Barrel Aged Cocktails: The Basics

standard July 7, 2016 Leave a response
Barrel Aged Cocktails

When it comes to cocktails patience is not my strong suit, but after discovering barrel aged cocktails things are changing. Perhaps a step beyond the basics, barrel aging can have a dramatic effect on your drinks. In this post I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned about how to make barrel aged cocktails at home.

What Are Barrel Aged Cocktails?

If you’re familiar with how aging affects wine, then you pretty much have the concept of barrel aged cocktails under control. In short a premixed cocktail is stored over time in a small cask. As a result the flavors mellow and develop a subtlety that you simply can’t experience coming straight from the bottle.

No matter if you’re a supertaster or average like me, you’re sure to experience a big difference in cask aged cocktails. In fact during my experiment we compared a freshly made, bottled and barrel aged Negroni just to see the difference. And it was dramatic.

Factors in Barrel Aging

Based on my research there are multiple factors that affect the barrel aging process, each of which can have a big impact. For simplicity I’ve boiled them down to three, but I’m sure that there are others:

Container – Arguably the most impactful factor in aging cocktails, the storage vessel is critically important. Traditionally a wood cask is used, which results in the transfer of different flavor characteristics from the barrel itself. This can range from the type of wood (oak, apple, cherry) to elements from the previously stored beverage (wine, sherry, etc….).

Needless to say, making barrel aged cocktails at home can get pretty interesting based on the many different ways flavor can be affected..
Now for those non-traditionalists, you can age your cocktails without a barrel. Although I haven’t done it, Chris at ManMade describes how he DIYd a barrel aged cocktail without a barrel.

Time & Storage – The length of time stored and the storage method can have a profound effect on the flavor, which isn’t always good. Our tips for storing liquor certainly apply and regularly taste-testing the cocktail after about a month is a good idea to catch it at its best flavor.

Service – The manner in which the aged cocktail is served can have a pretty big impact, too. Frankly I screwed this up and I’m learning from my mistake. Once the mixture has reached peak flavor, it’s wise to bottle the cocktail to preserve it. Not only does this make it super easy to chill and serve, but it makes your new best friend portable and easy to share.

My Experiment: Barrel Aged Negronis

Furthermore the recipe is so simple even a novice like me can’t screw it up: equal parts Gin, Campari and Sweet Vermouth. We found a small oak cask with a 2 Liter capacity so the exact recipe was:
  • 22.5 oz Bombay Sapphire (Gin)
  • 22.5 oz Campari
  • 22.5 oz Carpano Antica (Sweet Vermouth)
Steps in Barrel Aging Negronis

Jeffrey Morganthaler
Source: StarChefs.com

The Casking Process

Overall, making barrel aged cocktails at home is surprisingly simple. Honestly the most difficult part was doing the research, but I’ve already laid out the steps here to keep it simple:

Select The Cocktail Obviously you’ll want to select a cocktail that you enjoy and that will benefit from the subtle combination of flavors as well as the addition of Oak. Generally spirit-based cocktails (without fresh ingredients) are better for cask aging.

Obtain the Supplies – Most of the materials you’ll need should be readily available, but you’ll want to collect everything in advance. Since finding small oak casks for sale may be the toughest part, I’ve included links to a couple places where you may find them for purchase online.

Prepare the Cask – After you purchase the wood cask, it needs to be prepared by first installing the spigot and then soaking the barrel in water. Over time the cask’s staves dry out and shrink, so you’ll need to rehydrate them. 48 hours should do the trick, but do a test fill with water before adding your elixr. Also, test the spigot to ensure that it allows liquid to flow out with the plug removed.

Blend the Ingredients – Of course the ingredients must be mixed before casking, but confirm that your recipe is accurate by mixing a cocktail before committing several bottles of booze. There’s nothing worse than wasting time, money and effort because of a little math error.

Cask the Cocktail – Add the premixed cocktail to your prepared oak cask using a funnel.

