How To: Barrel-Age Cocktails

You guys, barrel-aged cocktails may be my new favorite thing, even if barrel-aged cocktails aren't all that new. For cocktail enthusiasts, barrel-aged cocktails have been a thing for several years, starting to trend in 2010. It was then that one of America's top bartenders, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, wrote about his results from experimenting with barrel-aged cocktails, which found mass appeal and popularity at Clyde Common, the popular Portland tavern where he's bar manager at. The initial barrel-aged cocktails sold out in mere days before becoming a mainstay on Clyde Common's drink menu. A few months later the New York Times wrote about the growing barrel-aged cocktails trend, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But barrel-aging spirits and cocktails isn't just for the distiller and cocktail connoisseur. You, too, can make barrel-aged cocktails at home. (Could I sound any more like a As Seen On TV salesman?)

Benefits of Barrel-Aged Cocktails

But why barrel-age cocktails? Well perhaps first and foremost, at least for me, it has to do with time. If I have friends over, I can have a cocktail in their hand within seconds, with no required prep, stirring, or shaking. Cocktail purists may say the barrel again takes away from the art of making a cocktail, but I say, if it saves time and makes a delicious drink, then who cares? Which brings me to my next point, which is that barrel-aging cocktails brings flavors to a cocktail that you wouldn't necessarily get by just stirring or shaking a cocktail, thanks to its contact against the charred wood of a barrel. Furthermore, it softens and mellows out what are largely booze-forward cocktails. This for some may not be a benefit, but for those who prefer more mellow cocktails, this is an added perk.

Of course barrel-aging cocktails has its downsides. First of all, it's a bit of a waiting game, since you can't drink it right away. Well actually you could drink it right away, but to reach the desired effects, I'd wait a few weeks. Which brings me to another downside, and that's the angel's share. It's inevitable that anytime you age alcohol, you're going to lose a percentage of it to evaporation. And it creates a bit of a paradox: The longer you age your spirits or cocktails, the more complex they can become, yet the more of it that's lost to the angel's share. Nonetheless, for personal use, I recommend using a two-liter barrel, since I find a one-liter barrel leaving me wanting, while a five- or ten-liter barrel is overkill. I bought my barrels from Oak Barrel Ltd, where you can find barrels for as low as $30, which you should be able to get several uses out of.

How to Barrel Age Cocktails

By and large, barrel-aging cocktails is pretty simple. If you've ever made tea or lemonade, then you should easily be able to make barrel-aged cocktails. However, you'll first need to treat and cure your oak barrel if it's new. You'll first do this by washing out the barrel several times to clean out any pieces of char or wood. You may notice as you're doing this that water leaks out from different parts of the barrel. That's normal. If you haven't attached the spigot, then attach it, and fill the barrel with warm water and insert the bung. Leave the barrel somewhere that it won't ruin anything by leaking, which in my case, is typically just in a sink, which I'll also fill with warm water, where I let the barrel sit. This process swells the barrel, essentially sealing itself from leaks. It should be swollen and sealed within 24 hours, but sometimes may take additional time.

Now it's time to become mad cocktail scientist. Once your barrel is sealed, you'll pour out every last drop of water from your barrel and add the good stuff. By and large, you'll simply be making much larger batches of your favorite cocktails, by adjusting ingredient quantities based on barrel size. Your barrel-aged cocktails should be booze-forward cocktails that call for ingredients that aren't so perishable (in other words, no citrus and added sugar). Keep it simple with no more than three to five ingredients consisting of booze and bitters. My barrel-aging sweet spot for a two-liter barrel, like Morgenthaler, is about six weeks. I find that a month isn't quite mature enough, while anything more than two months and you start losing too much juice to angel's share. That and it seems to become a bit "oaky".

Barrel-Aged Cocktail Recipes

Barrel-Aged Manhattan. If you're aging cocktails for the first time, it's hard to go wrong with a barrel-aged Manhattan. This follows closely to Jeffrey Morgenthaler's recipe, featuring just three ingredients, many of which are ingredients you're probably already familiar with if you're a regular cocktail drinker. You'll simply add all the ingredients to a pitcher to stir before adding to your barrel. Turn your barrel and taste every week or two and let it age for approximately six weeks. For something a little bit more interesting, try Morgenthaler's Aged White Manhattan.

  • 36 oz. rye (Approximately one and a half bottles)
  • 18 oz. sweet vermouth
  • 1 oz. Angostura bitters

Negroni. Similar to the barrel-aged Manhattan, the Negroni is another great barrel-aged cocktail recipe that's hard to mess up, since most recipes call for equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari. My token Negroni recipe, however, calls for two parts gin to one part vermouth and Campari, since I like a little bit more subdued bitterness in a Negroni. Nontheless, this is probably my single favorite barrel-aged cocktail. This, too, follows most barrel-aged Negroni recipes, including Morgenthaler's Negroni recipe, which calls for adding all the ingredients to a pitcher, stirring, and adding to the barrel to age for about six weeks. If you, like me, prefer whiskey to gin, consider switching out the gin with whiskey, making it a Boulevardier.

  • 18 oz. gin
  • 18 oz. Campari
  • 18 oz. sweet vermouth

The Negroni and Manhattan are really a good start to barrel-aged cocktails. If you want to expand just beyond these classics, the Vieux Carré, martini, and Sazerac are among some of the other barrel-aged cocktails that people have made with success.

What are your favorite barrel-aged cocktails?