Barrel-aging cocktails is an easy and rewarding endeavor. You may have seen them on menus at restaurants and cocktail bars. Like everything on those menus, you can do it too. With a little knowledge and patience, you can be making $15 cocktails for about $2-5 per cocktail. You can take a pleasant drink, in its own right, like the Negroni and transform it into a whole new experience.
I have barrel-aged a Negroni (5 gallons), Vieux Carré (5 gallons), Boulevardier (5 gallons), a 12 ingredient Negroni variation (3 liters), Bijou (3 liters), Manhattan (3 liters), and an unaged liquor, Rum Fire (3 liters). I even put 3 liters of the aged Boulevardier into the barrel that once held the Rum Fire as a finish for 26 days, fantastic. Overall, they have been successful, but along the way, I’ve made some mistakes. For instance, I once let my barrel dry out so the next time I went to use it leaked. Drying out can cause wood to crack and possibly ruin the barrel, something I wish I would have known before I stored it.
When I started barrel-aging cocktails, I was referencing a few different sites and books, e.g. Jeffrey Morganthaler’s seminal post, Barrel Aged Cocktails, and the Cocktail Quest blog’s post, Barrel-Aging Cocktails Prologue: Seasoning the Barrel, and The Maturation of Distilled Spirits by Hubert Germain-Robin. This post is a collection of the information I found necessary and helpful, along with my tips from experience. Read on to find the information you need to begin your barrel-aging obsession.
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Overview of Barrel-aging Cocktails
The idea of barrel-aging cocktails seems simple. You get a barrel, fill it with booze, let it sit, then drink it. However, what makes it into something you want to keep drinking, is first starting with a recipe that compliments the aging process, and then perfecting your craft working through each step.
From start to finish, there are six major steps.
It tends to take about ten hours of prep & clean-up all told. Depending on the barrel size, it could age for 2 days – 10 weeks for the flavors to develop and meld. A five-gallon barrel of a cocktail costs anywhere from $300 on up depending on your alcohol and cocktail choice, and yield about 200 – 3 oz. pours, which from our $300 example would average about $1.50 a cocktail.
Tools Needed, not including the alcohol for the drink recipe
- Barrel (see Sourcing the barrel section below)
- Jug or bottle sized appropriately for your barrel
- Pot/kettle to heat water
- 100 proof alcohol (for prep & storage)
- Distilled water depends on your barrel size, but 4 to 6 gallons should be sufficient
- Auto-siphon (unless your barrel has a spigot)
- Hose (for use with the auto-siphon if you are using one)
- Bottle Filler (great for doing large batches)
- Coffee filter(s)
- Cork or swing top bottles (cleaned and sanitized) This is an excellent opportunity to recycle some of your used liquor bottles.
Step 1: Sourcing the barrel
First, you’ll need to source a barrel. Many sites sell them Oak Barrels Ltd, Barrels Online, Mile High Distilling, Red Head Oak Barrels, and Amazon. Wherever you buy from, there are a few things to consider.
- Do not buy a barrel that has been painted, polyurethaned, or varnished in any way. You want the wood to be all natural. [You may need to call or email to purchase an all-natural barrel from some sites. Check the fine print.]
- New charred barrels help you get the most flavor out of the barrel. Since we are using smaller barrels, you tend to get a very oaky flavor in the beginning, so it’s advisable to season them with a high proof spirit, white dog, overproof rum, e.g., before aging a cocktail. The high proof spirit helps strip some of the oaky tannins, other flavors, and char from the barrel. Then at the end of your aging/seasoning, you get a unique aged spirit.
- Used barrels, which are generally 5 gallons or larger, are an option as well. The 5-gallon barrel I own was used and aged with whiskey for a minimum of 6 months at Balcones Distillery, so it was already seasoned.
What size barrel should you get?
I would recommend anything three liters or smaller. Liquor is expensive and barrel-aging more than 3 liters, which is four 750ml bottles, can get very expensive depending on the cocktail you want to make.
How long will you barrel last?
From talking with distillers about how long they use their barrels, as long as your barrel can still hold liquid without leaking it is good to go. Over time your barrel loses the tannins that impart into your cocktail or spirit. There are ways to regenerate your barrel, but that is for another post.
How much does a barrel typically cost?
Barrels range in price from $33 for a one-liter barrel up to $100 for a five-liter barrel. Each site has different pricing and occasional sales.
Step 2: Inspect and prep your barrel
Taking care in preparing your barrel ensures you have the best outcome in barrel-aging your cocktail. This step takes about 2 hours of work and sitting overnight before you pour your cocktail into the barrel.
