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The process of curing the barrel is an easy one. Fill it up with hot water and let it sit for a few days until it stops leaking. Don't worry if it takes longer than three days. It's not a defective barrel. You can speed up the process by submerging the water filled barrel in your bathtub or deep-well sink over night. Have patience.
Now that you are ready to figure out which cocktail you'd like to age, you have to take a few things into consideration. The most important topics would be freshness and safety. You'll be aging the cocktail at room temperature. With that said, you wouldn't want to drink milk that has been left out of the fridge for six weeks, right? Good. Rule number 1 will be "No Dairy Products". Rule number two will be "No Fruit Juice". The same logic applies to fruit juice, too. The third rule of thumb is that you want to stay away from carbonated drinks. They will lose their carbonation and you'll end up with a funky mess. If you're hellbent on using soda, use a soda syrup. But, refer to rule #2 when choosing your syrup.
For our example, we will be making a Negroni in a five liter barrel. A Negroni cocktail has three components: equal parts Gin, Campari and Sweet Vermouth. For our five liter barrel, you can fit 2 750ml bottles of each component comfortably. You'll have to eyeball it if you want to fill it up to the tippity-top. Or, if you want to be anal retentive like myself, the exact amount you need would be 56.3 ounces of each ingredient. Each individual barrel will hold a slightly different amount. So, don't freak out if you're short or have some left over. Also, you'll need to hang on to the empty bottles. You will need them in later steps about six weeks from now. Wash them out, soak the labels off and set them aside.
When choosing your ingredients, keep in mind that the flavor will change after spending time in the belly of your new oak friend. In addition to extracting tannins from the wood and adding some caramel and vanilla notes to your cocktail, there are some other lovely little scientific events happening. There are reactions with the alcohol and congeners in the spirit through oxidation and extraction of chemicals from the oak. How they react depends on the size and age of the barrel, how many times it was used, percentage of alcohol in the cocktail, humidity, temperature and, most importantly, the time spent in your baby barrel. The only two factors that you really should care about here are the time spent in the barrel and the alcohol percentage of your drink. The higher the level of alcohol in the barrel, the more the spirits will interact with the chemical compounds of the wood. Thus resulting in more "flavor". The harshness of the spirits within will tend to mellow as well.
The age of the final product will be totally subjective to your taste. With the Negroni, let it age at least four weeks before you sample it for the first time. To be quite honest, you can do whatever the hell you want. It's your barrel. It's just in my experience that the flavors of your cocktail go through some funky phases that might give you second thoughts about continuing on this journey. Again, have patience.
The first time you use your barrel, you'll probably want to think about bottling your cocktail right around 6 weeks if you want to halt the aging process. You're going to need to use the original booze bottles for this step. To sanitize them, throw them in the dishwasher for a cycle. That should do the trick. When you pour the cocktail back into the bottles, you might want to strain it through a couple layers of cheese cloth just to make sure you catch some of those wood particles.
The final step is simple. The only tool you need is your phone. Call me up when you're ready to drink your delicious cocktail. I'll be over in 15 minutes.
The barrels and booze can be purchased at Saugatuck Grain & Grape in Westport, CT. We have 1 liter, 2 liter, 5 liter and 10 liter barrels in stock.