Barrel-aging booze is literally nothing more than pouring liquor from one container into another. That’s it; if you can handle drinking out of a glass rather than the bottle, you have the necessary skill-set. I discovered barrel-aged cocktails on a fishing trip this year, and thought “I gotta give that a try.” This is my story (for the TL/DR crowd: its dead easy, as far as I can tell its very difficult to impossible to actually wind up with booze that’s worse than what you started with, so why not give it a go?)
Barrel-aging your own liquor and cocktails is done in small white oak barrels that have been charred on the inside, just like the big barrels the big boys use. I got a couple of one liter barrels from Oak Barrels Ltd., because that’s who made the barrels at the bar on my fishing trip. I have no basis for recommending any of the many barrel makers over any others.
So, how’s it work?
First, think about what size barrel you want to use; they range from one liter on up. As with everything in life, there is a trade-off: The larger the barrel, the slower the booze ages. You can use a barrel probably 4 times, maybe 5. I’m refilling the barrels immediately after emptying them – you can leave them empty, but they need to be cleaned and stored full of water. A one-liter barrel will deliver around a gallon or so of booze before its done, and mixed drinks don’t store forever, so you need to think about how fast you will drink whatever you barrel-age.
To prep the barrel, rinse it out (it will have a few splinters and bits of charred wood loose in it), fill it with water and let it sit for a day, empty it out and rinse it again. It may leak a little when you first fill it with water until the wood expands, but mine just got a few stains from the charred insides around a few seams. If yours are leaking and won’t quit, you can use beeswax to stop the leaks.
Fill with your concoction of choice, right to the rim. The holes on these small barrels are pretty, well, small – if you don’t have a small funnel, you will need one. You will start losing volume due to absorption/evaporation. At this point, recommendations differ: you can either top it off (what I am doing), or you can rotate the barrel a quarter turn each way every day or so to keep the wood from drying out. In a dry climate (like mine), apparently what evaporates is mostly water, but in a more humid client its mostly alcohol.
A new one-liter barrel generally ages the first batch in a week or so. Every subsequent batch takes longer. Taste test periodically, and decant when you think its done. I do think it’s possible to over-age liquor in these small barrels, since one batch of the Manhattans I am barrel-aging was getting really, really woody tasting. Make sure you save some empty bottles, by the way, so you have something to decant into.
I’m using one barrel for Bulleit Rye, and the other for Manhattans. A barrel is only supposed to be used for one kind of booze or cocktail, as the flavors soak into the wood. For the adventurous, this is a challenge rather than a prohibition, and any scotch drinker knows that many fine scotches are aged in barrels originally used for something else (rum, port, you name it). But I’m sticking with the recommendation that I dedicate each barrel to a single, delicious libation.
The first batch of rye took about 9 or 10 days before I really felt the “burn” had rounded off, but it was more woody and not as sweet as I recalled from my fishing trip. It is a noticeably better rye than I started with – deeper/richer, with an oaky flavor. Perhaps most importantly, Mrs. Dean now insists I use the barrel-aged rye for her cocktails, so I will be getting a bigger barrel when the current one wears out so we have an adequate stockpile of the barrel-aged stuff. The barrel-aged Bulleit makes a phenomenal whiskey sour, one of her favorite cool weather cocktails.
The Manhattans age faster – I used Bulleit Rye (again) and Carpano Antica vermouth in the classic 2:1 ratio. I think the sweeter vermouths might be too sweet for barrel aging. The first batch was done in a week, and subsequent batches each took only a few days longer than the previous batch. Doing a side-by-side with an unaged Manhattan, I can definitely say that I prefer the barrel-aged, which has a deeper flavor and starts getting some cinnamon and cherry flavors. Needless to say, I use real maraschino cherries (sour cherries simmered briefly in maraschino liqueur and refrigerated), because the candied grocery-store maraschino cherries are an abomination. I’m using a brighter bitters for these – currently, the Dashfire Old-Fashioned Bitters. I think the more traditional bitters just get kind of lost in the oak and cherry flavors.
In doing a little research, I have run across some variations/recommendations. Some of your artisanal types “season” the barrels for cocktails with port or possibly another kind of booze – I skipped this, but may try it sometime. Opinions differ on whether to put the bitters in while aging, or when serving – I’m going with when serving because I like to try different bitters. Some recommend going with 90 proof or stronger liquors, on the theory that they hold up better to barrel-aging. I can’t recall ever objecting to higher-proof booze in my entire life, so Round 2 will involve a high-proof rye, if I can find one that tastes decent and isn’t obscenely expensive. I’m still pondering what cocktail I might try barrel-aging next – I tend to like cocktails with citrus, but I’m suspicious that the acid will not play well in a barrel.
The other thing that barrel-aging can supposedly do for you is take cheap liquor and turn into the equivalent of something you can’t afford. I think I’ll be trying that with tequila with my next set of barrels by getting some barely passable 100% agave plonk, and see how it goes.
Bottom line: Barrels are pretty cheap (one liter barrels are less than $30 each, or about $6 – $7 per use), and the results have been easily worth it so far. The “work” involved is mostly taste-testing and topping off the barrels. If you like experimenting and getting a little more hands-on with your liquor, either straight sippin’ liquor or cocktails, you should give it a try.