Barrel Ageing: Find out what all the HOOP-la is about
There’s a trend appearing in bars, and it can’t be escaped. As with all fads, early adopters frown upon their niche becoming main stream: Smoke guns, “molecular mixology”, barrel ageing… Barrel ageing, this is where I would like to draw your attention.
Here at Liquorists HQ, Myself and Jody Monteith (and his dulcet tones) like to tinker and tweak. Think big boys playground . But it’s also open to the bartenders of the North to use as a base to experiment or imbibe. Think big boys youth club. Underneath a National Rail railway arch lies a secret den of debauchery and bufty drinks… And the odd bottle of buckfast on optic!
So this isn’t really a new fad, it’s a fundamental part of almost every dark spirit we have on our back bars. It’s been around for centuries, it is the key to balancing and enhancing a raw spirit. What goes in is nameless, what comes out Whisk(e)y, Cognac, reposado, anejo, and it bares age statements, or at least numbers of some kind that indicate it has spent time resting in wood.
The way I describe barrel ageing is it’s like when we leave this cold, sun-bereft island and find ourselves blessed with golden happiness from above. (I mean sunshine, not golden showers. Just to make that clear!) In layman’s terms, the sun penetrates our skin, it goes underneath the top layer and activates chemicals which add colour.
When we return to the dark land, the colour fades. Next holiday it returns and so on. Alcohol does the same thing when placed in a wooden barrel. In hot climes it absorbs in to the wood, much like the sun under your skin, then when the temperature drops in the evening and more so in winter, it contracts and pulls itself back in to the middle, and in doing so pulls colour and flavour with it. Every day, every night, every summer and every winter this happens and in turn with every motion character is added to the spirit.
Barrel ageing has come under fire lately, being mocked openly in ways such as videos claiming “barrel aged barrels” and even t-shirts stating “I barrel aged your mum!” (a fine Dub Dub moment.) So why is everyone barrel ageing right now? Well it’s become accessible to the masses.
Previously if you wanted to experiment with barrel ageing, you’d have to lay down a hefty sum on an ex bourbon, rum, whisky (etc) barrel THEN fill it with a spirit and not even know if what you were doing would work. Costly and risky.
Now, a 1 litre American Oak barrel will set you back no more than £34 from Master of Malt and a bottle of whatever you decide to fill it with is again not going to break the bank. Brilliant!
So how are we deciding to use this new found tool? Well people are adding new make spirit or white dog to make whisky or bourbon. Some are filling it with pre made cocktails such as Manhattans or Hanky Pankys.
In fact, Mandarin Napoleon even held a cocktail competition recently where the whole idea was to barrel age a cocktail and serve it weeks later in the final. Highly innovative indeed.
So with all that in mind, we’ve decided to add our own interpretation to the world of wood. Being self proclaimed Wanky Bartenders, we decided on taking the premise of ageing in wood and giving it some further depth.
We’ve established that every time something is placed in the wood to rest, it soaks in to the wood and leaves it’s mark behind. Subsequently anything placed in to the barrel after that will be almost certainly infused with the ghost of the preceding liquid. See sherry finished whisky etc. With this in mind and a desire to try something new we have planned a barrel timeline and the evolution of a cocktail.
The principle remains the same. Utilise the effect of previous incarnations within the wood to influence other liquid. The only real difference being we have chosen to influence progressively more complex cocktails and not just neat spirit. So I’m even confusing myself here. It’s probably easier just to say:
- First fill – Hot water – 24hours – empty
- Second Fill – 1 litre Campari – 4 days – Decant
- Third Fill – 500ml Bols Genever, 300 ml Martini Rosso, 20 dash Angostura orange bitters – 10 days – Decant
- Fourth Fill – 500ml Old Overholt Rye, 200ml Lillet Rouge, 12 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters, 50ml Barrel Aged Campari – 12 days – Decant
- Fifth Fill – 1 litre Maker’s Mark 45%, 8 dash Jerry Thomas Bitters – 14 Days – Decant
- Retire the Cask
As you can see, there’s a lot going on, but there is method behind the madness. The first fill of Campari soaked amazingly in to the wood, the by product of which is an incredibly smooth and fruity version of Italian bitters. The bitterness is inhibited, and the floral and sweet notes really get their chance to shine through.
The second fill is intended to create a Genever Negroni. The mixture of 5:3 Genever: Vermouth taking on Campari purely passed on from the seasoned wood. The result is again a very soft, aromatic Negroni where the Genever loses the raw bite and green maltiness it has as standard. Jonge tastes like Oude almost overnight in essence. Overwhelmingly the cocktail melds harmoniously with the wood.
Third fill is a Boulevardier, bringing in a Rye whiskey and the sweet, but dry notes of Lillet Rouge. A whiskey based Negroni, we take the ghosts of the Negroni and enhance the Rye and Vermouth with a hint of the barrel aged Campari from the first fill. In hindsight the re-introduction of Campari was unnecessary (we’ll make the mistakes so you don’t have to). There is enough presence of Campari remaining, regardless of the Negroni experiment within the barrel for it to have been a successful barrel aged Boulevardier with a mixture of simply rye and vermouth.
Having learned our lesson, before the fourth fill we filled the barrel with 100ml Makers Mark for 24 hours. The reason being to chart the progress of the wood after our previous misgivings. We found that low and behold the Campari had waned. Our bourbon had taken on the character of two vermouth laden fills and passed on winey character.
Next up Manhattan. Maker Mark, barrel aged Angostura bitters (we’ll get to that in a minute) and maraschino. The result? Boom! Complex, multi layered, bufty (see afore mentioned wanky bartender statement). Honestly it was so good even Jody ‘I fucking don’t get bourbon. At all!’ Monteith polished off the lions share.
So for fifth fill we see the last stop of the cocktail journey. Negroni-Boulevardier-Manhattan-Old Fashioned. This comprised of 1 litre of Auchentoshan Three Wood. Sweet and Perdo Ximenez heavy this in theory should have the sweetness to carry all previous fills and when decanted after 1 week, stirred down and zested be a pretty exceptional Old Fashioned. Did it work? Yes, pretty much.
The desire was to achieve an old fashioned from neat whisky and although for the consumer this would probably need to balanced out with a lick of sugar, the result was 8/10.
In summary as a first attempt at a barrel aged cocktail evolution it was all in all eye opening and encouraging. It probably posed as many questions as it answered but I can safely say that modifier seasoned barrels are a well worthwhile exercise.
Curently we have an Angostura Bitters seasoned 1 litre that has been filled with Oxley to create a pink gin. Experiment 2 will see this transformed into a Gin & It, Martinez and Gin Sling. We’ll keep you posted.
Incidentally with the exception of the Manhattan Jody smashed, these are all bottled and available to try. You should probably grab a ticket for the Bartenders Ball, 5th March, Liquorists Towers and get your gums round some.