All across the country, people are starting to utilize barrel-aging, for everything from vanilla to pickles to gin. “When using barrels to age other food products, this is a great method to impart specific or nuanced flavors,” says Trey Zoeller, owner of Jefferson’s Bourbon. Try one of these products and see for yourself. Or, embrace the do-it-yourself mentality and purchase a mini barrel and start your own project.
- Pickles: Leave it to the folks at Brooklyn Brine to obtain Finger Lakes Distilling’s McKenzie Rye Whiskey barrels to age their sour pickles in. You can buy jars of these crunchy, slightly spicy spears at about $8 a jar online, or check out a list of retailers, where they're carried by purveyors from New York to Atlanta to Los Angeles. Plus, Brooklyn Brine uses the same types of barrels to age their maple-bourbon bread and butter pickles, perfect if you are looking for something a little sweet to add to your hot dog.
- Vanilla: Using old Kentucky bourbon barrels, Bourbon Barrel Foods has given Madagascar vanilla even more of a custardy twist with a bourbon barrel-aged vanilla. The flavors prove rich and sweet, perfect for baking or even drizzling on Greek yogurt for an extra kick. Order it for $10 directly from their website.
- Gin: But why, you may ask, should you age gin in a bourbon barrel? Well, after a sip of Few Distillery’s barrel-aged gin, the answer becomes clear, even though the liquor is not. The flavor proves all at once cool and piney with traces of warming vanilla to help it melt down your gullet, the perfect tipple to sip on its own or to spruce up a winter cocktail. Unfortunately, the distillery doesn’t distribute everywhere, but you can purchase a bottle for $40 from Binny's. Though beware, a handful of states don’t allow liquor shipments.
- Hot sauce: Most people don’t think of hot sauce as getting better with age, but when you add that spicy goodness to a barrel, it develops another layer to the heat. This is why, since 1921, Jamaica’s Pickapeppa has aged their condiment in an oak barrel for up to a year, a trick that keeps the pepper flavors dark and sweet. Another fine, barrel-aged hot sauce is found at A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Virginia, where they not only use their own discarded barrels, but they put actual bourbon in the recipe. You can pick up a bottle of this at the distillery, or for $8 order online, and Pickapeppa is found in most grocery stores for around $3.
- Tea: At Rare Tea Cellar in Chicago, they use Willett Rye barrels to dry-age five of their specialty teas. This includes the 2001 Vintage Oak Barrel Aged Pu-erh, Forbidden Forest Lapsang Souchong, Chai, Hot Chocolate Pu’erh, and Gingerbread Dream Rooibos. All the teas get aged for about a year, and with the rooibos, the flavor maintains that caramel-vanilla tinge that one associates with bourbon, and smells a lot like a hot toddy mixed with freshly baked cookies. You can purchase any of these from their website, at about $40 per quarter of a pound.
- Tequila: Last year, Casa Herradura unveiled their Colección de la Casa, Reserva 2013, a Cognac cask–finished reposado teuqila. This special spirit spends 11 months in a medium-char American oak barrel, and then gets an extra kick by being transferred into a French oak cask from the historic Cognac region, where it’s aged for another three months. “The barrel is a key ingredient in the final aging process of tequila, and, through cask-finishing our tequila in two different types of woods, we are able to evolve the flavor and aroma and create a superb and multi-dimensional tequila," says Tequila Herradura's brand manager, Valdemar Cantu. The also did a tequila with a port cask finish in 2012, and both are available for around $80 a bottle.
- Maple syrup: At Burton’s Maplewood Farm in Indiana, owner Tim Burton specializes in bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup, a condiment that stays in a seven-year-old Kentucky bourbon barrel for months. Every year, Burton releases a small batch, each in a 12-ounce bottle and numbered by hand. But bourbon isn’t the only type of barrels they use. Burton has also utilized 14-year-old Tennessee Rum Kegs from Prichard’s Distillery and three-year-old charred Starlight Distillery Brandy Casks, each which impart a distinctive twist to his maple syrup. Purchase these for $35 each on his website.
- Mustard: At Raye’s Mustard in East Port, Maine, they age their traditional, stone-ground mustards in barrels for a few weeks to help the flavors settle and mature. Raye’s is the only producer in the United States that makes mustard in the traditional way, at an actual mustard mill. You can find their classic, country-style brown mustard, spicy horseradish, and classic American mustards for around $2 to $5 on their website.
Then, if you want to get your own barrel and start aging vinegar, cocktails or beer at home, bourbon-master Trey Zoeller gave us some tips. “If you're not using a barrel that was previously aging a spirit, the type of wood and the aggressiveness of the char will be the most important factors to consider,” he says. “For example, American oak is comprised of lignin, among other things, and the acceleration of the lignin's flavors, the most notable being vanilla, is brought out with the barrel charring process.”
He adds that other woods provide different flavors and the more aggressive the char, the more those flavors will be brought out alongside a more prominent smoky quality as well. If you are looking to purchase a mini barrel to start experimenting, you can find personal-sized ones at Oak Barrels, Ltd. or The Brooklyn Kitchen.
Read more about barrel-aged products on Food Republic: