Barrel Aged Cocktails….yum!
Many things make Bourbon special. Some of my fellow Kentuckians insist that it’s the Limestone bedrock that makes Kentucky water have a distinct taste. Perhaps it’s because it has a uniquely American flavor (it is America’s native spirit, after all). But whatever it is, we can all agree that Bourbon wouldn’t be Bourbon (legally or otherwise) without the beautiful process of barrel aging. The art of placing freshly-distilled spirit into a charred new oak barrel and allowing that liquor to flow in and out of the wood is what gives our favorite potent potable those beautiful caramel, vanilla, and smokey notes, as well as its signature color. Bourbon just wouldn’t be Bourbon without those barrels.
Because of the wonders that the barrel imparts onto what would otherwise just be white dog, it logically follows that barrel aging is a magical process that transforms the mundane into something transcendent. Bartenders and restauranteurs have seized upon this philosophy and have begun offering barrel aged cocktails to patrons, at a rather steep price. So what exactly happens to make what would be your usual $8 Old Fashioned into a $15 (or more) barrel aged elixir? To better understand this process, and with some wonderful help from our friends at Jefferson’s Bourbon and Cult Cocktail, I decided to give barrel aged cocktails a try.
A caveat: when barrel aging cocktails, you are undertaking a real liquor investment and you will need a lot of booze. So make sure you are making a cocktail that you will like to either drink copious amounts of yourself, or you are comfortable dishing out to all of your friends. It is also a time investment, as I recommend allowing your cocktail to age for at least 4-6 weeks. Yes: you must wait a month or more for your drink.
So to get started, you will first need to prep your barrel. Most barrels come with instructions on how to do this. It mainly consists of running water through the barrel to ensure no excess charcoal bits make their way into your drink. It is very important to keep your barrel moist, as once it dries out completely, it can start to crack and leak. I like to keep mine moist with cheap Bourbon, constantly turning it until ready to use. (You can also buy tablets that can be dissolved in water to keep them moist in storage.)
Next, you want to decide on your recipe. There are a fair amount of barrel aged cocktail recipes online, or you can do some of the math yourself and amplify your favorite cocktail recipe (depending upon the size of your barrel, of course). For a 5L barrel, you will want to use 4-5 750ml bottles of your main liquor (here, it is Bourbon); for a 3L barrel, you will use 2-3 bottles. This is for maximum use of your barrel, but you can also scale down to use 2 bottles (which is what I did, because 5 bottles of Bourbon is not cheap). I chose to barrel age a Manhattan, but other varietals of whiskey cocktails are also suitable for barrel aging (as long as no spoilable ingredients are used). Modifying a recipe from Colin Wells (Cult Cocktail), here is my take on the Presidential Manhattan, the Vice Presidential Manhattan:
- 2 Bottles Jefferson’s Bourbon
- 4 oz. Sweet Vermouth (I used Dolin)
- 1.2 oz. Blood Orange Bitters (I used Fee Brothers)
- .8 oz. Orange Bitters (I used Peychaud’s)
- 4 oz. Maraschino Liqueur (I used Maraska)
Now comes the easy part: using a funnel, pour all ingredients into the barrel (through the bung hole). Shake gently to marry the ingredients. Set barrel aside, turning it a quarter turn each day for 4-6 weeks. Be sure to keep your empty Bourbon bottles for once your cocktail is decanted.
The wait will be the most frustrating part. I encourage you to taste your cocktail after 4 weeks to decide if it has the desired flavor. If you think you want a bit more mellow to your drink, then allow the mixture to sit for an extra couple of weeks. Barrel aging adds an extra layer to a cocktail, rendering saccharin flavors more subtly sweet, and adding an extra, though gentle, layer of smoke and earthiness.
Once you decide that your cocktail has reached that point of mellow yet complex with a side of musty smokiness flavor you want, strain your cocktail into your empty Bourbon bottles using a very fine tea strainer. This will ensure there is no sediment left around mucking up your drink. You can absolutely pour your cocktail from the barrel, but I prefer to decant it into bottles so I can move on to aging yet another cocktail!
The big question: is it worth it? Barrel aging makes everything better, right? Well, many things, for sure. Barrels are easily sourced for less than $100 (try Oak Barrels Ltd.), can be personalized for gifts (monogrammed with initials, school logos, favorite Bourbon, etc), and look pretty cool on your home bar. If you’re interested, I say give it a try and use your friends as guinea pigs for your first cocktails. I’m sure they won’t mind.