Barrel-Aging Cocktails for Beginners
If you’re interested in barrel-aging your own cocktails, we’ve teamed up with food and spirits enthusiast, Paul Stoddard, to give you an easy-to-follow tutorial on barrel-aging, along with recipes, tips, and tricks to ensure you get a smooth, oaky batch of cocktails.
Have you been to a nice cocktail bar or restaurant and found yourself staring at that cool-looking barrel in the corner or the back shelf, wondering what is going on with that? There’s a chance that a barrel-aged cocktail is in the making! This has occurred to me on countless occasions and I always ask the bartender what they are making. Sadly, many times those barrels are just decorations or neutral barrels, which is a big tease and a gross misuse of space, if you ask me.
Seeing these barrels pop up all over the place in the past decade or so, coupled with my love and fascination for all things cocktail, I had to try it for myself. Since barrel-aging cocktails just recently began in late 2009, you may think this is a fairly new trend. However, with such a constant need to add variety and evolve, the current cocktail world may consider this trend “old” by now. In my opinion, they are still worth the time and effort and are great conversation starters at parties!
What you need to barrel-age cocktails
- That should be pretty obvious. You can find small barrels all over the internet and sometimes from your favorite cooperage (place that makes barrels) or distillery. If you work in the food and beverage industry, reach out to your local liquor vendors and see if they have any. That’s how I got mine!
- Shoot for a 3- or 5-liter barrel.
- You will need a funnel to pour your liquids into the barrel.
- When you find a recipe you want to barrel age, you will need to calculate that recipe out, in order to determine how much of each ingredient you will need. I used this very helpful and free online recipe calculator.
Spirits, liqueurs, etc. for your cocktail
Time and patience
- This is undoubtedly the hardest part of the entire process. Waiting while all those lovely vanilla, oak, and spice flavors come together can be daunting, but it will be more than worth it!
FAQs for barrel-aging your own cocktails
CAN I ADD BITTERS TO THE COCKTAIL IN THE BARREL?
My suggestion is to avoid adding bitters to the recipe until after aging. Bitters can easily take over the cocktail and eliminate the results you are trying to achieve. Instead of tasting a touch of oak combined with a more developed spirit/cocktail, you may taste something very bitter and unpleasant and end up dumping several hundred dollars’ worth of booze you just invested in. Many tears will be shed from both you and me.HOW LONG WILL MY BARREL LAST?
Sadly, your barrels do have a life cycle, so you will not be able to barrel age cocktails in them forever. A 3- or 5-liter barrel may be able to produce 2 or 3 batches of cocktails. The oak presence that you’re looking for in the barrel, which both sweetens and mellows your cocktail, will eventually subside or become so mellow, you will not be able to taste a difference between a fresh and “barrel-aged” beverage. Once the barrel has lived its life, it is considered a neutral barrel.CAN I BARREL AGE DIFFERENT COCKTAILS IN THE SAME BARREL?
Most would say ‘no’. I suggest that you stick to aging the same cocktail. What you need to understand is, whatever flavors you put in the barrel will remain for future uses. On the other hand, let’s say you start with a Boulevardier and then want to try a Vieux Carre. They have a couple similar ingredients, so it could add an interesting Boulevardier flavor dynamic to your Vieux Carre. At the end of the day, it is your barrel and you can do what you want!HOW LONG SHOULD I AGE A COCKTAIL?
That really depends on personal preference and time. Typically, the longer you barrel age, the more oak flavor will be imparted into the cocktail and the more all the flavors will mesh. It is important to have a taste every week or so until you feel it is time to take it out. The first batch you put in a brand-new barrel may only need 2 to 5 weeks of aging time. The next batch will be double the time to get a similar result. The last and final batch (if using a 3- or 5- liter barrel, may take 10 to 15 weeks.THE HIGHER PROOF THE BASE SPIRIT IS, THE BETTER.
