Who is afraid of tackling a three-month long aging process for a cocktail? Our columnist says these Manhattans were worth the wait.
Late last fall, Shawn McLaughlin from Stroudwater Distillery gifted me with a 10-liter oak barrel, pre-charred on the inside for maximum agedness I think. It was glorious. But what was I supposed to do with it? It seemed I was destined to make a cocktail. (Thanks for the gift of a chore, my friend.) This turned out to be an ambitious and long process for an impatient person like me, although because of the internet, not impossible. I am able to do anything as long as there is a corresponding Wiki or YouTube video.
I wanted to work with a classic, a concoction that I will drink often based on the sheer amount I was afraid I was going to end up with (maybe even 10 liters). My cocktail also had to have a low sugar content—mold and bacteria *love* sugar because who doesn’t? That meant juices were out, since they are full of sugar. I’d only be using spirits. I settled on a Manhattan, allowing me to skimp on really pricey liquors. While I got a couple bottles of Stroudwater bourbon and rye from McLaughlin, I needed much more. I opted to use Evan Williams bourbon to supplement the rest.
A Manhattan cocktail calls for 3/4th parts sweet vermouth to 2 parts rye whiskey as well as a maraschino cherry and angostura bitters. Doing the math, that is 3/4ths to 8/4ths. (Is this how you math?) Ok, so 10 liters equates to about 13 750mL bottles. Now I knew how many bottles of each product I needed to buy. Thank God chemistry isn’t an exact science. Wait, it is? I purchased seven additional bottles of whiskey. Next up, two bottles of Cocchi Americano, a sweet wine that is a lot like sweet vermouth but with less sugar. It comes in Rosa and Bianco versions and I used one of each.
What about the maraschino cherry? They are sugar bombs, and would once again, lead to that pesky oxidation problem. Not wanting to brew up a barrel of bacteria, I used a bottle of Cherry Heering Liqueur to evoke a bit of the maraschino flavor. I used it sparingly, about a third of the bottle, in order not to make the cocktail too sweet. To fill the barrel completely—recommended by every site I visited—I needed to borrow more whiskey from my home bar.
I filled the barrel on Dec. 1 and on March 1, I de-bunged it. (That’s barrel talk for unsealing.) I don’t want to toot my own horn, but my method of bumbling through was surprisingly effective. This project was a lot of work (thanks to Michael Leonard for helping with the heavy lifting, the wax melting and buying supplies) but it yielded truly the best Manhattans I have ever tasted. With plenty to spare. What are you waiting for?
AN AMATEUR’S GUIDE TO BARREL-AGING, OR THINGS I LEARNED ALONG THE WAY
Start small, I did not. Buying a few gallons worth of whiskey gets expensive. Luckily, you can use the cheap stuff when you plan to barrel-aged cocktail. I have a lot of this cocktail now, over three gallons to be precise (MATH!), and my friends will be forced to drink it with me until the end of days.
RESEARCH the process for the cocktail you will want to age. For example, some ingredients might need to be substituted due to the aging process or omitted completely, like the bitters for the Manhattan cocktail, which should be added after the aging process.
PREP the barrel. You will need to fill it with distilled water and let that sit for a few days, as that will expand the wood and seal cracks. The trick is to not let the barrel dry out, so after dumping out the water, fill it with your cocktail ingredients sooner rather than later. Always keep the barrel full of water between batches. The water will need to be changed every two to three weeks. As it rests for two days, you can taste the water to see what the inside of the barrel tastes like.
CONSIDER future uses. A barrel can be used a few more times, keeping in mind that with each use, the barrel retains more and more of the previous cocktail flavorings. My advice is to either stick to the same cocktail, or stay within the cocktail family. For example, my next cocktail will be a Barrel-Aged Boulevardier; essentially a whiskey Negroni.
BUY some wax. Because I am a hoarder of craft supplies, I had an ample amount of beeswax pellets on hand. The wax is to seal small seams on your barrel. (Ideally, I’d have dipped the whole thing in wax, because my barrel regularly sweated sweet, sweet Manhattan reduction all over my counter.)
Jessie Lacey resides at the heart of downtown Portland with her border collie puppy Josie, making cocktails and trouble.