Note: This is the second part of a series on aging cocktails in oak barrels. You can find the first part here.
A few months ago, I started the process of aging cocktails in barrels. That’s not just the spirits themselves, but the entire mixed cocktail. Let me just cut to the conclusion here – it’s totally worth it. The drinks you create are mellow, rich and smooth with a very, very slight smokey taste. Did I mention that they are smooth? Think Barry White’s voice. Yeah, that kinda smooth. I learned a lot along the way and while my first batch turned out great, the next batch should be even better. Hopefully, I can walk you through some of the things I’ve learned so that your first batch can be perfect in less time than it took me.
The process has several steps. First, you have to get a barrel. I got two. You can get these from Amazon or from other sites on the web. I got one of mine from Oak Barrels, Ltd (where else, right? Consumatorium has no affiliation with them). First the barrels were cleaned, then I aged bourbon in the casks for six weeks to season them. I learned when I finished that you can do it faster. You can find the whole story, including what I else learned about barrel preparation and aging bourbon in my post here.
I had decided ahead of time that I wanted to age Negronis (is that the plural of Negroni?) and Manhattans. I thought this would be a good test because Negronis are gin-based, of course, and Manhattans are bourbon/rye-based. I thought it would be interesting to see how the aging affected each base spirit. Filling up two, 2-liter barrels takes a lot of alcohol and required a trip to the liquor store and some math in preparation.
The recipe I used for the barrel-o-Manhattan was:
- 2-1/4 parts Bourbon (I used Bulleit)
- 3/4 part Sweet Vermouth (I used Carpano Antica)
I held back the bitters to be added later during the serving of the cocktail. This was a personal choice, there is no reason you can’t add the appropriate amount of Angostura bitters prior to aging.
So, for a 2-liter barrel, this means you need to have . . .
- 1-1/2 liters (1500 ml) of Bourbon
- 1/2 liter (500 ml) of Sweet Vermouth
Doesn’t that work out nicely? Bet you’ve never used so much vermouth at one time. Or maybe ever.
For the Negroni, I chose to use the classic recipe rather than Dave’s Consumatorium one. Dave’s is better, but the classic seemed more appropriate here. Besides, my wife likes the classic recipe.
- 1 part Gin (I used Plymouth)
- 1 part Sweet Vermouth (I used Carpano Antica)
- 1 part Campari
Again, for a 2-liter barrel – the math isn’t quite as pretty this time . . .
- 2/3 liter (666 ml) Gin
- 2/3 liter (666 ml) Sweet Vermouth
- 2/3 liter (666 ml) Campari
That’s it. Oh, don’t forget a funnel. Apparently I had used my only funnel to fill my lawn mower with oil. Yes, I went out and got a new one. Pour all of the ingredients of each drink into its respective barrel. No pre-mixing is required. Make sure the spout is OFF prior to filling. I didn’t make this mistake, but, apparently, many people do.
After the filling was complete, I made sure the bung (yup, that’s what it’s called), the stopper at the top of the barrel, was tightly secured and I gave the barrel a good shake to combine the ingredients. Keep the barrels in a cool place that’s not too dry. You don’t want them to dry out from the outside too much, less they spring a leak. The waiting process then begins.
I had decided that I was going to age the drinks for two months. I rotated the barrels 90-degrees every week or so to expose as much of the liquid to the inside of the barrel as possible. Apparently, the alcohol evaporates through the walls of the barrel (it’s referred to as the Angel’s Share). Some people top off the spirits inside. While I noticed the decrease in volume, It wasn’t so much that I felt compelled to add more booze.
On my next round of aged cocktails, I’m going to cut the aging time to only a month. Many people report that there are diminishing returns after that time with a 2-liter barrel.
After two months, I decanted the elixir into Mason jars. Well, not before excitedly trying some of each – excellent! You could, obviously, keep the cocktails in the barrels, but they would continue aging. After my experience with aging the seasoning bourbon and having tasted how great the cocktails were, I wanted to stop the aging. Thus, the jars.
Once in jars, serving up great, aged cocktails is a snap. Just pour into a shaker with ice, chill and dispense in a cocktail glass. For the Manhattan, I add a few dashes of Angostura bitters to the preparation. Throw in an orange peel to garnish the Negronis and cherries for the Manhattans. As I said earlier, the taste of each is smooth and rich. No harshness at all from the Gin or Bourbon. Just a nice drink.
In fact, now that I have a couple of liters of each, I’m having trouble motivating myself to make anything else. The drinks taste great and are super easy to prepare and serve. I am definitely going to keep some aged cocktails on hand all the time and just add them to the bar.
February 26, 2014 at 6:54 am
Great results. A question, how many times can you re-use the barrels?
September 16, 2017 at 6:20 pm
You can re char the barrels when they begin to mellow out.
September 16, 2017 at 7:08 pm
How do you re char a 1 litre barrel?
March 1, 2014 at 11:24 pm
Apparently, you can reuse them 3-5 times. If they are used back-to-back, they just need to be rinsed. If you wait a little while, they need to be sanitized. Makes sense. 5 times is 10 liters of drink. Spreads the cost over a lot of booze 🙂
March 20, 2014 at 2:20 pm
Thanks for the advice! I want to try this myself, but here in Germany the barrels are a bit expensive. That’s why I am planning on buying only one barrel. Would you suggest starting with the Manhattan or the Negroni? Obviously those two are the ones I want to try first, too.
March 24, 2014 at 3:36 pm
I think I would do the Manhattans, if you enjoy them anyway. The rich taste of the aged product enhanced the drink and the whole experience. The Negronis are great, and if you like the bitter taste of Campari, the aged version is quite good. Still the aged Negroni doesn’t mellow the Campari as much as it does the sweet vermouth in the Manhattan.
Please post again when you’ve tried your aged drinks. We’d love to hear about your experience!
March 24, 2014 at 4:50 pm
Ok thanks, I will definitely let you know how it turns out! Now I am just wondering if it is really necessary to “age” some bourbon in the new barrels first. Shouldn’t the new wood just give up the flavors more quickly?
March 24, 2014 at 6:29 pm
I’m sure you would still get some of he same effect, but you need to seal the barrel anyway (although the water treatment should do most of that) and it only takes an additional week. You can try it without the initial Bourbon aging, of course, but you’ll never know if you missed anything. Unless you need it for a specific date – soon – it’s probably not worth skipping the step.
June 30, 2015 at 8:54 pm
Your Negroni is perfect. If you guys like Negronis and Manhattans, then you will love the aged Boulevardier. I prefer to age mine around 3 months…I don’t agree that the returns are diminished after 1 month as I have noticed even more mellowing after two and then three months respectively. I include the bitters in the barrel and have had positive results. Also, try using the barrel without cleaning between cocktails…it imparts an interesting subtlty to the next batch (think of a seasoned Wok). Finally, I have found that beer growlers make great vessels to store your cocktail when emptied from the barrel. Great article!
July 1, 2015 at 9:45 pm
Thanks, Keith. The growler idea is excellent. I love Boulevardiers, but have never had an aged one. I just bought a new, better, larger barrel. It’s not seasoned yet and may wait til the fall, but I’m thinking of going for aged Boulevardiers, as you suggest. What size barrel do you use? While I’m no expert, apparently, smaller barrels age significantly faster. I used a pretty small barrel for this round of aging.
Thanks for the comment!
September 4, 2015 at 4:26 pm
After your first trial with aging the bourbon: Did you use this aged bourbon you created, in the recipe for your barrel cocktail? Or did you purchase additional bourbon?
If you didn’t use your aged bourbon. How do you think that would turn out?
Thanks for the great article!
September 8, 2015 at 11:10 pm
Jenee, oh yes, I used the Bourbon I used to prep the barrel. It was smokier and a bit smoother than the stuff out of the bottle. Interesting, but probably not worthy of special attention. In other words, I would mix up some cocktails with it, but they are fundamentally different from those cocktails with new spirits. Once the barrel is “aged,” though, you start to taste the real difference.
Does that answer your question?
Thanks for reading and commenting!
October 4, 2015 at 8:03 pm
Thanks for putting this up. Curious about why there would be a 3-5 use lifespan on the barrels?
My first go round was a Sazerac with 50/50 blend of Conjure Cognac and Redemption Rye. I also mellowed some vodka with peaches, rosemary and cinnamon. Between those two batches I fortified a friend’s wild mustang grape wine with some TX Whiskey to create a port. Since my next batch will be round 4, I am interested in the 3-5 use limit.
Luckily, I have two new barrels to work with. I just started a batch of Negroni’s using a 50/50 mixture of Tequila/Mezcal in one. I will be doing a traditional Manhattan in the other.