And for those that are unfamiliar, the hole in the barrel is indeed called the bunghole… So have a chuckle with your friends as you “add the cocktail to the wooden cask by placing the funnel in the bunghole…”

Wait – If you’re like me you’ll be all charged up after casking the cocktail, but now comes the wait. Generally it should be ready in 4-6 weeks, but this can vary. Ideally the resting cocktail should be tasted to identify the flavor that most appeals to you.

Decant the Cocktail – Once the mixture is ready, empty it from the cask using a strainer. You can choose to store it in a large decanter or even make bottled cocktails. Although I didn’t do this for my first batch, I’m definitely doing it for my second.

Video: Aging Cocktails

For the first time experimenter aging cocktails can seem pretty complicated, but I found this video from Aviary Cocktails in Chicago that offers some insight into how the professionals do it. Not only does the Aviary staff explain the different types of aged cocktails and the barrels they use, but also how they test-taste the spirits to determine when the cocktail is ready.

Barrel Aging Supplies

So if barrel aged cocktails pique your interest, there are a few items that you’ll need to have to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. Thankfully most reasonably well-equipped kitchens will have the majority of these, but it never fails that you’ll be in the middle of the project when you realize you’ve come up short. Here’s a basic shopping list listing each item with a brief description:

Oak Cask – Obviously an important component, the small barrel should be at the top of your list. We found our 2 Liter barrel at a local craft distiller, but you can find small casks for sale online here:
  • Amazon – A value priced 2 liter barrel to start barrel aging cocktails. A good option for beginners.
  • Tuthhilltown Spirits – A craft distiller in Gardiner, NY. Offers multiples sized barrels for aging.
  • Thousand Oaks Barrel Co. – Casks of multiple sizes. Snappy personalization available too.
Oak Cask

Drip Tray – No matter where you plan on storing your cask there will be some drips and spills. I used an old cookie sheet, but make sure that you put some sort of drip tray below the barrel. Here’s a good, inexpensive option from Amazon.
Drip Tray

Mixing Vessel – You’ll need a large capacity bowl or mixing vessel in which to blend your cocktail. I used a common kitchen bowl like this one (5 quart capacity).
Mixing Bowl
Graduated Measuring Cup – Make it easy on yourself by having a large-capacity measuring cup on hand that is graduated in ounces. I used a standard 2 Cup Pyrex measuring cup which made mixing a breeze.
Graduated Measuring Cup

Liquor – Duh… But make sure that you have plenty of all the necessary ingredients on hand.
Liquor

Funnel – You’ll need a basic funnel; I took it a step further by using an anti-splash funnel, but you can use a simple version you already have in your kitchen.
Funnel

Strainer (Fine) – Occasionally sediment may collect in the barrel, so use a strainer to remove it before storing your finely aged cocktail.
Fine Mesh Strainer

Bottles – Once removed from the barrel, the cocktail should be bottled. Certainly you can use an old liquor bottle, but I think that something as unique as barrel aged cocktails deserve something better. I’ve found some really cool small bottles online here:
  • 8 oz. Swingtop Bottles – If you plan on just a few drinks, 8 oz. bottles are the way to go. Note: It’s hard to find ceramic stoppers for bottles of this size.
  • 16 oz. Easy Grip Swingtop Bottles – This is a cost-effective kit that contains 6 Grolsch Beer-style bottles, funnel and a bottle brush. If I had to do it over again I’d definitely want this.
Bottles

Conclusion

If you enjoy subtleties of flavor, barrel aging cocktails is for you. You’ll find that aging will not only help the cocktail’s flavors mesh,but it will pick up flavors from the wood (often vanilla) and the slight oxidation create a slight nuttiness. Moreover a cask aged cocktail is not commonly available at your average cocktail lounge, so it’s something unique to enjoy at home.

If you’ve created your own cocktails at home, I’d enjoy hearing about your experiences in the comments.
Cheers.

About

Suburban adventurer, beer lover and Cocktail Novice, Bill has a variety of interests including cooking, blogging and "bad" surfing. If you're keen to connect, give him a shout on Twitter.