Aging Rum at Home
Solera Aging Rum at Home
Some of the world’s most revered rums are aged in the solera style. For the uninitiated, the solera aging process is the blender’s art of moving rum among different casks to create the best combination of rums possible. Technically it means taking a bit from an older barrel and adding it to a younger barrel. Nowadays, the term has been bastardized to mean blending similar rums of different ages, blending rums aged in barrels that formerly contained other spirits, or a combination of the two.
The progression might begin by adding a portion of very old rum to younger rum, both of which were aged in barrels that used to hold Bourbon. That blend might then be transferred to a re-charred Bourbon barrel for a time before being transferred to a cask that used to hold Sherry, and then on to a former Cognac cask. Throughout the process, the Master Blender checks the aging progress regularly and adjusts the blend as necessary. The end result can be nothing short of magical, but it takes time, space, patience, and a lot of rum.
When I received a two liter oak barrel for Christmas last year, I began making plans to age cocktails, but a tweet from Chuck Taggart changed my mind. Instead of a rum cocktail, Chuck suggested I age J Wray & Nephew white overproof rum. Apparently, Blair at Hale Pele was doing this already, using it in his rum Old Fashioned with great results.
The idea of aging J Wray immediately intrigued me, so I grabbed two bottles out of the bar and poured them in (I had swollen the mini barrel with hot water the night before). A month later, I would have aged J Wray—something often mentioned in Tiki drink circles, as Trader Vic used to use J Wray 17-Year rum in his Mai Tai.
The result was fantastic. The new charred American oak rounded out the famously funky and raw J Wray, giving it big smoke notes and imparting a bit of vanilla. I made several rum Old Fashioneds and Mai Tais with the stuff, taunting folks on Twitter along the way, taking great pride in knowing that I was one of a select few people drinking aged J Wray overproof at any given moment.
Then I got greedy.
Knowing that I enjoy solera-aged rums, I began wondering if I could approximate a solera finish on a micro scale. I hatched a plan to try—I dubbed it the Soler’ish Project. Like many of the world’s best ideas, it was scribbled on a napkin.
Not wanting to completely break the bank, I decided to go with good but less expensive finishing spirits. For the Sherry, I went with Harvey’s Bristol Cream. For the brandy, I chose a local product: Korbel VSOP.
While the aging part was easy, the blending would prove a bit more difficult. With a limited amount of each finish to work with, I made several different proportional blends before deciding on the optimal recipe for the two liter batch that would end up in a new, freshly charred oak barrel.
The winner ended up being 500 ml of charred oak, 750 ml of Sherry finish, and 750 ml of Brandy finish. Two liters went into the new barrel, and again I played the waiting game. After a week of aging in the new barrel, the color had turned from light to dark brown. Tempted as I was to empty the barrel, I decided to let it go another week. After two weeks, it was done, and it was magical.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of tasting it, J Wray & Nephew Overproof White Rum, (or just “Whites” in Jamaica) is a beautiful beast of a rum. At 63% ABV (126 proof) it is quite strong. The defining characteristics are alcoholic heat, followed by Jamaican pot still funk, molasses, a hint of tropical flowers, and fresh cut grass. Whites is the best selling rum in Jamaica, and is usually mixed into a punch or combined with Ting, the ever popular Jamaican grapefruit soda.
The aged version of the J Wray maintains its trademark funkiness, but has clearly been tamed significantly by its interaction with the other spirits and the oak contact. There is still a goodly amount of heat, but a small angels’ share may have been taken as it sat in my bar for almost six months.
As the rum enters, the sweetness of the Sherry is evident, as is a hint of brandy. After the finishing flavors, a liberal dose of smoke appears and it’s delightful. Just after I notice the charred oak comes the heat, and I am quickly reminded of the spirit’s strength. Subsequent sips reveal a bit of chocolate, raisins, and ripe stone fruit.
I provided some samples to see what other rum aficionados thought of this crazy rum project. Here’s what a few of them had to say:
“Long, slow legs slide down the bowl. Nose is sweet with hints of sherry, cotton candy, cola, and a pleasant woodiness. Also detect some anise present. Though it’s high proof, the mellowness compensates for this and the warm woody finish is very smooth. On the palate there are hints of caramel and chocolate and, like the nose, the sherry adds a light touch. This is a home run.” -Paul Etter
“Oh my. My, my, my. “ –Chuck Taggart
“I like the oak and sherry up front with the brandy mid-palate in a supporting role that ties everything together. Wray & Nephew overproof is not something I’d normally sip, but you’ve managed to turn it into a decent and unique sipper!” – Jason Alexander
Want to create your own Solera-Aged J Wray using my method? Here’s what you’ll need:
- Two 2-liter barrels (I buy mine from Oak Barrels , Ltd.) ($70)
- Six bottles J Wray & Nephew White Overproof ($128)
- Two bottles Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry ($28)
- Two bottles Korbel VSOP Brandy ($28)
- Six empty 750 ml bottles (you can’t re-fill J Wray bottles because of the plastic pour spout)
Here’s what to do:
- When you receive your barrels, remove one from the plastic and tap the spigot in with a rubber mallet, then fill the barrel with hot water. Insert the top bung and allow the barrel to swell for a day or two until it stops leaking. Make sure and place it where you don’t mind a bit of water seeping out. Place the other barrel in a cool, dark place until it is needed.
- Drain the water and pour in two bottles of J Wray.
- After 30 days, drain the rum and place it in two empty bottles.
- Pour in two bottles of Sherry.
- After 13 days, drain the Sherry and return it to the original bottles.
- Pour in two bottles of J Wray.
- After 38 days, drain the rum and place it in two more empty bottles.
- Pour in two bottles of brandy.
- After 35 days, drain the brandy and return it to the original bottles.
- Pour in the last two bottles of J Wray.
- After 29 days, drain the rum and place it in the last two empty bottles.
- Prepare your second oak barrel as you did the first. Drain the water.
- Add to the barrel 500 ml of the oak-aged J Wray, 750 ml of the Sherry finish, and 750 ml of the brandy finish.
- After 14 days, drain the barrel and transfer to empty bottles.
- Repeat steps 13 and 14.
OK great, now you have all this rum but what do you do with it? Here are a few things I’ve enjoyed:
- Probably the most fun thing to do is to pour a small amount of the unaged white and sample it side-by-side with the aged. Only then can you appreciate what a huge transformation has occurred in that little barrel.
- Make an Old Fashioned. A bit of sugar, ice and bitters really helps you to appreciate this as a sipping rum. I also add ¼ oz of cold water to help it open up before the ice melts.
- Make a Trader Vic’s Mai Tai. Combine the aged J Wray with Ferrand Dry Curacao and Small Hand Foods orgeat; you will not be disappointed.
- Use it as a float on top of your favorite tiki drink or rum punch.
With the Soler’ish Project completed, I can sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labor (After more than five months and $250, I’d better!). The process was certainly enjoyable, and I now have even more respect for the real Master Blenders like Joy Spence, the woman behind every bottle of Appleton Estate rum.
With a yield of more than five 750 ml bottles of aged rum, the cost worked out to about $48/750 ml. Considering I could buy Appleton Estate 12-Year for $37, it’s not exactly a good deal along financial lines, but then again, you can’t buy what I’ve created which makes it worth a lot more. Factor in the fun and the experience of rectifying and blending my very own rum and it all balances out.
I encourage you to try barrel-aging at home, be it with white spirits or cocktails. It’s a lot of fun to see how oak and time can change your favorite drinks for the better. Barrels last several cycles, and once you’re done aging spirits, you can use them for barrel-aging cocktails. For example, after the rum project was completed, I made a batch of El Presidente cocktails in my first barrel that came out beautifully. The only barriers between you and rummy greatness are your wallet, time, and your imagination.
Have you tried barrel-aging spirits at home? How about cocktails? Please share your experience and ideas with us in the comments section below.