Roll Out the Barrel

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New approaches to barrel aging lend unique flavor profiles to cocktails, spirits and beer.

By Michelle Franzen Martin

There’s a little-known law in the libations industry that mandates bourbon can only be aged in a brand-new barrel. That, of course, leaves a large supply of perfectly good, used barrels—and an incredible opportunity for those who are passionate about making uncommon, high-quality drinks. Mixing equal parts innovation and invention, and adding a generous splash of creativity, these brewmasters and mixologists are giving new life to old casks and creating barrel-aged cocktails, beers and liquors for modern palates.

“In recent years, more people have noticed that these barrels would get discarded and have no other uses,” says Ori Geshury, director of education at the Aqua Vitae Institute, a Philadelphia-based bartending school. “However, these casks still give off a huge flavor and still make really delicious cocktails. As a result, people experimented with it and loved the results … [and] barrel aging has become really popular among mixologists.”

Although barrel aging in wood is most often associated with wine and whiskey, its expansion into other liquors is relatively new. The process and ingredients are different for every libation, and lend a unique flavor profile: Some spirits are aged in whiskey barrels, while others use wine barrels. Some are seasoned with sherries and ports, while others rely strictly on the wood. And in some cases, the liquors are mixed before being stored, eventually resulting in a contemporary take on crafted cocktails that are ready to pour over ice.

Barrel Benefits

Barrel aging in general is not new to the United States. It has been done for centuries.

“Think Scotch, American bourbon, cognac [and] all types of wines,” says Ross Kupitz, beverage program director for D’Amico & Partners restaurants in Minneapolis and Naples, Florida, who oversees the craft cocktail programs at the company’s restaurants. “But the addition of the drink components like vermouth, modifier spirits and bitters to the barrel with the base spirit is relatively recent.”

Other spirits that have long benefitted from barrel aging include gin and chartreuse; today, creative approaches to the old-school technique are imparting distinctive new tastes. These spirits often use wine barrels, not bourbon or whiskey barrels, for aging. Even though both casks may be made of oak, the flavor is unique.

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Barrel aging is popular for creating cocktails, new types of beer and other spirits.

“The main difference is that wine barrels are toasted, whereas bourbon barrels are charred,” Geshury explains. As a result, the toasted barrels give a more mellow wood taste, whereas the bourbon barrels lend a charcoal-like flavor.

Kupitz particularly enjoys the barreled gin from St. George Spirits in Alameda, California. “[St. George] takes their regular dry rye gin and ages it in grenache and syrah barrels for about 10 to 12 months before
bottling,” he says. “It results in a higher proof of gin (99.4 percent) … the gin absorbs some of the tannin and berry flavors from the used barrels and makes one of the most delicious Negronis I’ve ever had.”

Even bourbon, with its strict rules about barrel aging, is seeing innovation. All bourbon is initially aged in charred white oak, explains Susan Reigler, who has authored four books on bourbon published by the University Press of Kentucky. However, some distillers are now adopting a new finishing process.

“For example, a distiller might age in the traditional charred white oak for several years and then transfer the bourbon to a
barrel that was used to age sherry or port and try to age for another few months or sometimes years,” Reigler says.

Some liquor producers, such as Templeton Rye, have also had an impact in the barrel-aging process by putting their spirits in
barrels so consumers and bar owners can age them themselves.

Aged Ale

While many modern ales are fermented in stainless steel tanks, recently there has been a resurgence in wood barrel-aged beers, thanks in part to the spirits trend.

“We are seeing it more so today with the small and independent craft brewers,” says Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Boulder, Colorado-based Brewers Association. “They are working with Napa to put the [empty] barrels to use, or in the case of bourbon barrels … the craft brewers are going to the distillers who are looking for a purpose and a place for the barrels and putting them to good use.”

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Wine barrels can be used to age spirits like gin and chartreuse.

The barrel-aging process can take weeks, months or even years depending on the
brewers and their desire to influence the
flavors that already exist in the barrels, she says. The beers are not only aged in oak; some use  woods such as cherry, alder, cedar and pine. Sometimes brewers will add wood blocks or chips to stainless steel barrels.

In most cases, the beers are then blended with other beers, resulting in a wide range

of styles, which are carbonated again before being bottled. “Barrel aging is a super creative way to get to know and enjoy beers these days,” Herz says.

At Sea Island, guests and members can enjoy barrel-aged beer at a Davis Love Grill, which offers Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale on draft. The beer is aged for up to six weeks in freshly decanted bourbon barrels from Kentucky distilleries, which gives it notes of oak and vanilla.

Cocktails in Casks

The country’s top mixologists are experimenting with batched cocktails—traditional cocktails such as the Manhattan, Negroni or Boulevardier that are mixed and stored in American oak barrels. The barrel-aging
process gives the individual ingredients a chance to meld together, and the cocktail gains a greater complexity from the oak.

At Sea Island, sommelier Ryan McLoughlin first experimented with barrel-aged cocktails about five years ago. “It’s something fun,” he says. “We get a lot of great feedback from guests, especially those living in New York, Chicago and other large cities where the
cocktail scene is thriving. It gives us a chance to do something different.”

McLoughlin uses everything from 3- to 9-liter barrels—both new and old, always cleaned and sometimes re-toasted—for making batches of cocktails. The process is part culinary exploration, part science experiment.

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Barrel-aged cocktails have more robust flavor.

“We do the blending in the kitchen using sanitized bowls and containers,” McLoughlin says. “The average aging is between … [five to] eight weeks. We let it go for about six weeks, then taste the drink [periodically through the aging process]. The barrels add a nice amount of vanilla or cinnamon, and we keep aging it until it tastes just right.”

After aging, the cocktail  has an even, smooth and often more robust flavor than one that was just blended before serving. “Take a Manhattan—you have three individual ingredients, and after they’re blended, you can still taste the individual ingredients,” McLoughlin explains. “With barrel aging, it’s no longer just whiskey and vermouth and bitters for the Manhattan, but it has one distinct flavor because it had time to rest.”

The barrel benefits are demonstrated in the Boulevardier served at Tavola, the Italian restaurant at The Cloister. The traditional drink blends rye whiskey, vermouth and Campari,  and the barrel-aging process gives it undertones of cinnamon, vanilla and allspice. The cocktail is stored in glass bottles before it is ready to be poured and garnished. “People really love it,” he says. “It’s still rye whiskey, but more enhanced. For the more adventurous drinker, this is something new and different.”

Partially assembled drinks are another type of cocktail that have enjoyed the popularity of barrel aging. The base spirit is combined with one to three other ingredients to marinate, says Kupitz, who makes a number of “Out of the Orb” cocktails at the Continental, one of D’Amico & Partners restaurants in Naples, Florida. Next, fresh components like juices, herbs or bitters are added just before serving. As a result, the partially assembled cocktails draw attention to freshly grown and homemade ingredients. “For example, Detroit in the 1920s [an Orb cocktail] combines just the gin and green chartreuse,” he says. “The rest of the ingredients, lime juice and maraschino liqueur, are added later when we build the cocktail upon order.”

Whether it’s beer, liquor or cocktails, the barrel-aging process offers something for all to enjoy. “Barrel aging gives us a chance to experiment and play,” McLoughlin says, “… [barrels] are not just for holding, but to season, spice and enhance the flavor of the substance.” 

(Top image by Vanessa Rogers/courtesy of The Continental)

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