Why Barrel Age?
Barrel aging cocktails has been a trend in the craft cocktail scene for years, and is now finding a home in hotel bars and dive bars alike. It gives your beverage program an element of craftsmanship, but it’s deceptively easy to pull off. Maturing a cocktail in wood can have a remarkable effect on the flavor and body of the drink. It can soften harsh flavors, round out mouthfeel, or even add a touch of bitterness.
It’s also an excellent exercise in crafting a cocktail. Putting your most creative bartenders to the task can turn barrel aging into a great group exercise for your bar team.
While it’s not a difficult process, there are some steps you’ll need to take to ensure success:
1 - Find A Barrel
A small, new barrel is idea for your first go at aging a cocktail. If you’re lucky, your liquor distributor may have barrels available through their suppliers - Maker’s Mark makes excellent barrels for cocktail aging. If nothing is available to you through your distributor, check out Freedom Oak Barrels (www.freedomoakbarrels.com) or Red Head Barrels (www.redheadoakbarrels.com). Go for anything from 2L - 5L for your first run.
Note: You will likely be able to use a barrel this size 1 - 3 times before you have to retire it, depending on how porous the wood is. Each time you age a new batch in the barrel it will pick up notes from the previous batch, and will take about twice as long to age as the batch immediately prior to it. Once your barrel starts leaking or breaking down, send it’s jersey to the rafters.
How aging works:
2- Prep The Barrel
No matter how excited you are to get your cocktail in the barrel, do not skip this step. Prepping the barrel is integral to making sure you don’t lose more alcohol than the angel’s share when aging. This will also help rinse away any debris that may be in the barrel from the charring process.
Fill your barrel with hot, distilled water, seal the barrel and let sit for 24 hours. This will allow the wood to expand.
Check for leaks. If you find a leak, let the water soak in the barrel for another 24 hours to settle into the wood further.
Don’t leave this water in the barrel for more than 48 hours - mildew would throw a serious wrench in your cocktail plans!
3 - Season The Barrel (optional)
Seasoning the barrel isn’t necessary to the success of your drink, but in my own opinion it always adds a little something extra to a cocktail. Seasoning the barrel is simply marinating the wood with a product to impart some of its qualities into the wood. I typically like to use a sherry or rum to offset any bitterness that may come from the tannin in the wood.
Fill up the barrel with distilled water (again), this time including about ⅕ of the barrel size in your seasoning spirit of choice (e.g. 1 L of Amontillado Sherry + 4 L Water to fill up a 5 L barrel)
Seal the barrel and let this sit for 24-48 hours.
If you have product to spare and want to make this a two-tier barrel aging project, skip the water and fill the whole barrel with your seasoning spirit of choice. You can let it season longer this way, and once you empty it you can reuse it as a lightly barrel aged product, to give just a hint of woodiness to any drink you use it in!
4 - Pick A Cocktail
High proof cocktails will work the best for barrel aging. The less sugary ingredients you use in your barrel, the better results you will have so it’s best to start with spirit forward classics - Vespers, Manhattans, and Negronis are all popular cocktails to barrel age. If possible, avoid using vermouths or juices in your barrel, as these will oxidize and you’ll end with a sour flavor. Avoid using excessive amounts of sugars or syrups as well, which can seep out of the wood and clog your pour spout resulting in mold or other unsavory issues.
You can find sample recipes to test out your barrel aging skills on at the bottom of this post ↓
5 - Batch Your Cocktail
Multiply your recipe to achieve the appropriate batch size. Make sure to overestimate a little bit so you have some extra batch left to taste side by side with the matured product. If there are bitters in your recipe, leave them OUT of the barrel! The flavor in most bitters will be far too concentrated for the barrel, and as the wood softens your other ingredients the bitters will become overpowering. Simply add the bitters at the end when you’re ready to serve.
Pro Tip: There are approximately 34 oz in 1 L
6 - Age It
Once your cocktail is in the barrel, keep it in a cool, dark place. If that means your back bar, then by all means show it off! But if your back bar is a sunny spot, consider placing it somewhere else. It’s fun to display the barrel, but as your barrel gets warmer alcohol evaporates faster and you will share more than you hoped to with the angels.
Displaying the barrel once the cocktail is done and the barrel is empty will look just as good.
7 - Taste It
There is no right or wrong amount of time to age a cocktail for. Typically, your best results in a small, new barrel will be between 1 and 6 weeks, peaking around 3-4. Taste it at the end of week one, and then throughout the subsequent weeks until you find the complexity you are looking for. In the initial month, the wood will impart sweetness and round out your cocktail. Beyond that it will make the cocktail more dry over time.
Make sure that you keep about a ½ L of the original batch outside of the barrel, so that you can taste test the original cocktail side by side with the barreled one as it matures.
8 - Serve It
When your cocktail is ready to go, decant it and bottle it. At this point I like to add the appropriate water content (usually about 25-30% of the whole liquid amount) so that I can refrigerate it and it is completely ready to serve, but you can also shake or stir the cocktail with ice before serving if you prefer to keep it in its original form.
When you cost out your drink, make sure you account for the liquor lost to evaporation during the aging process. A good estimate for a smaller barrel is usually around 10% of your original product. Simply cost out your original cocktail, and multiply by 110% for your final COG.
Looking for a little inspiration? Try our favorite barrel aged recipes below!
Note that these are the portion sizes for one individual cocktail serving - multiply these ratios to the appropriate size for your barrel to create a batch recipe.
Maker’s Mai Tai
1 oz Maker’s Mark
1 oz Stolen Overproof Rum
.5 oz Bauchant Orange Liqueur
.5 oz Di Saronno Amaretto
Garnish with a fresh lime wheel for a touch of acidity when serving
Barrel Rested Margarita
2 oz Casamigos Reposado
.25 oz Stoli Lime
.5 oz Agave Nectar
.5 oz Dekuyper Triple Sec
1 dash Lactart
Garnish with a dehydrated lime wheel for a dressed up cocktail.
Barrel Aged White Negroni
1 oz Navy Strength Plymouth Gin
1 oz Suze
1 oz Triple Sec
Express orange peel over cocktail when serving, and use as garnish
1.5 oz Rittenhouse Rye
.75 oz Peychaud’s Apertivo
.5 oz Triple Sec
.25 oz Jagermeister
Express lemon peel over cocktail when serving, garnish with Filthy Black Cherry
1.5 oz Larceny
.75 oz Dr. McGillicuddy’s Blackberry Whiskey
.25 oz Peychauds Apertivo
Express orange peel over cocktail when serving, garnish with fresh blackberry.