Whether shaken or stirred, mixed or muddled, even the most complex cocktails don’t require much of a time investment. Ingredients are combined inside a cocktail shaker or mixing glass, prepared, poured and served.
But just as spirits, wine and beer benefit from aging in oak barrels, so do pre-mixed cocktails. Barrel-aged cocktails are made and served at bars and restaurants across the country, but unlike wine or spirits, they are just as easy to make at home. Allowing classics like the Sazerac or Manhattan to age in oak for a month allows flavors to mellow and soften, while also adding new dimension. There’s no real trick or technique involved in barrel-aging, and the process yields complex flavors – and, it’s also a lot of fun.
The preparation is simple – combine ingredients in a barrel just as you would in a cocktail glass – and allow them to age anywhere from four to six weeks. The only piece of equipment needed is a mini wooden barrel with a spigot and bung (or plug), which can be purchased online or directly from regional barrel producers or distilleries.
In Lenexa, Kansas, the whiskey and vodka distillers at Dark Horse Distillery have made barrel-aging cocktails at home even easier. The small-batch distillery was established by the Garcia family four years ago, and early on the owners were approached by local bartenders interested in buying oak barrels for barrel-aging cocktails in their bars.
“Our clients have had fun playing with the barrels,” says Damian Garcia, director of sales and marketing at Dark Horse. “Customers saw them at restaurants and called us to request one.”
As demand grew, Dark Horse decided to sell a barrel-aging cocktail kit for home use. The kit includes an oak barrel (available in 2-liter, 5-liter or 10-liter sizes), spigot, bung, a cradle to hold the barrel, cleaning pellets and directions for curing and use – everything needed except the cocktail ingredients. Each barrel is branded with the distillery’s logo, and Dark Horse also provides a variety of cocktail recipes tailored to each of the barrel sizes.
“Barrel-aging is a unique way to add characteristics from the barrel to a cocktail,” Garcia says. “Aging can impart smoke, vanilla and butterscotch flavors. It’s a way to show your creative side when creating cocktails at home. People send us emails with photos of their aged cocktail coming out of the barrel. They tell us how much fun it is to age Manhattans.”
At the beginning of the process, Garcia suggests first pouring cocktail batches through a funnel into the barrel, leaving room at the top. Unwanted pressure can build as the wood expands if the barrel is too full. After aging, Garcia also recommends filtering the barrel contents through cheesecloth to catch unwanted particles from the char before bottling.
“Test the batch as you go along,” he says. “Don’t store the barrel and forget about it. Testing maturation is part of the fun. When you’re happy with the taste, transfer the cocktail to bottles, store them or serve.”
With proper care, oak barrels can be used to barrel-age cocktails for years, especially if properly cleaned. Most of all, Garcia advises not to let the barrel sit dry and empty for too long. “If it sits empty, the wood will slowly shrink, and the rings will loosen,” he says.
Garcia says that for many customers, the real fun in barrel-aging cocktails at home is playing with ingredients, flavors and aging times, just as distillers and bartenders do.
“A distiller will check on the color, flavor and proof,” Garcia says. “At home, you get to be the bartender and judge to determine if it is ready. Barrel-aging puts the process in your hands.”
Preparation for each barrel-aged cocktail is the same. For each drink, follow the steps below, and then refer to the serving instructions. All recipes by Dark Horse Distillery
| Preparation | Combine all ingredients in a large container that can be easily poured from. Stir ingredients together, funnel into the top of the barrel and seal with bung or oak plug. The cocktail may be tasted at any time, but most cocktails find their sweet spot between four and eight weeks. It won’t hurt to leave liquid in for shorter or longer time periods. When the cocktail is finished aging, empty the entire barrel into a large pourable container and strain through cheesecloth to remove any wood or char pieces. Funnel into individual bottles to store, or serve.
White Manhattan, 2-LITER BARREL
- 1 bottle, plus 19 oz Long Shot White Whiskey
- 23 oz sweet vermouth
- ¾ oz Angostura bitters cherry (for garnish)
Pour 3 ounces barrel-aged White Manhattan into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry and serve.
Lemon Ginger Drop, 2-LITER BARREL
- 2 bottles, plus 3½ oz Dark Horse Distillery Rider Vodka
- 6¾ oz limoncello
- 6¾ oz ginger liqueur
- lemon twist (for garnish)
Pour 3 ounces barrel-aged Lemon Ginger Drop into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist and serve.
Boulevardier, 2-LITER BARREL
- 1 bottle, plus 8½ oz Dark Horse Distillery Reserve Bourbon Whiskey
- 17 oz sweet vermouth
- 17 oz Campari
- orange peel (for garnish)
Add 3 ounces barrel-aged Boulevardier into a chilled coupe or Old Fashioned glass and fill with ice. Zest an orange peel into the drink, use it for garnish and serve.
Sazerac, 2-LITER BARREL
- 2 bottles, plus 14¼ oz Dark Horse Distillery Reunion Rye Whiskey
- 1¼ oz Peychaud’s bitters
- 1¼ oz absinthe
- 1 sugar cube
- soda water
- absinthe (to coat glass)
- lemon twist (for garnish)
Combine sugar cube and a splash of soda water in a mixing glass and muddle to form a crude syrup. Add 3 ounces barrel-aged Sazerac, fill with ice and stir until cold.
Add a small amount of absinthe into an Old Fashioned glass. Swirl to coat the glass and discard.
Strain Sazerac into absinthe-washed glass. Garnish with a lemon twist and serve.