Barrel Aged Cocktails

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Barrel CropPage updated April 28, 2016

Read on to learn the basics of barrel aging and how to get started.  To see some additional barrel aged cocktails and spirits go here.

Once the concept was introduced by Jeffrey Morgenthaler around 2010, barrel aged cocktails became the next great drink and are now easily found at upscale bars across the country.  When a cocktail is barrel aged it takes on flavors from the wood and if it contains a fortified wine, from some oxidation as well.  The result can be amazing.  The idea seems easy enough: make up a cocktail, pour it into a barrel and wait a few weeks.  Of course, there is a little more to consider, especially if you are wanting to do this at home.  I do recommend trying this at home.  So, let’s look at how best to do this, and at some choices you will need to make.

We are going to discuss:

  1. What does the barrel do to the cocktail
  2. Obtaining and using a barrel at home
  3. Which types of cocktails lend themselves to barrel aging
  4. Step by step examples
  5. A possible alternative for similar results

What is happening to my drink?!

Barrel Aged Negroni BarrelWhen you barrel age a cocktail you are doing two things:

  • Allowing the liquid to oxidize
  • Infusing the drink with wood – and with whatever was previously in the barrel.

We generally consider oxidation to be a bad thing.  Think of red wine that has been sitting on the counter a week after it was opened.  Actually, oxidation is essential for the development of wine – especially fortified wines such as Sherry and Madeira.  It is oxidation occurring after fermentation that is generally considered a bad thing.  In this case, oxidation will develop flavors of apple, cider, nuts (especially almonds), candied fruit and yeast. There is also a bitter component.  The flavor can be described as “flat,” with a loss of fruitiness.  In a barrel aged cocktail, this presents itself as a mellowing of flavors.  The extent to which each of the above mentioned flavors occur will depend on the contents of your cocktail.  The process of oxidation is most pronounced with drinks containing fortified wines.

Manhattan Barrel Aged InhancedAs noted, barrel aging is simply infusing with charred wood. If you age a cocktail in a new barrel, the flavors added to the liquid are frequently described as a combination of bitterness, vanilla, nut, caramel, walnut, coconut, and clove.  If your barrel is used, it will impart additional flavors from whatever was in it previously.  Examples are cherry from sherry and sweet spice from bourbon.  All of this becomes more interesting when the barrel’s previous occupant was a different cocktail.  I will discuss this more later, but for now let’s move on.

What kind of barrel should I get and from where?

Like any infusion, the greater the surface area of the solids to volume of liquid – the faster the process.  This means that smaller barrels will infuse (barrel age) the cocktail more quickly than larger ones.

Barrel Aged Sherry BWThe other consideration in deciding the barrel size is: How much do you want to make of a single cocktail?  A liter barrel will make 8-12 drinks.  Larger barrels will yield more drinks, but you can make multiple small batches with smaller barrels.  Plus, as we will discuss, you have to keep the barrel going.  You can’t let it sit empty – you have to keep using it.  So, keep in mind how many barrel aged cocktails you will serve.

We chose to go with two, one liter barrels.  Two barrels allows some flexibility.  The one liter size will produce the number of barrel aged drinks that we are likely to serve.

Barrels are available at some high end liquor stores and online.  Try:  Tuthilltown or Oak Barrels Ltd.  We ordered from Tuthilltown.  Just be sure that the barrel is charred and made for actual use and not for decoration.

Which Cocktails to Try?

Barrel Aged Negroni SmAs noted, cocktails containing some fortified wine lend themselves best to the aging process.  This is most probably due to the oxidation of the fortified wine adding to the complexity of the finished cocktail.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to barrel age a drink made solely from already aged ingredients: such as barrel aging an Old Fashioned.  We thus far, have aged a Martini and various Manhattans and Negronis.

An interesting side product has been the Sherry and whiskey that we used to flavor the barrels.  The Sherry took on a pleasant flavor of oak with dried cherries and figs.  The whiskey initially began to taste like a young bourbon with vanilla, cinnamon and clove.  After the barrel was used for a Negroni, the whiskey went back in for a few weeks.  This time there was an added dried fruit and richness along with the smoky, charred oak.  After the Martini was aged, the whiskey picked up herbal notes from the dry vermouth and gin.  What we try with the Sherry and whiskey will be a tale for another day!

