Barrel-Aging Cocktails Prologue: Seasoning the Barrel

Unlike most cocktail enthusiasts, I have never been that interested in breaking in a newly charred oak barrel  Mind you, I can totally understand why someone--say an avid whisk(e)y drinker, for instance--might find the idea of aging a spirit at home seductive. What happens to a spirit while it rests in a barrel is truly magical. As the trend of aging your own spirits blossomed, I was happy to let this experience pass me by. It was the thought of aging cocktails that appealed to me. Unfortunately a new barrel's tannins and char will easily overwhelm the delicate flavors of a cocktail. So when a good friend gave me a two-liter oak barrel, entering the world of aging spirits became the first step on the road to aging cocktails.

To prepare a barrel for aging cocktails later, you must "season" it, like a newly purchased cast-iron skillet. This can only be accomplished by barrel-aging spirits first. While it may seem that there are countless options available, the best yield will come from aging an overproof white spirit. White dog tends to be the natural choice, but there are other roads. My mind immediately leaned toward white rum. Wray & Nephew seemed the obvious choice to stand up to a new barrel. After nine and a half weeks, the rum's characteristic gaminess had indeed mellowed. The molasses notes had deepened and the grassiness had thoroughly mingled with the oak. But nothing underscored the resulting vanilla flavors that had developed. Notably, the barrel-aged Wray & Nephew went down much smoother than a rum of 126 proof ought to, though its telltale heat is still apparent on the aftertaste.

With a newly empty barrel, surely it was time to batch up two liters of cocktail. But after reading a recent post on Stevi's adventures in barrel-aging at Two at the Most, I started to reconsider. Perhaps one more spirit round wouldn't be a bad idea; two unique barrel-aged spirits must be better than one.
You see, when a spirit is placed in a barrel, a certain amount will disappear. But it doesn't just evaporate. The wood soaks some of it up like a sponge, and the barrel is forever changed. Whatever goes in next will be affected. For example, if you barrel age a white whiskey, and then fill the barrel with gin, some of the barrel-aged whiskey flavors will be incorporated into the gin's flavor profile. But the barrel's flavor is not constant. Each time you change the contents, the barrel will take on the new flavors and yet lose some of its own.

While the rum was nearing completion, accidental inspiration hit me via the monthly LUPEC Seattle meeting that centered on Peru's indigenous spirit--pisco. What a perfect choice to barrel-age after rum! A white grape-based spirit with a lot of flavor, pisco is very similar to the white spirit that becomes brandy. The major difference comes down to grape variety and distilled strength. Piscos are usually distilled to proof, meaning the spirit is distilled only once and not watered down to bottling strength. Because of this, piscos have a noticeably funkier taste. The way that this characteristic funkiness would react with the barrel is exactly what interested me most. Usually when a funkier white spirit is placed in a barrel, the resulting barrel-aged spirit is just that much more interesting. As it is also illegal for Peruvian pisco to be aged in wood, I was all the more gung-ho to try it. But adding the oak flavor wouldn't be the only thing to affect the pisco, the flavors of the aged Wray & Nephew would also play their part.

After six weeks, the pisco had taken on a straw-like appearance and its flavors had developed into something new. Though the telltale grape aroma and flavor were still present, hints of oak and vanilla had also become apparent. The slightly fruity, slightly funky flavors of the barrel-aged rum emerged on the swallow. Of course, no judgment could be complete without submitting the results to the ultimate test: how does it work in a cocktail? This cocktail also works very well with non-barrel-aged pisco. But the oak and vanilla notes really push the flavors in an added dimension.

Pisco Blush

1 1/2 ounces barrel-aged pisco
3/4 ounce Cocchi Americano
1/4 ounce apricot brandy
1 dash Creole or Peychaud's bitters

Combine ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Notes on Ingredients: I used barrel-aged Piscologia pisco, Bitter Truth Creole bitters, and a 50-50 mixture of homemade and Rothman and Winter apricot brandies.