Oak Barrel for Aging Liquors

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Hey Keith,

I’ve been to a couple of your whiskey tastings and enjoyed the bourbon and cocktails you had aged in small oak barrels so I picked one up to try out at home.

I have a couple of questions to get started:
1. Do you have any particular recipes you recommend for the barrels? Most of what I found online was just about using vodka and whiskey essence.
2. How do you deal with the amount you drink/angel’s share — do you keep refilling the barrel?
3. Thoughts on cleaning or changing to a different recipe?

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Whiskey Barrel Cocktails

Before you start making cocktails, you need to prep your barrel. Fill it with hot water. Let it sit for an hour, then empty it. Fill it again with warm water, and let it sit for at least 24 hours.

Don’t empty it until you are ready to fill it with booze.

First, Make some Whiskey

It’s important to fill the barrel with a white spirit first. The amount of char in the barrel will overpower the cocktails if you don’t. It’s much better to make a whiskey first. It’s a way of seasoning the barrel. It will also help preserve the barrel.

Fill up the barrel with white dog (unoaked whiskey) or vodka. I prefer Penn 1681 Vodka. I get very good results with it, and it’s a good value. Fill the barrel to the top (you may have to use 2-3 bottles, depending on how large a barrel you have). Let the spirits sit in the barrel for two weeks in your kitchen, then empty the barrel.

This whiskey won’t be great at first, but it has it uses. You can use it to refill the barrel between cocktails. You can also use it to blend with better whiskey when making cocktails. Over time, this booze will start taking on it’s own personality and start tasting pretty damn great. Once it does, put it into a bottle and forget about it for 2 years. Then you will have something worth bragging about.

Manhattan

One of the best cocktails to start with is a Manhattan. Use a decent but inexpensive rye (rittenhouse for example) and good red vermouth (Dolin or Carpano Antica Formula are my top picks). A simple 50/50 mix is perfect.

The first cocktail will gain a lot of oak flavor very quickly so don’t age it in the barrel for more than one week. Otherwise it may be too tannic.

F the Angel’s Share

In a small barrel, you can lose a lot of booze to evaporation. The staves are thin in these small barrels. The trick here is to minimize the loss. Alcohol evaporates much quicker in temperatures over 75 degrees, so keep the barrel in a cool environment.

Cleaning the Barrel

Don’t worry about cleaning the barrel, unless you have used the barrel for storing vinegar. Or if you smell mushrooms or another stank in it. It is very unlikely.

If you want, you can rinse the barrel with hot water between cocktails, but that isn’t necessary. The inside of the barrel will have absorbed flavors from the previous cocktail, and will impart some of those flavors to the next cocktail, and on and on. That is part of the magic of the barrel. It will continue to change and alter the flavors you introduce.

Important Bits to Consider

After a half year of making cocktails, the barrel will have lost a lot of it’s oak flavor. That means you should keep your cocktails in the barrel for longer than a week or two. This is a great thing. Now you will be able to store a cocktail for 2-3 months, with the flavors evolving into really interesting things. These are the type of cocktails I make at the school.

Never go below 25% abv You will need your cocktails to remain healthy and delicious. That means never going below 22% ABV. You can do this by measuring the amount of booze you put into the barrel.

A typical whiskey is 40% ABV, and vermouth is 15%, so a 50/50 Manhattan is 32.5% ABV.

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