I just got my mini-barrel (about 6 inches tall and roughly 1 liter in volume) from Thousand Oaks Barrel Co. in Virginia. I opted for a little barrel to start my cocktail aging experiment for a couple of reasons: first, it’s cheaper ($45) than slightly larger barrels, and second, if this aging experiment goes awry, I won’t be out much more than a bottle’s worth of alcohol. A minor advantage to smaller barrels in general is that the surface area in contact with the alcohol is greater, so the process works faster. This barrel comes with a spigot so you can taste the progress as the weeks go by. From what I’ve read, I should age the cocktail for between five and seven weeks.
To my knowledge, most bars that have aged cocktails have done it with variations on Manhattans and Negronis. I’m thinking about trying to age a classic martini with Ransom Old Tom gin: equal parts gin and dry vermouth with a splash of orange bitters. Right now I’m leaning toward Noilly Prat dry vermouth, which I like better than Martini & Rossi, but I haven’t tried Dolin yet, so I may change my mind. I’ve been using Fee Brothers orange bitters.
When I checked in with Robert Simonson, a cocktail writer who covered barrel-aged cocktails for the New York Times in December, he agreed that the Old Tom gin would probably lend itself better to the oak aging than Plymouth or a traditional London Dry gin.
As detailed in his article, Simonson started with Negronis (in his case, Beefeater gin, Cinzano sweet vermouth and Campari) and after seven weeks found them “smoother, mellower and with deeper flavor notes.” His next experiment, hinted at in the Times story, was the Deshler cocktail (rye, Dubonnet, Cointreau, Peychaud’s bitters).
One other key bit of advice I gleaned from Simonson—again, this from his article—was to fill and soak the barrel with water before attempting to fill it with booze. These barrels are made without nails or glue, and the staves need to be moist to expand to become water-tight (although some moisture and air will permeate the oak; that exposure to air is part of the aging process). The instructions that came with my barrel say it should be filled with water for three to five days before it’s used for alcohol. But can I wait that long to begin?