Barrel-Aged Cocktails at the MacCallum House, May 2014
The trend of barrel-aging cocktails has been gaining steam over the past couple of years. Barrel-aging spirits can be a creative and an effective way to make a delicious and easy-to-pour cocktail which is especially handy when you have a crowded bar or a large group to serve, as we often do. It’s also just plain fun to barrel your own concoction and develop flavors and complexity by aging a pre-mixed cocktail in an oak barrel; it can be a real lesson in chemistry!
We started by purchasing a 5 liter barrel made of untreated American oak. You can find barrels online that are specifically made for this purpose in various sizes but we decided 5 liters would be an ideal size for our needs. Used port or brandy barrels or any other type of barrel would also work. As a home project, you can certainly select smaller barrels; just adjust your amounts accordingly. Upon receiving the new barrel, we washed it out with hot water to remove any wood chips, and we then filled it with hot water and left it overnight so that the dry wood would soak up the water and not our precious spirits. If there are any leaks, this tips you off to their locations. Prior to filling the barrel with water, we took a small blowtorch and lightly charred the interior of the barrel to add a smokier flavor. This is fun but be careful of the flame coming out of the other end of the barrel.
A classic cocktail to age in a barrel is a Manhattan. This can be done using with rye, whiskey or bourbon as a base. Bourbon was our first choice (we chose Knob Creek) as it has a nice spicy sweetness to it and once aged, it shows off the added oak flavor quite well. A classic Manhattan is pretty straightforward: 2 oz. rye or bourbon, 1-ounce sweet vermouth (we use Vya), and 2-3 dashes of Angostura bitters served over ice. Stirred (not shaken) and then served up traditionally with a cherry. You can make them less sweet by dropping the vermouth by a ½ oz. or by adding an additional ½ oz. of whiskey.
We like ours a little sweet so for a barrel-aged Manhattan in a 5 liter barrel, a good recipe would be:
- 3.0 liters bourbon or rye
- 1.5 liters of sweet vermouth
This recipe leaves a little space in the 5 liter barrel in case you want to add more whiskey and drop the sweetness a little. Please note that we didn’t add the bitters; there is some evidence that bitters loses its punch in the barrel so we just add it when we make the drink to serve. We mixed the bourbon and vermouth in a pitcher before pouring it into the barrel.
After the barrel was filled, we put the plugs in it and stashed it in a nice cool, dark place. We rotated it a quarter turn once a week and it went 6 weeks before serving. We took a sample at 3 weeks and could tell it was going to be good. The serving of the drink is the easiest part. Just pour it over ice, add some bitters and stir until its really cold. We served ours with a flamed orange peel. The oils in the orange add a nice flavor to the drink.
Once you have drained the barrel, you can certainly use it again. It’s not recommended to use it more than 2 or 3 times; obviously you will lose some of the oak flavor with each use but will gain some flavors from the residues of the first batch. We decided to make a Negroni as the next cocktail in the Manhattan barrel. It is equal parts gin (we used Boodles due to its milder flavor and well-balanced botanicals), sweet vermouth, and Campari. Again, we mixed it outside the barrel in a pitcher.
A 5 liter recipe would be:
- 1.75 liters each of Gin, Sweet Vermouth, and Campari.
This leaves a little left over which you can pour over ice and enjoy after putting the barrel to rest. After 6 weeks you have a really nicely flavored negroni with some of the bitterness of the Campari knocked down and some added flavor from the previous batch of Manhattans. You can add all sorts of things to a Negroni like figs, strawberries, or grapefruit juice, but we like ours pretty straight, especially if you want to taste the nice flavor profile of the barrel. A simple grapefruit twist would be the perfect garnish.
As our next experiment, we are thinking about doing something with tequila, perhaps a barrel aged margarita base. In the future perhaps we will age some blends that can be used as the bases for other mixed drinks. Although it’s tempting, you don’t want to add fruit juice or sugar to the barrels as they can spoil. Anyway, we hope you have fun barreling and enjoy the results responsibly.
Our first blog was written by Herman Seidell.