Drinks

Is Barrel-Aging Your Negroni Worth it (and Doable)?

April  8, 2016
The barrel-aging process at a glance. Photo by Irene Rinaldi

When I find something I like, I fully embrace it. This is perhaps most evident in my relationship with cocktails.

Vodka soda with lime and I were involved in a long, tumultuous relationship for years. Now we don’t speak. A Dark and Stormy mixed up with the spiciest ginger beer is my reoccurring summer fling (especially batched up in thermos for the beach). There are a number of one-night-stands with cocktails off the menu at places around the city, but nothing is lasting. And that is because I am currently in a committed relationship with the Negroni.

Things started getting serious back in 2014 (slightly before the Negroni was named the “kale of cocktails” in this article). My coworkers at Food52 would mix up big-batches of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth in a mixing bowl to serve alongside heaps of ricotta and toast for most office celebrations.

The relationship continued to blossom that summer on a trip to Italy—I consumed as much Campari as possible in Negronis, Americanos, and spritzes (I prefer the bitter variety, thank you).

And then I was gifted a barrel.

My little barrel

What’s with the barrel?

Special things happen when you let your Negroni ingredients linger in a little oak barrel for a few weeks. The flavors mingle and grab a smoky note from the wood. The result is smooth, slightly lighter in color, and ready to pour over ice.

Back in 2010, Jefferey Morgenthaler wrote this instructional barrel-aging post (which I think was during my vodka soda years). I was introduced to the aged cocktail at Mario Batali’s Babbo in 2015. When a favorite kitchen store started carrying little barrels, and I discovered my uncle was barrel aging cocktails in his basement this year, I realized that this would be next step in my relationship with the Negroni.

The classic 1:1:1 ratio, going into the barrel Photo by Irene Rinaldi

The process.

Making a barrel-aged cocktail is fairly simple. Ali shared this aged Negroni recipe as my guiding light throughout the process.

Here’s what I did:

First, prep the barrel. Your barrel will likely come with specific instructions. Mine soaked twice with hot water for 24 hours to prime the wood, and ensure the barrel is watertight. The soaking was followed by 1 to 2 hours of drying time before the ingredients go in.

My dish towel was completely soaked after the first fill.

Next, funnel in your ingredients. My barrel holds about a liter with ingredients, and I filled it with a classic 1:1:1 ratio of 11 ounces London Dry Gin, 11 ounces Campari, and 11 ounces of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino.

Then, wait. My recipe suggested leaving the cocktail in the barrel about a month. After two weeks, I started sampling the results. The cocktail had a lighter color at that point and a slight hint of smokiness. By four weeks, the flavor intensified and the color goes from a vibrant red to a lighter, rusty orange.

2 week old Negroni on the right, 4 week old on the left.

Finally, strain into a bottle, and enjoy. Once you’re happy with the Negroni flavor, pour your cocktail through a coffee filter-lined funnel straight into glass bottle. This will ensure your cocktail doesn’t bring any little bits of the barrel into it’s new home.

So was it worth it?

My deep love for Negroni aside, I say yes. Here’s why:

Ready to enjoy Photo by Irene Rinaldi

Convenience: When you have very predictable drinking habits (like me), a batch premixed Negroni is perfect. All I need is an ice cube and an orange twist and I’m ready to sit back for a night in with my number 1’s: Negroni, dog, and husband (listed in no particular order).

Flavor: You can see the difference in color side-by-side in the photos above. The cocktail that emerges from the barrel is mellow and smoky.

Party trick: Serving a group is easier with a batch of Negroni. And won't it sound extra fancy when you say the cocktail has been aging in a little oak barrel for a month?

$$$: There is a little cost upfront, but I think of it this way: $40 to $80 spent on the barrel (which you can easily procure online ) plus about $75 on your spirits comes out to a total of $150. You could buy ~15 drinks at the bar with that cash. Or sip and/or serve 20 cocktails that you’ve put a little extra love into.

I’m sharing my batch of barrel-aged Negroni with friends at Food52 this afternoon at 5pm EST. Tune in on Food52’s Snapchat (food52), and see what happens.

9 Comments

Andy L. April 10, 2016
Dumb question alert:<br /><br />Can you reuse the barrel?
 
M April 11, 2016
Yes, but keeping in mind 2 things: <br />1. The barrel expands/contracts when wet or dry, so they work better when in continual use. Otherwise, the bands holding it together can slip, etc.<br />2. Everything in the barrel will impart flavour to the next batch, so you have to be mindful of type and order of drinks you're aging.
 
Author Comment
Gabriella M. April 12, 2016
Yep! As M mentioned totally doable. My barrel came with a storing tablet to add to water when not in use...but I've already filled my with a new batch.
 
juliunruly April 9, 2016
Weird. I think we're the same person.
 
Leslie S. April 8, 2016
Yes. Please.
 
Connor B. April 8, 2016
Gabriella! This is great!
 
M April 8, 2016
It's important to note that not all small oak barrels for home aging are the same. Some are charred inside, and others toasted. I once bought a toasted barrel I thought was charred, and ended up with a cocktail that tasted like sucking on a piece of wood -- no smoky notes, just wood.<br /><br />Also, if someone wants to test it for less money and less yield, you can buy food-safe wood chips, used in bbqs/etc, and plop one in a jar to age a smaller amount. (Or rapid-age in an ISI.) The chips are a lot cheaper than barrels or specially sold cocktail wood chunks, and have some interesting flavours to experiment with.
 
Julie April 12, 2016
The wood chip idea should work if you can get them charred. I went on a distillery tour and received a flask with a spiral of charred oak (spiral shaped for more surface area). I ended up pouring a bourbon in it, and the result was wonderfully smokey and delicious. The only sad part was that my flask was so small... It was a lot of waiting for a tiny bottle.<br /><br />
 
Author Comment
Gabriella M. April 12, 2016
Thanks M and Julie! I'll have to give the wood chip idea a try next.