Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Cask: Final

It was a good run, but the small little barrel has just sung its swan song. Almost 3 years ago, I began this very blog using my experiences with this small Copper Fox distillery cask as a flagship topic, if you will. In 2009, at-home aging was a topic scarcely written about online, and having valued unorthodox topics as a cornerstone for this site as I still do today, I took the cask project as a fitting starting line. Here in 2012, aging liquor at home is now a bit more popular online, though most of it concerns aging pre-mixed cocktails, not raw spirits, as I've mostly done. I chose this cocktail aging fad as my barrel's final batch.

Why final? Well look at the thing! Image quality aside, here is its before and after below.

Spilling and seepage have weathered it into a gnarly sticky mass. Over a half dozen batches of liquid have been aged in this vessel, a number that I feel is much above the average commercial spirit barrel's lifespan. I have no qualms with retiring this cask and purchasing another, should I feel the need to continue aging. (And I do!)

Scarcely 45 days ago I decided that the barrel was ready to work again, having rested from its last ghastly voyage. If you'll recall, I brashly tried to age a light fruity Sauvignon Blanc in it. After aging it much too long (if it could have been aged well at all), my resulting product resembled a vinegary vermouth more than a table wine. Apologetic to the cask, I left it in open air to fully dry. A month after that, I gave it a few flushes of nice hot water in order to extract any sour flavors before we continued.

And now we continue. Into the barrel's final gulp was, technically speaking, a variation of an Improved Scotch Cocktail, a glass of which would have been composed of a few fingers of Scotch whisky, a heavy dash of sugar syrup, a heavy dash of absinthe, a heavy dash of Maraschino liqueur, and a heavy dash of bitters.

A few notes on the ingredients. I had originally planned to use a young (and cheap) single malt Scotch, but was persuaded against it. I ended up using Johnny Walker Red Label, since popular consensus is that its age is somewhere near 8 years. Since the small barrel ages contents so quickly, I decided to let the input whisky err on the younger side.

I opted for a new American Maraschino liqueur: Leopold Bros. It's one of their newer products and is absolutely wonderful. As someone who finds the traditional Luxardo a bit overpowering, Leopold's restraint is very welcome. Go buy some now.

Instead of using aromatic bitters which is traditional for the Improved Cocktail, I used my own homemade coffee bitters, which I always felt went well with Scotch.

And now, a note on sugar. Most of the cocktails that you've probably seen aged in barrels are along the lines of Manhattans and Negronis. While there's a bit of sugar in each of those, I wasn't sure I had heard of any aged cocktails that contained simple syrup, or even a heavy liqueur for that matter, and I wondered if there was a good reason as to why not. My cocktail mix ended up being only about 1/15th sugar, and since I knew this was my barrel's last hurrah, I went for it.

In the end, the sugar wasn't a problem. I let the mix sit in the barrel about a month and a half, just to get a bit of age on the ingredients, namely the whisky.

My biggest surprise in the end was how bitter the mixture became. The aging seemed to magnify the bitters' bitterness several times over. In order to calm it back down, I actually doctored the final aged mix with an additional bit of each of the cocktail's other ingredients except the bitters. The final concoction is a bit more bitter than I'd like, but I don't want to tinker with it any more in fear of upsetting its already endangered balance.

The coffee and vanilla in the bitters bring out a bit of chocolate from the whiskey. The liqueur and the syrup offer just a bit of sweetness to counteract the formidable bitterness here. Like it normally does in the Improved Cocktail, the absinthe provides a bright and aromatic highlight to the mix, which definitely needs it in this case. And luckily for me, the barely detectable white wine tones from the barrel's last batch adds sweetness to this one, if anything. But to be quite honest, I'm not sure the cocktail is better now than before it went into the barrel, though I'm definitely enjoying trying to understand its transformation. This has been a success.

And so, this barrel is done aging things. I'm not done with it completely, however, and if you're wondering what I mean, you'll have to wait and see.

As I end my home-aging journey, a friend of mine starts hers. She is Courtney Randall of Cocktail Quest. Her interests lie in aging cocktails, not spirits alone, though she realizes that it's a smart move to soften the barrel's charred innards first by aging a spirit before subtler cocktails are poured in. In a move after my heart, she chose Wray & Nephew's White Overproof Rum.

Courtney managed to articulate one of my favorite things about aging at home, something I've thought about for years but never was able to say it so well, so I will provide her words here (mangled by myself):

"With a newly empty barrel [after aging the rum], surely it was time to batch up two liters of cocktail. But... I started to reconsider. Perhaps one more spirit round wouldn't be a bad idea; two unique barrel-aged spirits must be better than one.

You see, when a spirit is placed in a barrel, a certain amount will disappear. But it doesn't just evaporate. The wood soaks some of it up like a sponge, and the barrel is forever changed. Whatever goes in next will be affected. For example, if you barrel age a white whiskey, and then fill the barrel with gin, some of the barrel-aged whiskey flavors will be incorporated into the gin's flavor profile. But the barrel's flavor is not constant. Each time you change the contents, the barrel will take on the new flavors and yet lose some of its own."

Well put, Courtney!

If you've enjoyed reading about my hijinks with aging at home, do yourself a favor and follow hers in suit.

As I said, while my barrel is done aging contents, I'm not fully done with it just yet. Stay tuned for further hijinks, and thanks to all you readers.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Ephemeral Noms

I've begun another blog.

A hopeless consumer, I've always been enchanted with getting my hands on limited edition flavors of snacks and drinks that pop up intermittently in your grocery and convenience stores. After 20 years of such hawking, I consider myself an expert on the junk food landscape. Here's the full story. I figured it might be fun to document the curious iterations that I come across and that perhaps I might be so lucky as to gain a few readers, especially those from whom I can learn on this subject.

Did you know for their 100th Anniversary Oreo is offering a special edition that's flavored like birthday cake? Did you know that Pepsi just started producing a half-calorie version? What about the fact that you can buy marshmallow treats that use the Fruity Pebble cereal instead of Rice Krispies?

All of this you can learn and more at Ephemeral Noms.