Fill a small barrel with a big batch of Negronis, let it sit for a few weeks, and open it up. You’ll find a changed cocktail. What began as a bright, bittersweet drink is now a mellowed, complex elixir.
Barrel aging cocktails is a relatively simple practice, which more and more bartenders (both at-home and professional) have taken up over the past few years. But it’s not foolproof. If you’ve ever attempted the process at home, you’ve no doubt run into a few hurdles. Didn’t soak the barrel in water first? You’ll have a major mess on your hands. Aged a cocktail made with fresh citrus juice? Hello, mold.
To help remedy any future faux pas, here are the top six dos and don’ts of barrel aging cocktails from two pros who have seen it all.
1. DO Choose Spirit-Heavy Cocktail Recipes
When deciding which cocktail to age, the best place to start is with the spirit-forward classics. There’s a reason barrel-aged Manhattans and Negronis run rampant on cocktail menus—they work.
“The most successful barrel-aged cocktail I’ve done was a barrel-aged Negroni,” says Nicholas Bennett, head bartender of Porchlight in New York City. “I would recommend doing something with spirits that haven’t already been aged. That’s where you’re going to notice the most change and learn the most about barrel-aging cocktails.”
If you want to lean away from the tried and true Negroni, go for something gin- or vodka-based like a classic Martini or Vesper.
2. DON’T Choose a Recipe That Uses Citrus Juice or Fortified Wines
Bennett recommends steering clear of ingredients like citrus juices and other juices that aren’t shelf-stable, as well as sugar-syrups, as they have the tendency to separate and ruin the cocktail after sitting unrefrigerated in a barrel for weeks.
Bennett says it’s also a good idea to avoid ingredients like port, sherry or other fortified wines that require refrigeration after opening: “A 50-50 Martini might be a little weird because your vermouth will oxidize as it sits in the barrel, whereas something like a Vieux Carre with its high ABV will allow for more time. You will still get a little oxidization, but it might end up benefitting the overall cocktail.”
3. DO Use the Good Stuff
“Quality in equals quality out,” says Matt Sharp, bar director of Bosscat Kitchen and Libations in Newport Beach, California. “Barrel aging has a way of amplifying some of the great underlying flavors in a cocktail, so start with a quality spirit.”
Bennett, on the other hand, says that while starting with good liquor will result in a great final product, you should use spirits in whatever price range you’re comfortable, even if that means sourcing from the bottom shelf. “A little age can do wonders for a bottom shelf spirit,” he says. “It can soften some of the flavor, but ultimately, I think doing something on a mid-range budget is more comfortable.”
4. DON’T Fill the Barrel With Booze Right Away
Sharp stresses that swelling the barrel (soaking it in water to close up all the cracks before filling it with a cocktail) is a non-negotiable first step to making a barrel-aged cocktail.
“No one wants to see liquor spilled onto the floor—it's happened to me,” Sharp says. “Fill your barrel with water for 24 hours before you plan on filling it, then dump the water out. This lets the dry wood expand and create a water-tight seal. Just to be safe, I like to keep my barrel in a plastic tub in case a small leak occurs.”
5. DO Taste As You Go
Both Sharp and Bennett agree that, because barrels vary so widely in size, there’s no standard for how long a cocktail should age. Bennett recommends tasting at least once a week for up to two months, but Sharp opts for a more frequent tasting regiment. “Once your cocktail is in the barrel, it is taking on flavors, so I like to taste every other day or so,” he says. “Things like the temperature of barrel, size of barrel and type of barrel all factor into the flavor. So taste, taste, taste until it's just how you like it.”
Ultimately, Bennett says the cocktail’s time in the barrel should come to an end when you’re happy with the product—just beware of letting it sit for too long, as the wood flavor can overpower the flavor of the cocktail. Once it hits that point, there’s no going back.
6. DON’T Put Bitters in the Barrel
Because of cocktail bitters’ potent, concentrated flavor, it’s best to wait until after the base cocktail is ready to add them to the mix. Bennett is adamant about this rule.
“Do not add bitters to it,” he says. “If the original cocktail calls for bitters, don’t add them until you’re serving the cocktail. It’s difficult to figure out what time does to bitters because it’s such a concentrated flavor that a little bit will eventually bloom and blossom into something that may overpower your cocktails.”