a Boulevardier or a Saratoga? It will definitely be something with a brandy base. And when the time is right, we will once again use a fun experiment as a way to re-think old classics, transforming a cabinet full of half-empty bottles into a unique cocktail to enjoy with friends. Have you embarked on your own barrel-aged cocktail journey? We'd love to hear about it!

13 comments to Barrel Aged Cocktails Part 2

  • Jeff

    Congratulations! I am very excited to hear that things turned out well!

  • In BC the only white whiskey is about $50 for a half-bottle. By way of comparison, Blanton's Special Reserve Single Barrel is $100 for a full bottle. I have had some great barrel-aged cocktails, but with the prices here I won't be aging anything with white whiskey in it. That said - thanks for the post! I think I'll buy a barrel or two and try a couple of things.

  • Kerry, thanks for commenting. I happened to have the Buffalo Trace white dog in my cabinet after bringing it back from the distillery where they sell it in their gift shop. Otherwise, I might not have used any either. You would think white whiskey would be a lot cheaper than anything aged. Less demand I suppose. I will be curious about what you decide to make and how it turns out. Good luck!

  • Hi Randy, I'm a big fan of the blog. I live in NYC now but I grew up in St. Paul. I aged my first cocktail about a year ago in the same 1-liter bottle. I made an apple brandy Old Fashioned for it, and it turned out great. Very mellow and silky in texture. I aged it for about seven weeks. Shortly after that, I aged a standard Negroni. I'm holding onto most of that in a bottle, waiting for warm weather.

    But I think the most exciting part of my barrel experiments was actually the water I put in the barrel for five days to prime it. It came out deliciously oaky! I was shocked at how close it tasted to actual whiskey. Sure, there wasn't any alcohol to it, but it really tasted like whiskey! It was a great lesson in the effects of oak aging on, well, anything. Now, after tasting that water, it's much easier to pick out the oak notes in whiskeys and wine. At the urging of a local bartender who was aging cocktails at his bar, I froze the water and made ice cubes out of it.

    Here's my post on that: http://cocktailsandcologne.wordpress.com/2011/05/24/barrel-aged-cocktail-update/.

    I let my barrel languish all winter but I'm gearing up for a 50/50 martini using some local gin. I'm excited to see what the barrel and its previous occupants will impart.

    I'm also thinking about getting myself another 1-liter barrel to age some white whiskey. Just straight, unaged whiskey. Kings County Distillery here in Brooklyn has a decent one but it's ridiculously expensive, so I thought of trying Death's Door White Whiskey. It's more reasonable at about $36 for 750ml, and I like the taste.

  • One more thing: I just noticed that the barrel company you linked to is having a sale. A 1-liter barrel, normally $42.95, is selling for $29.99 right now. That's a great deal. I bought my barrel a year ago at Thousand Oaks for $45 (http://1000oaksbarrel.com/). Might be time to add a barrel!

  • Harry, thank you so much for sharing your experience! What a bonus about the oak ice. That's just a fantastic idea. I once had a cocktail with "smoked" ice which was made by melting a huge chunk in a smoker, then refreezeing it for cocktails. This sounds similar, though far more intersting. I have water in one now, though the barrel has now been used once. I wonder how much flavor the water will have after several days? There's only one way to find out!

    That is a great price on the barrels. How many times have you used yours? I have two, and for now at least, they will hold me. I was thinking an aged cocktail would be a great treat for an event. If you had enough lead time, you could batch a cocktail and have the dual bonus of aged goodness and easy mixing at a party. Low prices on the barrel make this even more appealing.

  • I just ordered a barrel and was a little miffed to find shipping was $14, bringing the total up to the regular price. No matter, I'm looking forward to a second barrel.

    I've only used the barrel at home twice, but I'm looking forward to using it again. It went so long without anything in it that I had to soak it for a couple days. It leaked like a sieve, so I had to immerse the whole thing in a bowl of water. That water turned steel gray from the barrel's hoops, so I'm a little nervous about the water being contaminated with whatever they treat the hoops with.

    On the subject of smoke, have you tried smoking any syrups for use in cocktails? I put some agave syrup in a stovetop smoker and got some fantastic results. (Blogged here: I used the smoked syrup as a sweetener for Old Fashioneds. What was really fun was using it in an Old Fashioned made with unaged white whiskey. It was like artificially aging it.

  • I haven't smoked anything, especially not syrups, but I'd like to get one of those smoking guns that the molecular gastronomy geeks use. I understand that just a litte smoke in the shaker will dramatically infuse a cocktail. You literally shake smoke into the liquid, then open it, add ice and stir or shake your drink to chill it. But you have me thinking a stovetop smoker may be just the thing for smoking some of my homemade Coke syrup!