Barrel aging is intended to soften and sweeten the spirits in them. If you see “barrel proof” or “cask strength” spirits, that means they have not been diluted as much as most bottles on the shelves are. “Barrel proof” or “cask strength” spirits typically range in proof from 100 to 135. If you are using 80 to 90 proof spirits as your base, the finished product may come out too sweet and you could lose the base spirit entirely.SUGAR IN YOUR RECIPE.
In general, you should never add any sweeteners in your barrel such as simple syrup, honey, agave syrup, etc. as they can crystalize in the barrel and clog the spigot. Your best bets for sweeteners in your recipes are liqueurs and maple syrup (ensure all your spirits are high proof). Your best bet is to save the syrups for when you are ready to serve a finished cocktail.DIALING IN YOUR RECIPE.
Before you decide to barrel-age a cocktail, make a single serving of the cocktail to try it. Let your friends try too! For example, I would make a Boulevardier based on the recipe below. If I feel there needs to be less bourbon, a higher or lower proofed bourbon, or less Campari, I can adjust before putting a big batch in a barrel. If you put a bad cocktail in a barrel, you are going to have a bad barrel-aged cocktail. If you put a good cocktail in a barrel, you are going to have a great barrel-aged cocktail!WRITE DOWN YOUR RECIPE.
It’s nice to write down your exact recipe, such as which bourbon and liqueurs you use, as well as the date you barreled it and when you emptied it. This will make it easier when you empty your barrel and want to recreate the same cocktail and if you bottle to give these cocktails as gifts, it’s nice to add the barrel age and bottle date to the gift tag. As the weeks go on, it’s also a good idea to compare a fresh cocktail with your barrel-aged cocktail. Using the same ingredients and portions will allow the best comparison of the barrel-aged version versus the control.HOW DO I ADDRESS LEAKS?
Typically, wherever you buy your barrel, you can find barrel wax. This stuff is great and will stop up the leaks immediately.WHERE SHOULD I STORE THE BARREL?
Store the barrel in a nice cool place that does not get too hot or too cold. Avoid storing the barrel in direct sunlight.MY BARREL HAS LOST ABOUT 5-15% OF WHAT I PUT IN! WHAT HAPPENED?
That, my friend, is called the Angels’ Share. And they will not be denied! Essentially, it is the liquid inside evaporating due to the porousness of the wood barrel. As a barrel warms and cools throughout the day or season, it basically expands and contracts. Think about it this way, do you have a door in your house that only sticks during the summer months and seems to work perfectly fine in the winter? The same thing is happening with barrels. The liquid in the barrel goes through phases of being pulled into the wood and squeezed out, which causes the liquid to both evaporate and mature. That is where the color comes from as well. Vodka is clear because it never touches a barrel. Bourbon is brown because it can be aged in barrels for several years. ...And you didn’t think you would use science after high school!
Recipes for barrel-aged cocktails
Now that all your burning questions are answered, you’re ready to start experimenting! Here are a few recipes to try in your barrels:
2-parts high proof Bourbon (100+ proof or higher)
1-part Carpano Antica Vermouth
2 dashes of Angostura Orange Bitters (to be added after barrel aging)
Garnish with flamed orange peel
1-part Rye Whiskey
1-part Sweet Vermouth
1 dash of Peychaud’s Bitters (add after barrel aging)
1 dash of Angostura Bitters (add after barrel aging)
Garnish with flamed lemon peel
If you already have a barrel, but don’t want to mix a cocktail to barrel age, by all means, fill it up with moonshine, a clear whiskey, gin, mezcal, or a cheaper Bourbon and forget about it for a few months. That can be fun too!
The fruits of your labor make for excellent party favors or gifts. Give them as hostess gifts or house-warming presents or as a fun treat at a wedding shower. Just pour into bottles, add a gift or wine tag, and you’re good to go. Now you can share your newly learned skill with the masses.
Good luck with your aging process!
Paul Stoddard was born and raised in the metro-Atlanta area and has lived in DC, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Brooklyn. He has worked in the food service and hospitality industry for over 16 years and because of this has acquired a passion for all things related to people, food, and libations. Even though his college basketball days are over, he still loves going to the gym and is also an avid snowboard enthusiast. - Find him at @pstod for more cocktail inspiration