Published on May 22nd, 2013 | by Jackie


From Spirit to Cocktail: A Lesson in Barrel-Aging


By Jackie Armtstrong

We hear a lot about spirits and cocktails that are barrel-aged, but I have never really taken the time to sit down and think about what it all really entails. Enter “The Barrel Around the World”, led by Elayne Duff (Diageo Mixologist), Steve Olson (AKA Wine Geek) and Camper English (Alcademics).

First thing I learned? There is a whole lot to learn about barrel-aging (it was an hour seminar, I have 10 pages of notes). Here are a few things that stood out …

Time, Size, Temperature – It All Matters 

Time in barrel of course has a huge impact on the flavor of a spirit, but there are countless other variables (beyond what I have listed here.) These are some of the big ones.

  • Type of Wood: The two main options, American and French oak. The grain in American barrels is not as tight, which allows liquid to flow more freely in and out of the grains, hence resulting in more flavor. French barrels also tend to be more expensive.
  • Size: In smaller sized barrels, more of the spirit is exposed to the surface area of the barrel, so it ages a lot faster than in larger sized barrels.
  • Char: Spirits age faster in charred barrels and develop a stronger oak flavor. Charring aids in the movement of the spirit in and out of the oak.
  • Temperature and humidity play huge roles. More alcohol evaporates from barrels stored in high humidity areas, causing the percent of alcohol to decrease, and vice versa in low humidity.
  • Altitude: The aging process is sped up at sea level where the temperature is higher and air pressure is low (think delicious Caribbean rum). Aging processes that occur at high altitudes (like Zacapa Rum, which I talk about below) are slowed due to the cooler temperatures and thin air.
  • Prior Content: Whether or not the barrel is new or has previously aged another spirit impacts the flavor profile of what you are aging.
  • Static or Dynamic: In a static aging process the spirit is aged in 1 barrel. In a dynamic aging process, there is blending of different aged spirits across multiple barrels.

Speaking of Prior Content, Bourbon, by Law, Has to be Aged in New Charred Oak Barrels.

The properties that bourbon receives from the wood of the barrel are essential to the taste, and would be diminished if a barrel had already been used. This leaves a whole lotta’ barrels up for grabs once the bourbon is finished aging. Some go to rum, some are sent to Ireland & Scotland – but according to Camper English, only 3% go to making one of my favorite spirits – tequila! I knew we were on the same page when he quickly pointed out, “Y’all are not drinking enough tequila!”

Zacapa Rum Has an Intense Aging Process

Barrel-Aged Zacapa Negroni

A prime example of dynamic aging is the Solera process used by Zacapa Rum. In a nutshell, this involves the blending of various aged rums in different barrels.

Lorena Vasquez is the master distiller behind the unique Zacapa process. The rum is aged in 3 year old American whiskey barrels. There are 225 barrels aged at a time. The barrels are filled to capacity. This ensures that as little oxidation occurs, which slows down the process and provides a more balanced spirit. After 3 years, each barrel is tasted by Lorena and it is decided how much 12 year old rum to add.

In phase 2, the barrels are charred which creates dried fruit and vanilla notes. Each barrel is tasted again and 15 year old Zacapa Rum is added. In stage 3, the rum is moved into sherry barrels of varying ages, which add a certain level of sweetness.

In the final stage of the process, all of the barrels are put into a large mixing vat. Some of the rum is moved into older vats and continue with the aging process. What is left gets 23 year old rum added. The entire process takes 6 years from start to finish.

You Can Experience Barrel-Aging at Home

My Barrel-Aging Kit

Elayne Duff served us a Negroni made with Zacapa Rum, Dolin Sweet Vermouth, Campari and Aperol – all aged 2 weeks in a mini barrel. It had a great balance of flavor. We may not be ready to invest in our own mini barrels (yet), but Tuthilltown Spirits sells a great little barrel aged cocktail kit like the one I received at the seminar. Cocktails like a Negroni or a Manhattan are your best bet to try. They are light, so they take less time to age and don’t contain any juice or carbonation (both of which won’t keep).

Of course, I don’t recommend that you wait to start trying barrel-aged cocktails until your kit arrives. Char No 4 in Brooklyn isn’t messing around with two barrel-aged cocktails. The first is a Sazerac with Rittenhouse Rye, sugar, bitters and absinthe. Second, an Old Fashioned with Weller Special Reserve, bitters, orange and cherry. Monument Lane is also in on the barrel-aging action with their Honey Ryder cocktail made with rhum agricole, Old Tom Gin, Bianco Vermouth and is barrel-aged one month.



Jackie is a freelance writer with a focus on food & cocktail events in NYC (and beyond). She shares all of her latest finds on her blog One Girl’s Dish. You can also follow her on Twitter at @onegirlsdish

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