It's a good time to stave off the cold by attempting to "age" whiskey at home.
Yes, that's "age" in quotes. Compared to distillers, who set bourbon, rye or other whiskey in oak barrels to rest between two and eight years—and often longer—we just don't have that that kind of patience. Or room for a barrel (even those cute little ones spotted at trendy bars).
But a growing number of "age your own whiskey" kits offer almost-instant gratification for whiskey geeks like us, in as little as 72 hours. Naturally, we had to give it a try. We test-drove two DIY whiskey kits, using the same unaged corn-based whiskey (aka moonshine) for both batches. Here's what happened.
Time & Oak's Whiskey Elements staves
Kit #1: Time & Oak Signature Whiskey Elements, $14. (Note: There are also "smoky" and "wine cask" options.)
What's in the kit: One package includes two rectangular staves wrapped in paper. Horizontal notches are cut across the staves, resembling a comb.
Instructions: Use one stave for a 750ml bottle, results promised in 24 to 72 hours "but will continue to enhance your bottle over the next 10 days."
What happened: The second the stave hit the moonshine, plumes of color immediately started to unfurl, creating a honey-like hue by the end of the first day. By the second day, it resembled a slightly cedar-scented tea; by the third, a mild vanilla note overlapped the still overwhelmingly corn whiskey aroma and flavor. By day six, the oak seemed to have integrated more, showing more oak and vanilla, although the color still was fairly light and the alcohol heat from the moonshine hadn't mellowed one bit.
Kit #2: W&P Barrel Aged Spirits Kit, $20. (Note: This company also makes a DIY gin kit.)
What's in the kit: Two charred oak barrel aging staves and a "cheesecloth strainer," aka a small bag made out of cheesecloth. The staves are rounded, with Swiss cheese-like holes throughout.
Instructions: Use one stave "per 375 ml of spirits," though both staves are needed for a full 750ml bottle. A "flavor meter" diagram suggests that the "sweet spot" for aging is between five and 15 days—less than that may yield an "oaky" spirit, while longer can result in a "charred" flavor. Strain spirits through the cheesecloth before drinking.
What happened: It took a while to start, but by the end of day one, the moonshine acquired a vibrant amber hue. By day two, little flecks of charcoal had floated into the liquid, and a subtle vanilla note became apparent in the aroma. Pouring out a taste on day three, the cheesecloth bag worked to strain out the unappetizing charcoal flecks, though we made a mess trying to pour through the bag and our kitchen now smells like a distillery. But what did get into the glass had taken on some vanilla, and the fiery edges of the unaged whiskey were smoothed off to cinnamon red-hot sparks. By day six, we detected pleasant notes of oak and caramel, and the spirit was almost smooth enough to sip straight—though not quite.
Conclusion: After six days of aging, in a blind tasting, we could have mistaken either of these bottles for a relatively young bourbon, not unaged corn whiskey. Both kits are recommended for curious drinkers looking to learn more about how whiskey changes with exposure to oak or those seeking to "customize" a bottle at home.
Although we probably wouldn't seek out either dram to sip straight up, we'd gladly mix these "self-aged" spirits in a drink like a Kentucky Buck—on the rocks with lots of ginger ale, plus a squeeze of lime.
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