Want to put your personal stamp on any drink with a modicum of expense and zero know-how?
Try barrel-aging. The setup is a small wooden barrel, a funnel and whatever ingredients go in your cocktail. The payoff is a savory drink that has the stones to stand up to a cigar.
The short soak in wood is miniscule, taking only a few weeks, but affording a noticeable boost, as the barrel melds the ingredients in the cocktail of your choice, while lending its own savor to the concoction. Think of it as the way stew improves as it sits after cooking. Small casks can be purchased on the Internet in a number of different sizes, and some drinks work better than others.
Armed with a one-liter barrel kit from The Sexton, an Irish malt whiskey made at the Old Bushmill’s distillery, we started our research with an Irish Manhattan (made with Irish whiskey as the base spirit, rather than Bourbon or Rye). Two weeks of aging added woody notes and a slight bite to the otherwise supremely smooth whiskey. The cocktail pairs well with a medium-bodied smoke, like an Oliva Serie V Melanio. That success suggested a world of research.
A personal favorite is the Boulevardier, which is essentially a Negroni made with American whiskey, in place of the usual gin portion (equal parts Bourbon, Campari and sweet vermouth). Barrel aging the drink comingles the otherwise quite divergent components and makes a stout, but nuanced, combination that cries out for an even more robust smoke—perhaps a Bolivar Belicoso Fino.
Getting started is simple. Fill the barrel with water for a couple of days to cure it and seal any leaks. Pick your recipe and do the math, multiplying the amounts so the entire volume equals about four cups. Aromatic mixtures (combinations of spirits, aperitifs, liqueurs and bitters) are the best candidates, while fruity cocktails (sours, slings, fizzes) do not improve with this treatment. However, a Martini takes on a heft that makes it a good partner for a milder smoke, say an Ashton Cabinet or a Davidoff. (Hint, use a wet ratio of one part gin to one part vermouth.)
The waiting is the hardest part. Set the barrel in a dark, cool space and rotate it every few days. Take small samples periodically. When it’s ready (two to four weeks), pour, shake or stir over ice, strain and stand back as your handiwork disappears down eager throats.