The Step by Step How to

Initial Rinse and Soak

The first thing you will need to do, after obtaining your barrel, is to wash it thoroughly with water.  Simply fill, shake, drain, repeat – until black bits stop coming out.  If you fill your barrel with liquid at this point, it will leak.  You need to fill it with filtered water, close it up and let it sit overnight.  This will cause the wood to swell and seal the majority of the leaks.  I say “majority” because the barrel will still drip some.  For this reason I suggest you set the barrel on something like a plastic container lid.  Once you’ve rinsed and soaked it, your barrel is ready for use.

Barrel Aged SherrySeasoning the Barrel

While a cocktail could, at this point, be put into your barrel, I strongly suggest that you flavor the barrel first.  Starting with a fortified wine or whiskey will add flavors that you can’t get from new charred oak.  The goal is to add something that the cocktail doesn’t already contain.  We used Sherry for the barrel to age Manhattans.  Other options would be Madeira or Port.  Our other barrel was started with un-aged corn whiskey.   This barrel was destined for Negronis and other cocktails.  After 4 weeks, rotating the barrels 1/4 turn each week, we drained the barrels and rinsed them.  The 4 weeks was arbitrary.  It could have been longer, but probably not shorter.  The aged Sherry and Whiskey were returned to their original bottles.  They were then reused in the barrels between cocktails.

Calculating the Ingredients

Now it is time for your cocktail.  Whatever you’re going to age, use your best, most favorite recipe.

Calculating the quantities of each ingredient is simple:Barrel Aged Negroni Bottles 2 BW

  1. Convert your measures:  If your barrel is in gallons and you are using metric, convert the gallons to liters. If your barrel is in metric and you are using ounces, convert the barrel to ounces.  We used the later.  A liter barrel is a little more than 35 ounces.
  2. Total the number of ounces (mils) in one drink, (figure 1/8 tsp for a dash).  Then divide that number into the volume of your barrel.  This will give you the number of drinks the barrel will hold.
  3. To calculate the volume of each ingredient, multiply the amount for one drink by the number of drinks the barrel will hold.

You will obviously want to round down to not waste any ingredients.  You do want to plan enough liquid to nearly fill the barrel.  Partial filling can lead to an area of dry barrel which will leak and possibly to excessive oxidation.

The Aging Process

Barrel Aged Whiskey SepiaWhen you’re ready to load your cocktail, combine all ingredients in a single container, preferably with a pour spout.  You may or may not want to include bitters.  You can always add them to individual servings.

Push the spigot tightly into the barrel.  You may want to test this the first time by adding water thru the bung whole to check the seal.  If you do, be sure to completely drain the barrel.

Using a funnel, carefully pour the cocktail into the barrel.  Once the cocktail is in the barrel, push the bung tightly into the bung hole.

Important note:  When you push the bung into the bung hole, you will create a small amount of pressure in the barrel.  This will lead to an initial increase in leakage.  To prevent this, once the bung is in place, turn the barrel on end, spout end up and open the spout.  You will get a tiny spurt of liquid.  Close the spout and set the barrel on it’s side in the cradle.

Taste your cocktail frequently.  This should even be daily for lighter drinks.  Heavier drinks, such as Manhattans and Negronis, can wait a week, but taste frequently.  Cocktails age from ‘not-quite-there-yet’ to ‘over-the-hill’ very quickly.

While aging, turn the barrel 1/4 turn each week.  This keeps all of the barrel wet and exposes the liquid to all of the wood surface.

Bottling and Storing Aged cocktails

Before I get to actual recipes: how you store your aged cocktail is important.  First, use a glass bottle with a tight seal.  A bottle with a cage top will work very well.  Secondly, refrigerate the cocktail.  This will slow further oxidation.  Your aged cocktail will change over a week or two.  To me, the flavors become flat, more bitter and less complex.    In short, plan to finish it off in a week to 10 days.

