April 23, 2018

Part of a Colorado culinary arts education is discovering how the right beverage can unlock new dimensions in a meal. The perfect combination of flavors and aromas results in an amazing dining experience, so anyone who is interested in a cooking career should also have a strong understanding of what makes a great drink.

As craft cocktails became increasingly popular over recent years, one key trend that emerged was a widespread embrace of libations aged in barrels. Allowing drinks an extended period of time to absorb flavors from wood can contribute new aspects to their profiles and result in a fascinating sipping experience. By exploring what makes barrel-aged drinks such a popular choice in American bars and restaurants, you may develop some exciting ideas for your own food and drink offerings.

Adding complexity to cocktails

“Barrel-aging a cocktail has grown more common in the past few years.”

Barrel-aging has always been a key part of how many cocktails get their flavor. Whiskey, cognac, rum and some tequilas are placed in wooden barrels during their traditional maturation. This step allows the necessary time for the chemical processes that help a liquor to develop its intended taste, acquiring a number of different compounds from the exposure to wood.

Aging a cocktail that’s already been mixed is a more novel concept that has grown more common in the past few years. However, some establishments stick to just aging specific ingredients. That way, patrons can explore an intriguing set of flavors and still have the chance to watch as a skilled bartender prepares their drink.

Several bartenders told Serious Eats about their preferred techniques. Beau du Bois of The Corner Door in Los Angeles cited the Vieux Carre – a classic drink featuring rye whiskey, cognac, vermouth, Benedictine and bitters – as especially well-suited to barrel aging for seven weeks. George Reilly from the Twisted Tail in Philadelphia discussed a Manhattan that had been kept in charred oak casks for two months.

Mastering the aging process

There’s a lot more to creating a remarkably nuanced, perfectly aged beverage than just pouring some liquor into a barrel. Tales of the Cocktail provided several tips, starting with getting to know the characteristics of your barrels. The type of wood can affect the mellowness and flavor of your final product, and its density will determine how many batches you can age in the same barrel.

It’s generally a good idea to stick to cocktails made with high-proof alcohol, since drinks with a lighter base can turn out overly sweet. Keep the barrel well-sealed by filling in any leaks with beeswax. And always take into account that about 10 percent of any barrel-aged beverage is likely to evaporate, becoming the “angel’s share.”

Aging barrels.A couple weeks in a barrel can take a cocktail to a new level.

Creating your own aged cocktails

The best way to learn more about aging cocktails and ingredients is to try it yourself. Men’s Health shared the methods used at New York City restaurant Parker & Quinn.

To make a batch of the restaurant’s signature rum Old-Fashioned, first stir together a bottle of rum, ¾ of a cup of sugar and an orange sliced into half wheels. Use a coffee filter to strain out the pulp, and move the rum into a one-liter barrel made of lightly charred American oak. Two weeks later, pour into an airtight bottle, adding Angostura bitters, and seal until ready to serve over ice.

For a twist on a classic Negroni, pour 17 ounces of gin into a barrel with eight ounces each of Amaro Montenegro and Aperol. Wait two weeks before transferring to an airtight bottle and refrigerating. Pour over ice and enjoy the added warmth and sweetness that come from the time in the barrel.