    I released a little of my barrel water today and although it wasn't profoundly aromatic, it definitely had an oak flavor. I am thinking of freezing some for shaking. Perhaps something near neutral like a vodka martini would allow the dilution of ice melt to contribute some oak. It won't be much, but it might be detectable. Worth a try, anyway.

  • Your piece on homemade coke syrup was inspiring. I'd love to give that a try. I think that would be a wonderful thing to smoke, too. Like Eben Freeman's Waylon Cocktail, which is something I've always wanted to try making at home. I've been meaning to see if reducing Coca Cola on the stovetop would yield a syrup worth trying to smoke. But if you've already got the homemade syrup...wow.

    I've lusted after those smoke guns, too, but the price (about $100, I think) has slowed me down. My stovetop smoker was $30.

    Back to the subject of barrels, I think I'll use my new barrel to age some white whiskey, and then I thought of putting some sort of sweet wine in it to season it before aging some mild blended scotch. I read about a Japanese whisky was using barrels that had held plum wine to age their single malts. Imagine the flavor that must impart!

  • Dave

    Hey, Randy,

    I'm a little late to the game on this one. I started barrel-aging a few months ago after having the wonderful barrel-aged Bijou at Prohibition in Minneapolis. I saw OakBarrelsLtd.com offered free shipping on $180+, so it wasn't a hard decision to get a few extra as gifts for friends (pre-filled with Negronis!)

    So I now have two 2L and three 1L barrels each on their third or fourth fill. My favorite so far is the Negroni. The last batch I upped my game by using Carpano Antico Formula sweet vermouth, and it made a great drink even greater. Next time Ill take it up another notch and use Plymouth instead of Tanqueray.

    The Bijou comes in a close second.

    I've also enjoyed aging Reposado and Grand Marnier and using them for margaritas. Trouble is, limes have been too tart lately, what with all the troubles with the crop this year, that I've used clarified bottled lime juice.

    I also like the barrel-aged Rum Manhatten from the Cocktailian blog. Thumbs up to the Flor de Cana rum he recommends.

    The last barrel is pot luck - I made a failed Vieux Carre (don't drink and mix barrels, kids!), and it now contains Tanqueray, Luxardo, and Yellow Chartreuse. It will be mixed with lemon juice when ready for what I call a "Penultimate Word" (remember you and I bandied Last Word emails back and forth about a year ago?)

    BTW, W.A.Frosts makes a decent barrel-aged Vieux Carre.

    I'll probably need to order a few new barrels in a few months. If you're interested and want to go in on the order, we could save on shipping.

    Finally, I'm thinking about making some sort of aperitif with a couple of the spent barrels, by letting them age for a year or so. Either wine or spirit based, with herbs, spices, citrus peels or some combination. But there's not a lot of info online about homemade aperitifs. Do you have any ideas?

    • Dave, thanks for the great comment. I must admit that since the move (did you know we moved to Portland, Oregon?) we haven't done much in the way of barrel aging. Our barrels, having lost most of their impact, are no longer in use. One got moldy during the move and the other is now a decorative item in the wine cellar. Living in the Willamette Valley practically requires one to have a collection of Oregon Pinot, and despite the inevitable competition this creates with cocktails, I enjoy displaying the barrel next to fine wines. It works!

      I would say I am in the market for some 1L barrels, and I appreciate the gesture about combining an order to save shipping, but this would make more sense if we were in the same city. As an alternative to barrels, I am considering trying a similar process in glass using wood chips. I did something similar with Campari using charred cedar. This worked quite well for the Hunting Vest cocktail, and a #4 char on oak chips would be easy to do for aged recipes. I figure a blow torch and some American oak for wine making will do the trick. It's not barrel aging but it might be easier to get the same effect without an investment in barrels. Besides, you can scale the effort to whatever size jar you have, and the toasted oak is available at local brew shops. I could also just take apart my old barrel and use that,wood for charring.

      It's fun to hear that W.A. Frost is doing barrel aged drinks. I miss some of the old haunts. Regarding the Last Word, I am planning an upcoming post using genepy for a similar cocktail.

      • Dave

        Randy,

        I wasn't aware that you moved to Portland. (Sorry, I'm an intermittent reader of your blog). But, good for you. I assume you've been checking out Jeffery Morganthaler's latest creations, barrel-aged and otherwise.

        I've thought about using the wood chips as well. These barrels are taking up valuable shelf space in my tiny kitchen. But, damn, they look cool!

        Still looking for aperitif recipes, but nothing looks good so far.

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