Miniature barrels are like miniature horses. They’re almost too adorable to resist, yet nobody seems to know exactly what to do with them. So we asked chefs, distillers, and bartenders for their tips on the best small barrel DIY projects. Now, put these items in your mini-barrel, and turn it into the little workhorse it was born to be.
The White Stuff: Aging Unaged Whiskey
Aging time: 3-6 months
Woodinville Whiskey Co. offers the Age Your Own Whiskey Kit, including two 750 ml bottles of 110 proof unaged white dog and a 2-liter aging barrel. “Color develops within a few weeks in the barrel and it takes about 3 months to get a solid, enjoyable product,” says Woodinville co-owner Orlin Sorensen. Evaporation, or the angel’s share, is accelerated with small barrels, according to Sorenson. To minimize it, take only small samplings and keep the barrel topped off, even if you are just adding water. Rather go it alone? Try filling your barrel with Buffalo Trace White Dog Mash #1 or George Dickel No. 1 White Corn Whisky.
A Manhattan Project: Barrel-Finished Cocktails
Aging time: 2-8 weeks
Moses Laboy, beverage manager at New York’s Bottle & Bine, says aging his Manhattan cocktail of Elijah Craig bourbon and Carpano Antica Formula vermouth in a 5-liter barrel, “…marries the flavors and creates a more luxurious drink.” Just fill a mini-barrel with your choice of whiskey and sweet vermouth mixed 2:1. Save the bottles and a small sample of your original mixture. “You need to taste it each week against the original and watch the progress. You can over-age it and the wood takes over,” says Laboy. Once you like the results, move it back to the bottles to stop the process. Stir with ice and bitters to serve.
True Grits: Cask-Matured Grains
Aging time: 6 months-1 year
At Easy Bistro & Bar in Chattanooga, Tenn., chef and owner Erik Niel adds flavor to his southern grits by aging the dry cornmeal in 10-gallon barrels that previously held bourbon or house cocktails. “We are really just emulating what would have happened 100 years ago,” says Niel, who prefers to give them a full year of aging. “The longer they sit, the better they get. They come out more sweet than oak-scented, and develop a deeper flavor that works really well in the fall and winter.” The same process also works with Carolina Gold rice, according to Niel, who sometimes adds a few bay leaves for a more savory flavor.
Sour Grapes: DIY Red Wine Vinegar
Aging time: 3 months
Russell Moore, chef/owner at Camino in Oakland, Calif., says commercial vinegar seems watery and bland once you’ve made your own. “When choosing a red wine for vinegar, it should be drinkable, not corked. Old World wines are better because you want it around 13% alcohol. If you have a higher alcohol wine, you’ll want to cut it with water,” says Moore. Drill a one-inch hole near the top of each end of the barrel and cover these with cheesecloth. Fill with wine to just below the holes, maximizing exposed surface area. Next, add a bit of live vinegar or purchase a “mother” to jump-start the necessary bacteria. Monitor your progress by tasting until the alcohol has disappeared (about 3 months).
Your Cup of Tea: Fermenting Kombucha
Aging time: 2-3 weeks
Kombucha is sweetened tea of very low alcohol fermented with a “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast,” and an upright mini-barrel with a tap affixed makes an ideal brewing vessel, according to Hannah Crum, author of The Big Book of Kombucha. “Oak barrels are really nice because they lend smokiness and toastiness, and vanilla notes. It’s a positive environment for continuous brewing because wood holds all the magic microbes,” says Crum, who offers recipes and materials at Kombucha Kamp.