Everything You Need to Know About Making Barrel-Aged Cocktails

Barrel-aged cocktails have been making the rounds at bars for years, with a wee barrel likely sitting on a countertop near you. But you don’t have to go to a bar to enjoy a drink with some wood age—you can do it yourself at home. Start off by experimenting, and sample the cocktail as it matures to taste how wood and time change familiar flavors into something totally new.

“The maturing process changes the flavor profile and gives you an unexpected twist,” says Adrian Mishek, beverage director at Root Cellar Whiskey Bar in Washington, D.C. “It can cut, or add, a touch of bitterness, round out flavors, and blend them together.”

“Aging adds depth,” notes Chris Karalekas, co-owner and bar manager at Sanford’s Restaurant in Queens, New York. “You get a cocktail with a bigger, richer personality.”

And, other than the barrel itself, it doesn’t take any fancy equipment or very much effort to make your own barrel-aged cocktail. Follow these tips to do it yourself!

How to Make Your Own Barrel-Aged Cocktail in 6 Steps

1. Find the right barrel
First things first: you need a barrel. Several cooperages, such as Red Head, Deep South, and Bluegrass, sell small barrels online. Be sure to look for a new charred barrel so you get the most flavor out of it, and start with a 2- or 3-liter size—booze isn’t cheap and you don’t want to waste too much if your experiment goes south.

2. Prep the barrel
As eager as you may be to get started, you need to seal the barrel first to prevent any leaks. Fill it with hot distilled water and let it sit in a sink for a day or two to allow the wood to expand. Check for leaks—if you notice any, wait a day or two to allow the wood to swell and naturally seal up. When you dump the water out, you’ll also wash out any leftover charring agent so your cocktail is free from debris.

3. Pick a cocktail
There aren’t many rules about which cocktails are best to barrel-age, Mishek says. Steer away from anything with a high sugar content, such as those that use sweet liqueurs. They tend to get syrupy and clog the nozzle, and mold and bacteria like to breed in sugar. You also want to avoid recipes that require fresh ingredients, such as citrus juice. A cocktail that uses only spirits, like a Manhattan, is your safest bet. And even if you use high-end brands in your usual cocktails, start with something less expensive, in case you dislike the end result. “If [the spirit is] already well aged, the flavors can change dramatically,” Mishek says.

4. Leave it alone
Place the barrel out of the sunlight in a spot where it’s about 50 to 60 degrees. Slightly warmer is OK, but that means more alcohol will evaporate, speeding up the aging process. Be patient (and enjoy some whisky while you wait).

5. Taste test
If it’s your first time using the barrel, taste your cocktail after a week and continue tasting every week. “You can taste the flavors getting richer, bigger, and bolder,” says Rene Sanchez, bar manager and mixologist at Sanford’s Restaurant. Although it often takes three to four weeks for the first cocktail to mature, and a bit longer for subsequent uses, always trust your taste buds rather than relying on the calendar. “If you like fewer wood notes and it tastes good at four weeks, pull it out,” Karalekas says. “If it needs more richness, leave it for another week.” But unless you want it super oaky, Mishek says, don’t go longer than six weeks.

6. Pour yourself a glass
When it tastes just how you want it, pour your cocktail into a large decanter. Then simply add some to a shaker or mixing glass, shake or stir with ice to chill and dilute it a bit, and pour into a glass.

What To Do Next With Your Barrel

If you have another cocktail ready to age, go ahead and pour it into the used barrel. While it’s fine to age a different cocktail than the previous time, you will get notes of the original drink in your new one. (This is also the case when using your barrel to finish whisky—though of course that is intentional.)

If you’re not ready to age more or want to clear the barrel of any trace of its previous contents, either use a cleansing tablet (which typically comes with the barrel), or fill it with cheap wine or liquor, and then dispose of that before your next batch. (Note that the second option will leave behind trace flavors as well.)

You can use a barrel as many times as you wish, but each time the cocktail will take on fewer char flavors and take longer to age. The team at Sanford’s only uses a barrel twice, but you may get four or five uses out of your barrel, depending on your taste preferences.

Need more ideas for using your mini barrel? Try fermenting kombucha, making your own red wine vinegar, or barrel-aging grains before cooking.

Aging Your Own Whisky

Aging white whisky can be less intimidating than aging cocktails. Mishek suggests choosing a white whisky whose mature version you like—so if you are a rye person, try an unaged rye. Taste it after about a month, and keep tasting every week or so until it’s to your liking. But bear in mind, the end result won’t taste like its bottled brown counterpart. (One big reason: most commercially available white whiskies are already diluted with water, well under typical barrel-entry proof.) “There is a reason master distillers are called masters,” Mishek adds. “You will probably come up with some good stuff, but it will not equal the big boys.”

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