A couple of quick notes
1. You are right that smaller batches will age quicker. It is because there is more liquid in contact with the surface of the barrel.
2. You’ve got a typo in your measurements
1-1/2 liters (1500 ml) of Bourbon
1/2 liter (1500 ml) of Sweet Vermouth
The vermouth should be 500ml not 1500.
October 7, 2015 at 2:42 pm
Tim, thanks for your thoughtful comments! Especially for pointing out the typo. Thousands of people have hit this post and you’re the first one to point it out.
Our experience (and others with posts on the web) is that the small, thin barrels get subtler over time. They absorb the spirits and lose some of the oaky character that they once produced. There is nothing wrong with using them, assuming you clean them after 3(-ish) uses, but they won’t provide the same effect.
Please report back on the barrel aged Saz. That’s a terrific idea!
October 12, 2015 at 4:07 pm
The Sazerac was great. I used aged only the bitters and the rye/cognac blend. I let it go for about 4-6 weeks because I just pulled from it. I have heard of people adding the absinthe but I was worried it would be too much. I used a mister bottle and Marilyn Manson’s Absinthe, which worked well.
I am going to grab a 1.5 liter to get the Manhattan’s going. I had been thinking of using Booker’s 140 but the cost was going to be somewhat prohibitive. I think I will use Old Overholt but if you have a suggestion then I am open.
I currently have some Becherovka infusing with apples and pears. I also have some TX that I infused with tamarind that makes a good Whiskey Sour.
October 12, 2015 at 5:37 pm
I’ll have to try the Saz. I just made my first one in a while the other night. Without aging, of course. Man, I like those.
Old Overholt is fine, IMO, but if you could push to Bulleit, I don’t think you’d regret it. It’s come down in price.
The Becherova sounds interesting. I find it overwhelming in most drinks. Fruit infusion might make it more broadly useable. Again, I’
D appreciate if you’d report back on how that works out.
December 25, 2015 at 2:30 pm
Merry Christmas! How do you store the aged cocktail once you remove it from the barrel? Any concerns with the vermouth going bad?
December 27, 2015 at 2:28 pm
I think that the vermouth will be fine bathed in Bourbon. I’ve kept the mixture unrefrigerated for months in Mason jars with no problem and no change in taste. As usual, I’d keep the top tightly sealed.
January 1, 2016 at 3:44 pm
Great post and info! So I just completed my first batch- Manhattans- and it turned out great! I was wondering what I should do with the barrel before I begin my next aging session. I am planning on starting the next batch in a couple days. Also, neophyte question here, but should sweet vermouth be refrigerated? Thanks!
January 2, 2016 at 8:02 pm
Hey Seth, congrats on your first round of barrel-aged Manhattans! A great go-to cocktail. I always keep a Mason jar or two of it around now.
If you’re just moving onto your second batch right away, you may want to do a light rinse of the barrel to get rid of any crud that’s collected. That is, just a little water splashed around the innards of the barrel and drained immediately. That’s it – you’re ready to go. If you let the barrel dry, I’m told that a more thorough cleaning to sanitize it is necessary. Keep in mind that if the barrel has dried even a little, gaps may open up that need to be resealed by keeping the barrel moist for a bit again.
On sweet/Italian vermouth. Yes, it should be refrigerated. Vermouth is a fortified wine. As such, it will oxidize when exposed to air. Not as much as non-fortified wine, of course, but it still goes downhill. The taste of sweet vermouth doesn’t change as much as dry vermouth, but it does change enough that you’ll notice it in your recipes. Even refrigerated, it won’t last forever, but it will last a lot longer.
January 8, 2016 at 1:26 am
Thanks. Another question: you mentioned that you turn the barrel a quarter turn every week during aging. I’ve read conflicting info saying to not position the barrel so the bung is below the “water line.” Thoughts? Also, what is the typcial shelf-life of a finished batch once I put it in a decanter? Thanks again in advance.
January 19, 2016 at 11:14 pm
Hey Seth, sorry for the delay. I never had trouble with the whiskey leaking from the bung hole, which is why you wouldn’t do it. If the stopper is natural, like cork, it will expand nicely once it gets wet and should hold pretty well. If you’re uncomfortable with that, which would be understandable, I would rotate it to 1 o’clock, then 2 o’clock, then back to 1, 12, 11, 10, 11, 12 . . . You get the idea. The bung will be below the water line for sure, but there will hardly be any pressure on it.