To serve, measure out the volume that would have been in the original, single drink.  Add this to a mixing glass with ice and stir to chill.  The chilled cocktail will be stronger than one you started with at room temperature.  This is because chilled ingredients will not create as much dilution from melting.  Before you serve the drink, taste to see if it needs a little water.

Maintaining the Barrel

When not in use, the barrel must be kept wet.  If you fill it with water, it will rot.  If you fill it with watered down Everclear, you will soak out flavors.  I have kept ours full with either cocktails or the original Sherry or corn whiskey.  At any rate, at some point the flavors will be extracted – like used tea bags.

Examples

Barrel Aged Negroni

Barrel Aged Negroni BottlesUse a whiskey barrel.  Plan on 3-4 weeks of aging.  I left the bitters out of the aging process and added them to the individual cocktails.

Original Negroni

  • 1 oz. Plymouth Gin
  • 1 oz. Campari
  • 1 oz. Dolan Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 dash Regan’s Orange Bitters
  • 1 dash Angostura Orange Bitters
  • 1 fat orange peel for garnish

For a 1 liter whiskey barrel:

  • 11 oz. Plymouth Gin
  • 11 oz. Campari
  • 11 oz. Dolans Sweet Vermouth

Age for 3-4 weeks.  This varies with each batch.  So, just because the first batch took 4 weeks, the next may be 3 weeks and a couple of days.  TASTE OFTEN!!

Barrel Aged Negroni SmTo serve:

  1. Pour 3 oz. Aged Negroni into a mixing glass with ice.  Add bitters. Stir to chill.
  2. Taste for strength and add water if needed.
  3. Strain into a chilled Old Fashioned with a large ice cube.
  4. Flame the orange peel over the drink and float the peel.

Barrel Aged Manhattan.

Manhattan Barrel Aged 3I think that this is by far the best cocktail to age.  Use a barrel that has been seasoned with a fortified wine.  We used Sherry.  Plan on 4 weeks of aging.

Original Manhattan

  • 2 oz. Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old Bourbon
  • 1 1/2 oz. Italian Vermouth (sweet)
  • 1 tsp Grand Marnier
  • 1 – 2 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters
  • maraschino cherries for garnish

For a 1 liter Sherry barrel:

One liter is equal to about 35 ounces.  The Manhattan recipe above makes a drink that is just shy of 3 3/4 ounces.  So 35 divided by 3 3/4 is 9 1/3, or 9 drinks.  Multiplying the quantity of each ingredient by 9 gives us:

  • 18 oz. Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old Bourbon
  • 13 1/2 oz. Italian Vermouth (sweet)
  • 1 1/2 oz. Grand Marnier
  • 9 dashes (or 1 tsp) Angostura Orange Bitters

Age for 3-4 weeks.  This varies with each batch.  So, just because the first batch took 4 weeks, the next may be 3 weeks and a couple of days.  TASTE OFTEN!!

Manhattan Barrel Aged InhancedTo serve:

  1. Pour 3 1/2 oz. Aged Manhattan into a mixing glass with ice.  Stir to chill.
  2. Taste for strength and add water if needed.
  3. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
  4. Garnish with maraschino cherries and perhaps an orange twist

Gin and Fortified Wine Fail

I include this as an example of what not to do!  I like this cocktail, though I’ve never given it a name.  Barrel aging it in a Whiskey/Negroni barrel sounded like a good idea.  However, I got distracted and failed to taste it for a week.  By the end of 1 week, it was ruined.  This cocktail is bright, floral and herbal.  After 1 week in the barrel it was left flat, with faint oak, a touch of juniper from the gin and that’s about it!  If I had tried this with the ‘Alternative’ below, I could have saved a lot of alcohol!

Original Single Cocktail

  • 1 1/2 oz. Ford’s Gin
  • 3/4 oz. Dolan Dry Vermouth
  • 1/4 oz. Liquore Strega
  • Lemon peel for garnish

For a 1 liter whiskey/Negroni barrel:

  • 19 1/2 oz. Fords Gin
  • 9 3/4 oz. Dolan Dry Vermouth
  • 3 1/4 oz. Liquore Strega

Aging brought nothing to the party.  I do not even plan to try this with bottle aging.  Bottom line: Don’t waste the booze!

