You may have noticed when visiting a trendy bar that they have a small barrel sitting on the counter top. This might just be for show or it might contain a cocktail ageing in wood. Hand-in-hand with the great Negroni explosion of the last ten years, there’s been an interest in ageing cocktails. Places like Bar Termini in Soho have a whole menu of different batched Negronis you can try.

It’s not just Negronis, all kinds of cocktails will benefit from a stint in wood as you’ll see. 

Cask-aged cocktails

Batched Negroni from Bar Termini

Why age your cocktail in cask?

Because it’s fun. Because you can. Do you need any further explanation? Oh, you do? Ok then.

When you’re keeping your cocktail in oak, two things are happening to it. One, you are slowly oxidising the liquid which produces nutty flavours like you get in an oloroso sherry or a tawny Port. You’ll also get some volatile acidity, in other words vinegar, which in small quantities can add freshness. 

Next the tannins and flavours from the wood like vanilla, coconut and cloves will leach into the cocktail along with the taste of whatever you used to season the cask (see below). Furthermore the various elements in your cocktail will marry together better. The effect can be quite subtle, just keep it in wood for a week or so to let all the rough edges smooth off. Or you can keep it for months or even years to see what happens.

Which cocktails work best for oak ageing?

It’s really up to you but we think spirit-forward whisky ones like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned are ideal. Because you’re essentially ageing sweetened whisky – and more age on a whisky is always a good idea. Vermouth-heavy ones like a Negroni or Palmetto also work brilliantly. Vermouth is a fortified wine so like sherry or Port, it responds really well to cask-ageing. A Port-seasoned barrel with a Negroni is going to work brilliantly. 

The higher the alcohol the better or you risk your cocktail turning to vinegar. Oh and under no circumstances age anything with fruit juice in like a Daiquiri or a Whisky Sour – it’s going to taste horrible. 

Cask ageing cocktails

You’ll need one of these

What sort of cask should I buy?

There’s all kinds of casks and old barrels available online but some are not what they seem. Many casks are just for show and are actually lined with plastic so you wont’ get any wood contact. And wood contact is what you need. Also beware of used casks, if not properly cleaned these could pick up all kinds of nasty bacterial or fungal infections which will do horrible things to whatever you put in them.

What you need in an unused new American oak cask which handily is available through Master of Malt. 

Don’t forget to season your cask

This is a very important step. Virgin American oak is packed with tannin and flavour. There’s a reason why the Scotch industry buys used casks from the bourbon industry, the raw wood can overpower the taste of single malt. Now think what will happen with a one litre cask where a much higher percentage of the liquid is in contact with the wood – you could end up with something that tastes like chewing a branch. 

We recommend first using a high strength alcohol like vodka for a week, which you will then discard followed by a fortified wine like port or sherry for two weeks – supermarket own label stuff is your friend here because you’ll probably discard it. You can have a lot of fun with your seasoning liquid. It’s worth reading this excellent blog on the subject

The most aggressive aspects of the wood should have now been tamed. It’s now ready for a cocktail!

How long should I keep it in the cask?

That’s really up to you but remember the newer the cask the more wood action you’re going to get. So to begin with, taste every couple of days and if it starts to taste woody, then take it out and bottle it. Don’t forget about the angel’s share – especially in a small cask, you will lose a lot of the liquid and alcohol to evaporation. Ideally you should keep your cask somewhere cool or that angel’s share is going to be a devil to deal with. 

The wood will gradually have less and less effect on the flavour of whatever you add to it but it will still have the oxygenating and mellowing effect. If you find yourself particularly enjoying the effect of wood ageing. You could keep topping up your cask with your cocktail of choice to create a kind of cocktail solera.

Seriously, it’s hours of fun.