We have been playing with the spirit ageing barrels for a couple of months with some impressive results. We wanted to go through the whole ageing process here in a bit more detail. Not because it is a complicated process - quite the opposite! - but rather because there are a lot of different options for how to use it depending on your taste and spirit preferences.
The first thing to emphasise is that it is a fairly speedy operation. When you buy a decent bottle of whiskey or rum, the spirit is aged for years; if you don't have that long to wait for the results, using a small barrel is a huge advantage. The surface area of charred wood that the spirit is exposed to is much greater, allowing a quicker transfer of the wood's ageing properties. This means that you will already start to see a huge difference in the spirit within a few weeks.
First the barrel needs to be prepped. This simply involves putting the bungs in place and filling it with water. Simples. The reason behind this is that as the barrel dries, the wood shrinks and small cracks will appear allowing the liquid out. By soaking the barrel you are allowing the wood to expand creating an airtight seal. This can take anywhere up to a week but i have found it usually takes only a day. Once the outside of the barrel looks dry and the dripping stops you are ready to go.
What to put in it? I wouldn't recommend putting an expensive scotch in here, as this has already been aged and your efforts will be wasted. For the most recent batch, I went for what the Americans call White Dog Whisky, basically an un-aged bourbon. A poteen would work as well. The beauty of both of these spirits are that while they are clear and don't have a huge amount of flavour, they are also high strength which will get the most out of your barrel. I noticed colour and flavour change in less than one week.
The barrel is one litre and I would recommend filling it to the top to get the most exposure to the char and minimise loss. The funnel we provide in the kit is quite handy to avoid spillage. I am sure that anybody who is buying this kit knows the term ‘the angel's share’, with the evaporation of a small amount of your spirit inevitable.
For this batch, we opted for an experiment of a slightly fruity nature. I am addicted to sherried whiskies so was up for having a crack myself. After soaking the barrel, I filled it with a rather cheap and nasty bottle of Oloroso sherry. The cheap and nasty sherry selection was intentional and advised to me by my local vintners. On balance, if I did it again I would use Pedro Ximenz as I think the sweetness would balance well with the spirit and I might actually want to drink it afterwards.
The sherry was left in the barrel for a couple of days. I then emptied it and left a couple of shots in there for good measure. Then I just popped the white dog whisky in there and left it to age.
I have been tasting mine every few days, until I judged it right for my palette. The regular tasting is half the fun of the process. It was then decanted into the bottle from the kit using the funnel and the filter paper. The ageing process will continue so, when you are happy, bottle it.
Other options for the keg are rum and tequila which we will definitely be experimenting further with. One of my most exciting plans for the barrel is to make up a keg-sized Old Fashioned cocktail and age the little blighter. This will definitely be blogged about soon.