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Barrel Aged Cocktails Without the Barrel

Oak InfusionLet's jump right in with the details: We are using toasted oak chips and a charred oak stick in a mason jar to age scaled-up portions of our favorite drink recipes. The results are—in a word—amazing. We could also say surprising, or even easy. Given the fact that we have done true barrel-aging in the past, we were pleased to discover this time-saving alternative that produces results that are similar, if not better than the traditional method. It's so simple, in fact, that we plan to keep it going so that we always have aged, pre-mixed cocktails in the house. This is also so much more satisfying given the limited investment. It's hard to justify not doing this. If you have been thinking about making barrel-aged cocktails but haven't had a chance to track down a barrel—or perhaps you don't want to spend the money on a large quantity of ingredients—look no further than your local home-brew or wine making shop for the materials and try our inexpensive alternative to using an actual oak barrel.

The Details
You will need:

1 mason jar with a lid
oak chips, toasted
oak stick, toasted and charred
a cocktail recipe scaled to 750ml
a clean, 750ml bottle for storage (optional—you could use the jar above)

Aging in glass is nothing new—aged, bottled cocktails definitely have merit on their own. But oak provides an important contribution of flavor from the wood that you can't get any other way. Consider a bottle of bourbon. During the aging process of whiskey production, toasted and charred American white oak gives bourbon most of its flavor and all of its color. In the summer months of Kentucky, for example, corn distillate that is destined to become bourbon sits in storage rickhouses, sealed inside huge oak barrels. As the seasons pass, the spirit moves in and out of the walls of the barrel taking some of the resinous flavor from the wood with it. Notes of vanilla, caramel, spices—these all come from the charred and toasted oak. When we age a cocktail the time may be a lot shorter but the effect is similar—especially when using smaller barrels like the ones we have used in the past. But honestly, we don't see the point any more. Our little experiment proves that you can achieve fantastic results in a fraction of the time using oak chips and a charred stick!

Wine Not Try It?
Wine makers also use toasted oak barrels, although they are typically not charred. Recently, home wine makers and professional vintners have explored the use of toasted oak chips in lieu of using an entire barrel. Chips have the benefit of being cheaper, smaller, and the additional surface area acts faster upon the wine while it is racked in glass or stainless steel. Despite losing a little romance and tradition, avoiding the steps associated with filling, draining, moving, and storing barrels makes wine production much easier. In essence, instead of putting the wine into barrels, they are putting barrels into the wine.

Charred OakWe can do the same thing with a cocktail, but toasted chips only gets us halfway there. Whiskey barrels are toasted and charred, and we want the flavors of both. Fortunately, we can still take advantage of oak products sold at homebrewing shops. In addition to selling toasted chips which work very quickly, you can also buy staves or sticks of toasted oak for longer infusions. Some of these larger products have notches or spiral carvings along their length designed to create more surface area. Our trick is to use both chips and a stick, and since the oak products are already toasted, all we need to do is add some char. We bought a small bag of medium-toasted American white oak chips for a few dollars and a 15-inch stick of French oak. We will use the chips as-is and add some char to the stick.

Next, we cut a five inch piece off of the stick so it can fit inside a mason jar. This stick will serve as our charred oak "walls" and the jar will be our glass barrel. We used a plumber's propane torch to char the stick on all sides. It only takes a few seconds to get a decent char on the wood, but you could also put it on the grill and probably get good results. Since our stick was just a straight, toasted square dowel, before charring we cut some notches with a hand saw to create more surface area. Maybe it helps.

With a charred stick ready to go, we added it to our mason jar along with a few tablespoons of toasted chips. Together, the charred stick and oak chips will quickly infuse our cocktail with oak barrel flavors. We calculated the quantities for a 750ml Boulevardier as follows:

Boulevardier (scaled to 750ml)
11 oz bourbon
7.25 oz sweet vermouth
7.25 oz Campari

Carefully measure the ingredients as you add them to a quart mason jar. When finished, this batch will fit into an empty booze bottle (we hang on to clear bottles with plastic screw caps or corks). Take your charred stick and drop it into the jar. Then, add 1/2 oz by weight of toasted oak chips. This is about two tablespoons of chips. You don't have to be exact, but this amount worked well for a week of aging. You will get a taste of the wood from the chips and a bit of char from the stick. Because your chips may be different, or your char may be more or less pronounced than ours, you definitely will want to taste a sample after a few days to see how it's progressing. Ours went exactly seven days and it was perfect. Strain out any bits of wood as you transfer the cocktail into a bottle for storage. Getting the wood out of your cocktail will stop the aging process. Don't leave the oak for too long, as the flavors will continue to intensify and could ruin the batch. Save the charred stick and let it air-dry for the next infusion. You could do the same with the chips but it's probably not worth the effort. You use so little in each batch and the chips are cheap enough that it probably makes more sense to just toss them. It also helps to have a repeatable, known start to each infusion rather than wondering how much oak flavor is left.

This technique was so easy and fast that we immediately tried another recipe. It would have been more interesting to try something with a completely different flavor profile to get some carryover via the oak stick like you might in a barrel, but we went with another bitter cocktail we love:

Eeyore's Requiem (scaled to 750ml)
10.75 oz Campari
7.25 oz Dolin Blanc vermouth
5.75 oz gin
2 oz Cynar
2 oz Fernet-Branca
8 dashes orange bitters

Give "easy" barrel aging a try. The technique is basically a charred-oak infusion, but the results are fast, and the cocktails taste absolutely delicious. You can also do individual ingredients like the cedar infused Campari we made for the Hunting Vest cocktail.

6 comments to Barrel Aged Cocktails Without the Barrel

  • mindtron

    Did you notice any large change in the flavor or amount of time needed when you reused the charred stick?

    I'm thinking that fresh wood chips and a reused charred piece may change the end flavor slightly but maybe not noticeably until several batches.

    • It wasn't noticeable after two batches. I did let the Eeorye's Requiem cocktail go 2 days longer but I actually wanted more oak in that one. It is definitely more intense than the Boulevardier with the extra 48 hours, but the flavors in that drink can handle it.

      Part of the reason I used fresh chips is to limit the variability as you have noted. I know the charred stick will eventually stop contributing flavor and end up being the carrier of crossover flavors alone. I still have 10 inches to cut two more sticks, but only time and testing will reveal how many batches I can get out of a fresh one. Also, since I am not concerned about the toasted oak from the stick and only the char, I could always give an old stick a quick sand with coarse sandpaper and re-apply the char. It might even caramelize residue from previous uses. This could be good or bad, but it has me even more excited about future possibilities. In any case, the sticks are a lot cheaper than a barrel which will also go neutral after several batches.

  • dan

    Where did you buy the 15-inch French oak stick?

  • Kyle

    If I'm charring my own oak, do I need to do a wipe or wash after? I'm not sure how much soot / loose char I want in the cocktail. Thanks

  • If you are charring so long that you end up with ash and crumbling charcoal you are probably going too long with the fire. The surface should blacken, but good, toasted oak lies just under the char, so it should hold together. Still, you may get little bits swimming in the liquid when you are done aging. No problem: pour the mixture through a single sheet of paper towel or a coffee filter. This will strain out any charred wood left behind. You don’t want to drink that!

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