Oak is a mysterious matter. No other material has shaped the world of wine, spirits, beer, and cocktails like oak. Still, this contribution to the realm of alcoholic beverages is more complicated than you might think, there’s a lot behind it — history, science, technology, and above all flavor.
How to describe what oak barrels do to their contents? How to explain the transformation, the magic, the new layers of intensity, of aromas infused to anything kissed by oak?
We’re about to take you through a grand tour around everything oak barrels are and represent, how to use, take care, and make the most out of them. But first, we must understand where oak barrels come from, and where they’re taking us.
Let us begin with a brief history of oak usage in barrel making. Interestingly enough, like with us humans, it all started with clay.
The History of Oak Barrels.
It all started with wine, a fermented drink that has been around for millennia. Grapes were fermented, stored, and even transported in clay vessels, or amphorae, excellent multipurpose containers, but they had their downside, they were heavy and fragile.
The Celts developed the first oak barrels around 300 BC in what we call France today and were used to store anything from fermented beverages to grains and fish. Still, the invention reached new heights once the Roman Empire got their hands on such a practical vessel.
Using oak barrels became widespread, and they were used for transporting wine and other products across Europe, and by the time the Roman Empire faded away, barrels were part of everyone’s lives.
The Christian monks took on themselves the responsibility of carrying wine, beer, and spirits forward. By then, they had discovered something extraordinary — whatever you stored in oak barrels, especially fermented drinks, and spirits, would transform, evolve, and become something new, something unique.
Oak barrels stopped being only a means of transport and became the vessel of excellence for aging alcoholic drinks.
To further understand what oak barrels do, we must dig deep into the science behind them.
The Science behind Oak Aging.
The first question that might pop in your mind is, why oak?
Oak is a malleable, light, and watertight, but for cocktails, wine, and spirits, it has a special feature — it adds flavors and aromas to any liquid in contact with it:
- Lactones are compounds in oak that are perceived as coconut aromas.
- Vanillin is another valuable compound that imparts vanilla notes to the contents.
- Eugeniol brings aromas of cloves and spices.
- Guayacol adds smoke aromas reminiscent of toast, char, and spice.
- Furfural permeates the liquid with caramel, butterscotch, and even roasted cacao beans and coffee aromas.
- Oxygen itself, which makes its way into barrels in moderate amounts, change the contents too, as oxidation creates new aromas and develops others.
The vital gas also changes the color and texture of any liquid, which is why wines get a brown hue, and spirits are mellowed.
These are all-natural compounds present in oak barrels that add layers of complexity to any drink. The newer the oak barrel, the more flavors and aromas it will impart, and the longer a liquid spends inside it, also affects the number of aromatic compounds infused in it. Experimentation is key to get the best results.
So how are oak barrels made?
Large or small, all barrels are made with the same labor-intensive process, and it all starts in the green oak forests around the globe.
- A cooper can make two or three barrels from a single tree, and the trees are close to 100 years old before being ready to be cut down. Those are old trees!
- The trunks are cut, splitting them along the grain of the wood into strips, known as staves.
- The staves are then set to dry traditionally on the open air for as long as three years or in modern kilns for a few days.
- When the time comes to shape the staves, they must be heated over an open flame, which is where the woods gets charred — and develops all its flavor compounds.
- The staves are kept in place with metallic belts, and that’s how a new barrel is born.
Modern uses of oak barrels and their use in the bar.
What happens when you age a cocktail? The forward-thinking bartender, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, together with Tony Conigliaro from 69 Colebrooke Row, in London, began a barrel-aged program in 2010, bringing back a tradition of aged cocktails that go back to the forefathers of drink-mixing, including Jerry Thomas.
All-spirit cocktails work best for oak aging, lime juice, or other fruit juices, anything that can spoil is recommended.
Cocktails like the Martini, Manhattan, and Negroni are suitable for barrel aging, and although the process can be lengthy, the results are worth it.
How long should you age your cocktails? The consensus seems to be around two to three months, although some bars have aged their cocktails up to a year.
Experimentation is key, and exciting concoctions are being developed as we speak.
You can also be part of the barrel-aged cocktail revolution, but first, you’ll want to read the next tips.
- There’s no glue or nails holding the wood staves together. It’s the expanding wood through moisture that makes the vessel airtight.
- Fill the barrel with hot water and allow it to sit for a minimum of 48 hours and up to three days, replacing the lost water periodically. It will leak, so place in an adequate place.
- Once the barrel stops leaking, empty it and rinse it with fresh water. Repeat until the water comes out clean.
- Let your barrel dry for a few hours, fill it with your favorite cocktail or spirit, and enjoy.
Need inspiration? Start with a crowd-pleasing Barrel Aged Negroni with equal parts Gin, Sweet Vermouth, and Campari.
- Keep your barrel in a place where there are no temperature variations.
Now you know the secrets behind oak aging, but most importantly, you’re now part of the movement. Unleash your creativity and enjoy creating exciting concoctions.
Share them with friends, family and peers, great cocktails are all about sharing!