Patience is a virtue. Good things come to those who wait. Learn the pace of nature. All of these idle thoughts point in the same direction, instructing us to wait a little—it’s not ready yet. Some of the very highest prized (and unusually complex) flavors in food and drink would not exist without the temerity and persistence of those who care for them. Of course, it takes the knowledge of the creator to know when a product needs a little time instead of being consumed “green.” To age or not to age, that is the age-old question.
The flavors in a liquid are comprised, on a textural level, of sugars, acids, tannins, alcohol, salts and anything else you can physically feel. But the magic stuff happens in the aromatic department by way of phenols, esters, fatty acids, aldehydes and, well, the list goes on. The received wisdom leads us to believe that aging is chiefly concerned with the interaction, and eventual reaction, of any of these various elements; throw oxygen, fruit solids and microscopic dead yeast cells into the mix and really it’s anyone’s guess as to what precisely causes what. Think of it like a huge jumbled chalkboard of all of your chemistry teacher’s most convoluted formulas layered on top of each other—all at once.
While one typically thinks of aging wine and spirits, cocktails can also be left to develop. At our venues, we do this by resting drinks and homemade wines in glass or fermentation tubs, both of which offer cleaner and more concise maturation compared to the more volatile, tannic, young-wood notes you get from small wooden barrels.
We’ve found that you’re better off laying down drinks that lean toward the boozier, sweeter, slightly bitter end of the spectrum (think, Manhattan or Hanky Panky); the depth of flavor holds its own over time, while bitterness adds structure, much like tannins do. But we also like playing with bright drinks that are traditionally made with citrus, like our Milk Punch. We ready them for aging by adding less water (thereby upping the proof), and replacing citrus with powdered acids and distillates. Much like in the darker drinks, a lot of the brighter, more volatile aromas change. We batch these experiments in large volumes, so we can taste the liquid over a period of many years to try and better understand how the liquid transforms.
The first thing you’ll notice as you begin to age your cocktail is a certain “togetherness” of flavors that wouldn’t have existed prior to the aging. We call this “marrying,” and it is the first noticeable change in the long, slow process that will yield different results for every experiment. It’s a phenomenon that’s tangible for most of us; it’s why lasagna always tastes better the second day and whiskey tends to be left to rest for months after the final blending, prior to bottling. But we’ve also experimented with aging well beyond this initial “marrying.”As with many good things, it’s the ability to wait it out that offers the best rewards, and there is something particularly special about opening a bottle you’ve been waiting to open for years.
Below is a quick guide to aging cocktails, whether it’s a brooding whisky number, a milk punch or a Martini.
- Wine bottles with corks, or a glass demijohn with bung
- Cambro, for measuring
Make sure there’s enough ABV. To ensure that your liquid is still going to at least taste good by the time you drink it, it’s very handy to keep the ABV above that at which it will easily oxidize. We recommend a minimum of 18 percent.
Make sure it tastes good to start with. If it doesn’t taste good when you put it in, it’s probably not going to taste good when you take it out!
Tread lightly with fresh ingredients. If you follow the minimal ABV advice, you can include fresh juices, like lemon or watermelon. But be advised that you will end up with sediment (this can be strained out) and that volatile compounds in the juice can sometimes lead to off aromas.
Sterilize your equipment. Use a sterilizing powder or solution and a bottle brush to keep everything fresh, following the instructions provided.
Age in different containers. Consider splitting your batch between glass, fermentation tubs and wood (if using the latter, make sure it’s well seasoned). You can even fill one glass bottle to the top and the other three-quarters-full to see how oxygen impacts each vessel in different ways.
Age in different places. Temperature, exposure to sunlight and humidity all impact flavor development. Higher levels of the above tending to provide a more unstable, volatile (but quicker and more obvious!) change in your liquid.
Have a plan of how long to leave it. It’s no use going through all of this effort and not leaving your project long enough for aging to have a real impact. We’d suggest splitting your batch up to be tasted in stages. Try each in one month, three months, nine months and two years.
The Step By Step
- Sterilize your aging vessel.
- Combine your ingredients in one big batch, and then decant into containers and apply closures.
- Label each container individually with the name, the date and what’s inside.
- Write down the original recipe in a diary. Every time you open a new bottle, make the original drink and note down how the flavor of the aged version differs, along with the conditions of its aging.
- Set reminders in your calendar and hope for the best.