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Flavor pulling
What is it about the barrel?

Photos by Matt Haas

July 2016

The line on Second Street stretched two blocks. The reason? Milwaukee Brewing Company was releasing its limited edition, barrel-aged O-Gii beer.

The beer, which recently took a gold medal in its category at the Festival of Barrel and Wood-Aged Beers, is aged two months inside barrels that also aged the Rehorst Barrel Reserve Gin at Great Lakes Distillery. Prior to that, those barrels aged bourbon in Kentucky. Taste the original tea and botanical-infused O-Gii next to the barrel-aged O-Gii, and you’ll discover two very distinct brews. "The barrel makes the botanicals in the beer pop more," says Kurt Mayes, one of the brewery’s head brewers. "Wood barrels pull out flavors you just don’t get in the original beer."

Mayes and fellow head brewer Robert Morton also age their Louie’s Demise in bourbon barrels, becoming Louie’s Resurrection. They’re aging their Brutus beer in bourbon barrels, which will be released this summer, and a barley wine, aged in sherry and brandy barrels, will be released in the fall."The wood has memories," says Morton. "It holds onto all of these flavors, and it gives an extra layer of flavor."

Milwaukee Brewing Company isn’t the only place in town you’ll find barrels aging beverages. Go to most of the city’s top bars and restaurants, and you’ll find the word "barrel-aged" mentioned on the menu. Whether it’s the actual spirit, the beer or the cocktail, barrels are bringing new flavors into play.

At Boone & Crockett, owner John Revord and his able bartenders barrel-age Negroni and Martinez cocktails for about six weeks. The barrels are refilled, solera-style, which means the cocktails are dispensed at the bottom, but they refill it from the top so the new and older cocktail ingredients blend together. Two barrels from the ceiling also dispense brandy and whiskey old-fashioneds. "Our old-fashioneds are selling so fast that we’ve had to switch them to barrel-rested instead of barrel-aged," Revord explains, adding that they are only rested for two to four weeks. "The wood imparts all of these great flavors (into) the drink," Revord says. "It’s sort of like long-simmering a stew versus a flash-in-the-pan soup. When you let it sit for a long time, the flavors start playing together in a different way, and the oak is like the bay leaf you put in at the beginning."

For those who want to try it at home but don’t want to invest in the cost or size of a small barrel, there’s the new Oak Bottle ( Founder and inventor Joel Paglione first created this wine-bottle-sized aging tool that takes cheaper wines and gives them oak exposure so they taste more expensive. But he’s found people are using his bottles to age everything from cocktails and spirits to coffee beans and dried fruits, and his bottles were sent as a winter gift to every suite in Lambeau Field this past football season. "Oak allows the alcohol to micro-oxidize," Paglione says. "It acts kind of like a filter, to purify, but while the liquid breathes in, it also extracts the oak tannins, and it adds caramel notes and smooths things out." M



This story ran in the July  2016 issue of: