Starting a Barrel-Aging Program
One of the main things we did when we were planning our business was to try as many different ciders as we could get our hands on. From traditional British Scrumpy ciders to more standard sweet ciders to the very esoteric 'brisket' cider someone made (truly), we were willing to try them all.
While we were both familiar with (and big fans of) barrel-aged beers, barrel-aged ciders were a bit harder to warm up to. Because cider is such a delicate drink, and the liquors that are often used to barrel-age products are intense in flavor, we found that a lot of the barrel-aged ciders we tried were either too light on the cider flavor, or we could hardly tell there was a barrel-aged component to them. Aaron summed it up best when he said he either felt like he was drinking a watered down glass of bourbon or a glass of cider that was way more expensive than it should've been.
Always a scientist, and always striving to achieve his all-time-most-desired compliment of 'well-balanced', Aaron set out to make a barrel-aged cider that had a distinct apple flavor while standing up to the more intense flavors that barrel-aging can impart.
Here are some of the key considerations when barrel-aging a cider.
1) Pick your style carefully. Bourbon is a go-to barrel-aging option, but its strong flavors of oak and vanilla can overpower a delicate cider. Ciders that would stand up better to bourbon barrel-aging would be those that are higher in alcohol content, tannin, or bitter-sharp profiles. In our case, we've bourbon barrel-aged a pumpkin cider that includes baking spices and real pumpkin, so there's additional heft to stand up to the bourbon. On the other hand, rum barrels impart a lighter, fruitier, and brown sugar character to cider, so it can work better with a lighter option. Kingston Storm, a rum barrel-aged cider we released last month, had a standard version and a version infused with pineapple and toasted coconut. The rum notes paired really well with these fruity flavors.
2) Blending can make or break the final product. For Kingston Storm, we got four rum barrels and found there was a huge difference between each of them. The ciders that came out ranged from lightly to very potently rum-infused even though they started out the same. Aaron and Joseph experimented with the blend from these four barrels to come up with a cider that was better than any of the sums of its parts, and made the finished product a much more rounded, nuanced, and complex cider than it would have been straight from the barrel.
3) Add some finishing touches. Despite your best efforts, your barrel-aged cider may be missing that apple-y character you were hoping for, or the oak from the barrel may be imperceptible. It's time to add some finishing touches! Maybe you need to add a bit of fresh apple juice to the blend to up the apple aroma and sweetness. Maybe you get some oak chips and let them steep for another week or two. Perhaps you need to make slight adjustments to the acidity levels. Be willing to tinker a bit to get the product that you envisioned when you began.
4) Consider what your packaging communicates. Last but not least, packaging and pricing is key for barrel-aged ciders. It costs a lot of money to buy quality barrels, get them shipped to your warehouse, and then store them for months while the cider ages. Figure out what your investment has been, and then work backwards to find out the price you need to make per bottle to make it profitable. At that point, consider packaging and marketing your finished product in a way that conveys its value. If you need to make $15 per bottle, convey that with high-end packaging. We decided to sell 750 mL bottles individually, with three embossed labels, for $18 apiece.
There's a lot more to be said about barrel-aging. Stay tuned, because Aaron is going to go deeper into the technical and logistical components of barrel-aging in our next blog. Cheers!