First thing: Once you have your barrel, inspect it to make sure
- the exterior is smooth and sanded
- that there are no cracks or gaps
- that the hoops are evenly spaced and tightly on
- inspect the inside for foreign objects, sawdust, mold, etc.
- smell the barrel. A good barrel smells like nicely toasted oak, while a kiln-dried barrel smells of dill or green wood. Mildew aroma generally means your barrel has mold. Barrels that once held wine, beer, cider, etc. can develop a smell much like vinegar or nail polish.
Second: Rinse the barrel three or four times with distilled water.
Third: Fill it with distilled water at 180 degrees and insert the bung to let it swell. The swelling makes the barrel watertight. You can also use room temperature distilled water as well if you don’t want to go through the trouble of heating it. There are some that say to use boiling water thinking the steam helps the wood swell faster, but I read recently in The Maturation of Distilled Spirits by Hubert Germain-Robin, that it is best not to use boiling water because it strips the oak of aromatic enzymes.
Fourth: Let the barrel, full of water, sit overnight, which helps remove the first bitter tannins in the barrel.
Fifth: Empty it, rinse it with distilled water and let it drain upside down for a few hours. Once drained you are ready to fill the barrel with your cocktail.
If you smell mold or mildew
To combat the mold, make a solution of 25% abv and fill the barrel with it. Let that sit for a few days which should kill all the mold. Then go about filling the barrel, letting it sit, and rinsing it as outlined in the above example.
For 25% abv solution
⅓ 40% abv to ⅔ water, i.e. 1 liter 25% abv = 333 ml (40% alcohol) + 667 ml (water)
¼ 50% abv to ¾ water, i.e. 1 liter 25% abv = 250 ml (80% alcohol) + 750 ml (water)
Step 3: Planning the cocktail
Now it’s time to pick a cocktail. Pick a good spirit forward cocktail that helps you pull the desired flavor and aroma compounds from the wood. Never age a cocktail that uses fresh juices or dairy which could lead to mold and bacteria build up in the barrel. Drinks like the Negroni, Bijou, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Martinez, Boulevardier, etc. are all fantastic choices. For a drink like the Negroni, the recipe and percentages are pretty easy to determine: equal parts of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. However, for something like a Vieux Carre it gets a little harder.
Let’s look at an example.
Easy enough for one drink, but let’s say you want to make 5 gallons of it. So, you need to determine the amount of spirit you need by taking the total volume of the barrel and determining the percentage needed.
I find it most comfortable to work in milliliters. Total up the ingredients in the drink, 73.75ml, and divide each ingredient amount by the total e.g., 22.5/73.75= .305.
I like to add in a control bottle to the total amount needed; a 375ml, 500ml, or 750ml sized bottle. I add the amount of the control bottle to the size of the barrel volume to get my total amount. It’s best to make your control amount from the same ingredients on the same day to help differentiate flavor profiles.
There are roughly 18,927 ml in 5 gallons, and for this example, I’m doing a 750ml control which comes to a total volume of 19,677 ml. Then take the percentage and multiply that by 19,677. I approximated the amounts needed for the barrel.
Barrel-Aged Cocktail Amounts
Step 4: Fill your barrel
Then come the easy parts, filling the barrel and waiting.
I recommend filling a five-gallon water jug with the cocktail first and then transferring it to the barrel once it’s well mixed. Combining the ingredients in the jug allows everything to coalesce. Use a siphon to get the cocktail from the 5-gallon water jug into the barrel.
This step is also where I fill my extra 375, 500, or 750 ml bottle with the cocktail to use as a control. I recommend filling your control bottle first and then filling the barrel.
Step 5: Aging, Tasting & Bottling
Now it’s the time for the barrel to do its work. When I do five-gallon batches, I tend to wait a week or so before I start tasting. The smaller the barrel, the sooner I taste. Smaller barrels have a greater wood surface area-to-alcohol ratio which accelerates the aging process. Some of the cocktail ingredients are aged spirits already, and all you are doing is allowing the cocktail ingredients to mingle and coalesce with each other and the wood. Some oxidation occurs, which helps round out the flavors, but unlike a neutral spirit, you won’t need as much time.
Storing the barrel during aging
A hall closet or basement are great spaces for barrel-aging cocktails. You want to place the barrel where there is some temperature change, which allows the wood to expand and contract. Best to find a spot away from direct sunlight where the temperature is somewhere between 50 degrees Fahrenheit to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Any warmer than 75 and evaporation increases and gives the Angels a better share. On the flip side of that, anywhere below 50 and the extraction decreases significantly.
Determining the finish of the cocktail
Tasting is the fun part. This step is where you ultimately decide that the barrel-aging is finished. Remember that control bottle of the cocktail? Well, I like to use that bottled cocktail to help me make my final decision. It helps me see and taste the change. For my Negroni and Vieux Carre, I barrel-aged them both for 7 weeks. The Boulevardier I aged for 10 weeks and the 12-ingredient Negroni variation aged for 25 days.
You can go too long in a barrel, especially with cocktails, so be careful and the longer you leave it in, the more frequently you should be tasting. I have read a few blogs that talk about aging times related to barrel size, and I think those are fine as suggestions only. One to three weeks for a 1-liter barrel, two to four weeks for a 2-liter barrel, three to five weeks for a 3-liter barrel, and five to eight weeks for a 5-liter barrel, and so on. Always listen to your tongue for when your cocktail is ready.
Bottling the cocktail
Finally, it’s time to bottle. First things first, filter your cocktail. That water jug that I used, in the beginning, comes in handy. Things you’ll need:
- Jug or jar, comparable in size to your barrel
- Auto-siphon (unless your barrel has a spigot)
- Bottle Filler (really only needed for large batches)
- Coffee filter(s)
- Cork or swing top bottles (cleaned and sanitized)**
**Do not use screw top bottles. You don’t want air to get into the bottle and oxidize all your hard work; I know from experience ruining a few bottles of aged Negroni. Once they are bottled, the aging stops and they are good indefinitely. I just recently tasted a barrel-aged Negroni of mine that sat in a swing-top bottle unopened and hidden away in a cupboard for three years, it tasted amazing.
To bottle your cocktail, follow these steps:
1: Clean, rinse and dry all your equipment before using.
2: Place the funnel into your jug and put in the coffee filter.
3: Making sure your hose is firmly connected to your auto-siphon, insert the auto-siphon into your barrel. Your barrel should be higher than your jug to allow gravity to do its job. If your barrel has a spigot skip this step and open the spigot and let the cocktail flow into the filter-lined funnel.
4: Prime your auto-siphon by lifting up and pushing down on the center rod to begin the transfer. While transferring the liquid gold to your jug, monitor your filter and flow rate. I’d hate for you to spill any of your barrel-aged goodness. If the filtering begins to slow you may need to pinch the hose to stop the flow and change it out for a new coffee filter. Also, be sure to get every last drop out of your jug and auto-siphon.
5: Give the auto-siphon a rinse and dry then place it into your now filtered jug. Attach the bottle filler to the end of the hose. Fill each bottle leaving a little room in the neck, i.e. an inch to an inch and a half depending on your bottles.
6: Label and store your bottles. Store them in a cool, dark place avoiding sunlight at all costs.
Step 6: Enjoy & Storing
Now that you’ve aged and bottled your cocktail, you’re ready to enjoy all of your hard work. I like to throw a bottle of barrel-aged cocktail in the fridge so that I always have a chilled cocktail ready to go. Just pour it in a glass over ice, and you are ready to go. If you feel like it’s a bit too boozy, you can always put it in a mixing glass with ice and stir it to dilute it to your liking. Another great thing to do with a barrel-aged cocktail is to use it as an ingredient in a cocktail.
A bottle is also a lovely gift for a friend’s housewarming, wedding, birth, or just because they are your friend.
You’ve had your barrel-aged cocktail, you’re happy, and done, right? Wrong. Now you need to prep your barrel for either another round of aging or to be stored. Remember that I mentioned I once almost dried out my barrel? Do not leave your barrel to dry! If your barrel dries out, the staves can crack and the hoops can and will fall off. Instead, you could jump right into aging another cocktail. If you do, you get a little residual flavor from the previous aging or maybe age a spirit to impart some of that cocktail flavor. However, If you don’t have plans to age anything in it you have two other choices.
- You could also season your barrel with some wine, sherry, port, another spirit, etc. This option isn’t as involved as aging a mixed cocktail. Whatever ingredient you use imparts flavor but flavor also imparts into that ingredient. When you are done seasoning go ahead and bottle that aged alcohol, tasting first, of course, to see if it’s ok and to your liking.
- Another option that I learned from reading The Maturation of Distilled Spirits by Hubert Germain-Robin is to make a solution of 30% abv that you can use over and over. Pour a couple of gallons or liters in the barrel, depending on the size, and be sure to mix that around in the barrel regularly till you plan to fill it again. This method is what I do now, and it has been working out wonderfully.
Cheers! We hope this guide saves you a little time and that you give it a try. If you do, we’d love to hear about it. Take a photo and tag us on Instagram @TheRituals. Also, if you have any comments, questions, or tips of your own, please contact us or let us know on our Instagram post.
Here are a few tables I have found to be helpful.