 An Alternative

4058_Barware_Mixers-_Bottle_Aged_Cocktail_Kit_largeSo, can barrel aging be done without a $50 – $75 barrel, 1+ liters of expensive booze and 3 – 4 weeks?  The short answer is “Yes.”  The long answer is “Yes, but it won’t be quite the same.”  Tuthilltown did offer a Cocktail Aging Kit consisting of a 12 oz. bottle with a charred “barrel stave.”  With this, you could age a cocktail in 2 weeks or less.  I don’t think they still offer this product, but you can purchase staves here.  These will fit in any  750 ml bottle or use a 375 ml bottle.  The results will not be identical to barrel aging.  You will have less complexity probably due to less oxidation in the sealed bottle.  This can be a good thing….or not.

Pros

  • Inexpensive – $6.32 plus S&H for 1 stave
  • Smaller volume of ingredients
  • Can try aging a cocktail before committing to a larger volume in a barrel
  • Shorter time to completion
  • Less oxidation
  • No maintenance

Cons

  • Smaller volume of ingredients
  • Less oxidation

I have tried to flavor a stave with whiskey and then use it to age a cocktail in the bottle.  This did not work.  The staves don’t have a lot of life so you have to toss them after 1 or 2 drinks.

Overall, the Pros outnumber the Cons.  I still suggest that you try the real deal and get a barrel or two.  The bottle would be a good way to test age a cocktail before committing to a large volume and a lot of time.

Bottle Aged Negroni

The only equipment you need for this is the Cocktail Aging Kit

DSC00042Original Negroni

  • 1 oz. Plymouth Gin
  • 1 oz. Campari
  • 1 oz. Dolan Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 dash Regan’s Orange Bitters
  • 1 dash Angostura Orange Bitters
  • 1 fat orange peel for garnish

For 1 Bottle

  • 3 oz. Plymouth Gin
  • 3 oz. Campari
  • 3 oz. Dolan Sweet Vermouth
  • 3 dashes Regan’s Orange Bitters
  • 3 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters

To Serve

  1. Pour 3 oz. Aged Negroni into a mixing glass with ice.  Add bitters. Stir to chill.
  2. Strain into a chilled Old Fashioned with a large ice cube.
  3. Flame the orange peel over the drink and float the peel.

 Bottom Line

Barrel aging is definitely worth doing at home.  I also recommend the use of Tuthilltown’s Cocktail Aging Kit, if for nothing more than age testing your cocktail recipe before going to the time and expense of barrel aging.

In addition to Manhattans and Negroni variations, (such as the Boulevardier,) you should consider aging tequila based drinks, cocktails combining fortified wines, and Maritinis.  Just Google “barrel aged cocktail recipe” for some great ideas.

Cheers!

18 Comments

  1. GREAT write up! Lots of great info, thank you. One note – on your Manhattan recipe, pretty sure you meant 1 1/2 TEASPOONS (not ounces) of Angosturra bitters, right? I’ve heard from others that bitters expound (become stronger) while barrel aging cocktails so it’s wise to go easy on them, then add to taste when preparing a cocktail later. Any validity to this?

    • Thanks for your kind comment and thank you very much for pointing out the error in the Manhattan recipe. Wow, was I off!! The 1 liter barrel will make 9 Manhattans so that is the multiplier. I’m not sure exactly what I was multiplying since it was way off. On putting bitters in barrels: The charred oak imparts some bitterness at the same time it mellows all spices and herbals. There is a marked difference in the flavors of cocktails aged with bitters in the barrel vs bitters added after aging. I try to add the bitters before aging, unless it significantly throws off the volume. I suggest you try it both ways yourself (and let me know what you think).

      Thanks again for the heads up on my error.

      Cheers!

    • Oh, check out our follow up article http://docelliott.net/why-you-should-be-barrel-aging-at-home/.

      Thanks again

  2. Being new to this I have a few questions.
    #1, I started the 2 lt. barrel with Manhattans and will be making Negronies next. Do you need to rinse the barrel before making the Negronies or just put the ingredients in?
    #2, What do you recommend to fill the barrel with if not using it for a few months until I start it up again. Thanks for your help.

    • On rinsing the barrel between cocktails: I gently rinse once or twice with cold filtered water, just to remove any liquid from the previous inhabitant. I assume that the cocktail flavors absorbed by the barrel could be significantly reduced by vigorous rinsing. On filling the barrel between uses: I tried using diluted Everclear, but that absorbed color and flavors. I would suggest that you use a fortified wine such as Sherry or Port or even bourbon or White Whiskey. Everything you put into the barrel will reduce its flavors until it is used up like a tea bag. At least a fortified wine will add some flavors as it absorbs others. Bottom line: put something in it that is similar to or will enhance the cocktail you plan to place into the barrel afterwards.

      I would be interested in hearing how the ‘Angle’s Share’ effects your volume in a 2 Liter barrel. I’ve been exclusively using 1 liter barrels so I can run more cocktails through them. The Angel’s Share in a 1 liter barrel is about 30% at 4 weeks! The greater surface to volume ratio that allows me to speed up the aging process, also increases the evaporation. Please let me know how it goes for you.

      • Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. If I use my barrel for just Manhattans and negroni ‘s do you think Sherry would be best? How long can you leave the Sherry in the barrel for in between uses and can you use it over again? I’ll let you Know how much is lost in the first batch.

        • Sherry will work great. It really enhances anything with sweet vermouth. I use the Sherry over and over again. Just keep it in the refrigerator between barrel times, and replenish it with the same type and brand as needed to keep the volume up. I also use the Sherry in various un-aged cocktails. See http://docelliott.net/manhattan-2-0/ As far as how long to keep the Sherry in the Barrel: to flavor the Barrel, I would leave it for 4 – 6 weeks. As for the Sherry, I find that it reaches a point in aging where it doesn’t change much. Probably because I’m using some of it along and replenishing with new. Otherwise, leave it in there as long as you need between cocktails.

        • Just emptied the barrel of Manhattans after four weeks and can honestly say they tasted better in week two than in week 4. Will make another batch right away and see how this batch turns out.

          • It’s interesting how much variation there is between batches. One time perfection is 2 weeks and other times 6 with the same barrel! It is such a burden to frequently taste cocktails! I just pulled a Negroni out of a whiskey barrel after 4 weeks. It is much more mellow than previous batches.

  3. Thank you again for all the help, I appreciate it.

  4. Great advice thanks! I have just finished my first batches of barrel aged cocktails, one manhattan and one boulevardier. I am wanting to put in some sherry between batches ands wondering what type/brand of sherry you would recommend? Some for the whiskey or bourbon?

    • I used Lustau East India Solera Sherry. I think that it flavors the barrel and ages well. I actually haven’t tried a different style of Sherry. I’m not sure that a Pedro Ximenez, Amontillado or other style would either age well or impart flavors I’m trying to add. For the whiskey, I use Hudson’s. I would think any premium brand would do fine. Bourbon in the Sherry barrel is great, and the tequila that followed it is awesome, (Tequila Manhattan anyone?). As far as bourbon brands, I use Russel’s 10 year. How did the Boulevardier turn out?

      Thanks for visiting Doc Elliott’s. Check out our other Barrel Aged Cocktail page: Here.

      • Ok. I can’t find the East India Solera Sherry in south Florida. Any other recommendations? What type of sherry should I look for in generL?

        • The Solera is an Oloroso sherry. So try an Oloroso or an Amontillado. I would think that the Amontillado would be preferable since it will be more complex. I am planning to use a Maderia in the near future. Thanks for reading and let me know how it goes.

  5. What are your thoughts/experiences on using Rye versus bourbon (for aged Manhattans)?

    • I haven’t tried rye in a barrel. If you prefer rye to bourbon, it should work for you. Let me know how it goes.

  6. Hi, I want to subscribe for this blog to get newest updates, thus where can i do it please assist.

    • On the home page scroll to the bottom of the page and select ‘subscribe by email’ or follow on Twitter or Facebook. All posts are also published on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for the interest. If you have a problem subscribing let me know, I want to always be aware of any issues. Thanks again

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