Barrel-aged cocktails are of the coolest trends coming out of the mixology scene. It refers to a drink that’s assembled and then stored in a barrel and set aside to age. We see you rolling your eyes. But this is worth the work.
The result is a mellower concoction whose sharp edges have been softened, with a host of new flavors that develop over time. In other words, it’s a righteous drink worthy of the effort you put forth to make it.
You don’t have to be a graduate of bartender school to do this at home. All you need is a barrel, booze, and a little patience.
It pretty much starts and ends with a barrel. Don’t waste your time with the starter barrel-aging kits consisting of a glass vessel and pieces of charred wood. They’re quick, but they produce an unrefined drink.
You want a mini barrel. It can be anywhere from one to five liters; the three-liter is ideal and will cost $50 to $100. Vendors like Red Head Barrels and Bluegrass Barrels sell them pre-charred, which you’ll need. Charring is key to the aging process: It infuses the spirit with flavors of caramel and vanilla, and adds a golden hue that gets darker the longer the spirit ages.
You’ll also need a funnel, and it’s not a bad idea to get a tray or bucket for any spills.
Pre-soak your barrel in water for at least 24 hours. The wood swells slightly and expands, creating an airtight seal while giving you a chance to spot potential leaks.
The simpler the better. No perishable ingredients allowed, not even an orange peel.
Manhattans and old fashioneds are among the most popular drinks to barrel-age. Their straightforward, alcohol-centric ingredient list makes them ideal candidates. The Manhattan is especially good because it contains rye, a spirit whose strong personality responds well to aging.
Whatever you decide, make it be a drink you like, as it’ll be the one you’ll age in that barrel over the course of its lifespan.
You’ve mixed your drink, poured it into the barrel, and sealed it off. Now you let it sit — for at least four weeks but no longer than six (unless you really, really like the taste of oak).
After a week, pour a taste and see how it’s aging. Be sure to keep aside a sample of your original cocktail mix so you can compare from week to week. Watch for the sweet flavors to subtly caramelize, and for an increasing presence of smoke and earth, with an emerging vanilla highlight.
Once you like what you taste — assuming you haven’t drunk it all — remove it from the barrel. Pour it over a strainer into a glass container with a top; an old Rebel Yell bottle (or two) works fine.
Rinse the barrel with water — and save until you’re ready to make another batch. The aging properties typically run about three barrels’ worth before the wood no longer adds anything to the process.
The Final Serve
Pour about three ounces of your barrel-aged cocktail into a shaker or large glass with ice. Stir gently. Place a strainer over the top and pour into a chilled glass. Garnish with a Luxardo cherry on a toothpick or a citrus peel, or both.