While wine and beer lovers are able to pursue their craft by fermenting beverages for themselves, it is a bit harder for aficionados of whiskey and other spirits. Partially due to the fact that the distillation practice is incredibly explosive and because improper cut-points can lead to methane poisoning and blindness, the federal Government frowns upon back-yard stills.
So while the role of amateur distiller is out of reach for all but a very luck (or outlaw) few, there is a realm of the whiskey-making process in which we can all partake – that of maturation and blending.
Small casks are available online from about $40 and used barrels can run into the hundreds of dollars for full-seized used whiskey and beer barrels. While an earlier article described how enthusiasts can partake in blending as a hobby to hone their nosing and tasting skills, this article will explore maturation – another important piece in whiskey-making puzzle.
1 liter barrels are mostly used as decorative pieces, but I decided to take one for a spin after receiving it as a birthday gift from my sister.
The smaller the barrel, the less time it takes to impact the liquid and the more dramatic the outcome. That is because smaller barrels have more surface area that is in contact with the spirit on a per-volume basis. You can see how powerful new wood is by comparing regular tap water with the oaked water after only 4 days. Each charge in a barrel get successively less powerful.
Small craft distilleries use small casks in order to reduce the time they spend maturing the product to get it to market faster. The drawback is that it makes it much harder to get consistent results – complicated by the fact that less barrels are used in the blending process. The really deep and complex notes that come out of the wood with extra-long maturation – say 10 – 25 years – aren’t available because the flavors are likely to get too intense in a small barrel if they were allowed to age that long.
Bartenders have also taken advantage of small casks in order to mature cocktails to give them extra character and flavors. I took a page out of each playbook in my approach to begin my barrel-aging journey.
Before the first fill, the cask’s instructions suggested filling it with water in order to soak the barrel staves. This is important because the dry barrel isn’t’ water-tight. Woe to the person who fills their first barrel with spirit. A lot of water poured through the wood. With full-sized barrels in a distillery, the amount perhaps isn’t bad considering 55 gallon go in at much higher proof. But here, a considerable amount of spirit would have escaped through the gaps between staves before they soaked-up some water and expanded.
After soaking the staves, the first thig I decided to place in the barrel was a Manhattan cocktail created with Jim Beam Rye, Rittenhouse Rye, Martini & Rossi Sweet Red Vermouth and Angostura Bitters. After placing about 750 ml of the cocktail in the barrel, I tasted it each day while also rotating the barrel to increase the surface area and keep the wood conditioned. It was quite a learning experience to see how the liquid changed inside the barrel. After 10 days, the cocktail showed signs of becoming over-oaked, so I took it out of the barrel. Placing the cocktail in a glass vessel in the refrigerator allowed me to stop maturation and keep the cocktail icy-cold for when I entertain company. I am unsure of how long the cocktail will stay in the refrigerator. The danger is the red vermouth – which in actuality is a wine. While spirits can stay in the same state almost indefinitely under the right conditions because of the preservative powers of the high-alcohol content, diluting the rye with vermouth and bitters makes me a little uneasy. However, at 90 and 100 proof, Jim Beam and Rittenhouse rye whiskies, respectively, hopefully have high enough spirit-proof to keep the Manhattans tasting smooth and delicious for months and months to come.
It is important to keep the barrel staves from becoming dry. Dry staves can lead to gaps and leaky barrels. In order to take advantage of the uniquely sweet-and-spicy notes left from the Manhattan, I decided to put in a bourbon whiskey to add complexity. I chose Evan Williams for no other reason that it was the cheapest 750 ml bottle available in my local spirit shop. I went with an inexpensive brand so that I didn’t destroy an already premium-aged product.
After about two weeks, the Evan Williams was noticeably more mature. The nose is amazing – although the tongue had not quite caught up – another problem with small barrels. However, the finished product was much improved over the purchased Black Label.
Finally, to be able to distinguish from a regular bottle of Black Label (and to show off to my friends), I created a new specialty label using InDesign software. Now, you can easily see the bottle contains a special one-of-a-kind offering of The Manhattan Project Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey finished in previously-used Manhattan cocktail barrels. After all, how often can you truthfully say you have a truly unique one-of-a-kind offering on your bar that is available nowhere else in the world?