On the shelf life. It’s a long time. I kept one mason jar of the decanted drink for months without any change in taste. For aged spirits that have fruit in them, I think they should be refrigerated, but even the vermouth, which is already a fortified wine, will become even more fortified in all that bourbon. It’s pretty stable.
Enjoy for a long time 🙂
July 31, 2016 at 3:49 am
Hi Will, after the aging process when I shfited it to a glass bottle do I need to put it in a fridge?
July 31, 2016 at 6:11 pm
No, although you always can, of course. For some infusions, like our Pineapple-Vanilla Infused Tequila, I find that they change color a bit over time if not refrigerated. I’ll often keep fruit infusions refrigerated, although I don’t think there is a reason (other than color) to do so. In fact, our Fig Infused Bourbon is way better at room temperature than chilled.
August 14, 2016 at 1:06 am
How long does the Manhattan keep once it’s in the mason jar?
I’m thinking about using several batches to fill up mini bottles to hand out as a wedding favor. Obviously would need some serious lead time for multiple batches to age!
August 14, 2016 at 11:41 pm
You’re good to go, Alecia. They’ll keep for months. What a great idea! Have fun with it.
August 28, 2016 at 12:45 pm
How long you can keep Manhattans in a 2 liter oak barrel?
August 28, 2016 at 12:50 pm
Poncho, I used a 2-liter barrel for the drinks in this post. I’d suggest about a month. Generally speaking, the larger the barrel, the longer the aging. Small barrels accelerate the aging process.
September 17, 2016 at 6:39 pm
Just got my first barrel and filled it with Negroni. Thank you for all the great advice. Much appreciated. Question for you – have you tried turning a blanco tequila into a reposado or Anejo? Any thoughts on doing this. I was wondering what I should have in the barrel before trying this. And, what would I do after removing the tequila. Any ideas or advice would be very welcome. Thank you! …joel
September 19, 2016 at 1:22 pm
Joel, while I’ve never done this myself, I have read a bit about it. While you can use a new barrel, most reposados are aged in older barrels previously used to age whiskey. You may want to make a pass at that too. American oak is also preferred over French oak. Also, keep in mind that the smaller barrel ages much faster – 8-10 times faster than a 50-60L standard barrel.
You can’t turn crappy blanco into great reposado, so start with a decent blanco. I’d say a week or two in a whiskey-primed American oak small barrel would be worthy of a first tasting.
Please report back when/if you do it!
September 19, 2016 at 2:00 pm
Thank you for your help on this. So maybe after the Negroni, I’ll age some bourbon. Then try the tequila. That sounds like a pretty good plan. Will report back on the progress, but will be a few months before the tequila, as I just started the Negroni. That said, it’s the first use, so maybe that will be done in a couple of weeks 🙂
September 19, 2016 at 2:20 pm
Joel, the only thing I’d think about wrt using the negroni barrel is the Campari. You wouldn’t want that bitter taste to pass to the tequila. I’m not sure how much a cleaning afterwards will remove this. I’d try it anyway, but just be aware that this *could* be a problem . . . Of course, it could also be an advantage 🙂
September 19, 2016 at 5:23 pm
I assume cleaning a barrel = rinsing with water. Is there anything else you’ve done to clean one? I wouldn’t want to clean too much, or perhaps it will lose the flavors in the oak. I hear you on the Campari. Could be a very cool bourbon though, if nothing more than to use in a Boulevardier. Will try this with Bulleit I believe.
September 19, 2016 at 7:30 pm
I did a negroni with 1/2 tequila and 1/2 mezcal. It turns out beautiful with hints of smoke and leather. Great for summer but with fall coming you may want to hold off.
That said you could use the barrel for that
June 20, 2017 at 11:32 pm
My husband bought me a barrel as a push present! We are so excited to try it out. Thank you so much for a wonderful and insightful article!
September 27, 2017 at 2:54 pm
Hello! Quick dumb question: what liquor do/did you use to prep your barrel for Negronis?
September 28, 2017 at 1:47 pm
Jen, great question. The barrels are always aged the same way. In our case, with bourbon. It’s not so much the flavor that gets transmitted to the drink in the barrel, but the oaky, smooth taste of the wood. Your negroni will not taste like bourbon, but will taste a bit earthier, if that makes sense. Gin wouldn’t cut it to age the oak.
H=Enjoy. Tell us how it works out!