Since first trying a barrel-aged beer in my early 20s, I have been one of the “bourbon-barrel” chasers. I will try most everything with a little aging in barrels. I think, if done well, it gives depth of flavor to nearly everything it touches. Now, some of this stuff gets out of hand, as far as aging goes, but I was always curious how someone could do this at home. It seemed as if exposure to barrel wood was the key, but I could not be sure.
I did what any curious person would do. I tested it. I made two batches of two vinegars – one each of apple cider and molasses with and without parts of a stave of bourbon barrel, charred on the grill and submerged in the fermenting liquid. Not knowing then, what I know now, I can say that molasses was an unmitigated failure. Over the past year, I have made lots of vinegar, but with every version that features sweet flavors, the liquid has over-evaporated leaving syrup, not vinegar. This exact thing happened with the molasses vinegar. The semi-fermented syrup was still delicious, but was not vinegar. We poured it over an apple stuffed with sausage. Next time, I’ll triple the amount and might get a bottle’s worth of vinegar.
After three months waiting, I tasted the vinegar. It was a really good apple cider vinegar – really good. It had some oak and vanilla flavors, but the vinegar was not emblematic of that depth that I was used to. After bottling and resting the vinegar for a month or so, I tasted again and the bourbon barrel flavor was more pronounced, but still not very forward. Oddly, despite it being one of the more delicious vinegars that I have made, it disappointed me that I could not squeeze more bourbon barrel flavors from the process. It seems as if there are two periods of time when exposure to bourbon barrel wood might have an impact. The next period is in the aging. My guess is that aging vinegar with part of a stave would actually impart more flavor. With that in mind, I am testing that theory and will update in 2013.
Other vinegar trials undertaken since the last entry: Maple-Rye Whiskey vinegar, New Glarus Smoked Rye Vinegar, and Metropolitan Iron Works Alt. I lost a dessert wine vinegar and sherry vinegar to over-evaporation and concord grape vinegar to flies. Most recently, I took the brine from a bottle of brandied cherries and soured it by cutting it with water and fermenting it with a mother. It is a delicious sweet vinegar that I have been using for sweet applications.