Travis Myers is one of the area’s best chefs, but you can totally do this at home.
About four months ago, Willow’s Bistro kitchen boss started the process of aging whiskey and several other ingredients in a five-liter countertop barrel from Topo, an organic distillery based in Chapel Hill.
Adding orange zest, a little pith, some vanilla beans and some Bordeaux cherries to Topo’s un-aged Carolina Whiskey, Myers created a hot and delightfully good Old Fashioned. Myers and the crew at the Winston-Salem restaurant released the infusion — which had to be approved by the state before sale — in mid July. Now the small, new American oak barrel is filled with honey and some more orange zest, which Myers will use in various recipes when it’s done aging in about a week and which will give the next liquor in the toddler-sized barrel a sweet inflection.
Anyone can buy the whiskey-aging kit, which is available at some ABC stores and which is listed on Topo’s website, and the barrel can be used to age rum, tequila, beer and plenty of other things. Myers is thinking about a smoky, roasted pineapple mezcal at some point, and he plans to make a Manhattan infusion as well.
There are at least a few other bars in the Triad that are playing around with the DIY set, as far as Myers knows, including the Tavern at Old Salem and Marshall Free House in Greensboro. For now Willow’s is only using one — moving it around the restaurant to hit different temperatures and make the wood of the barrel expand and contract — but they’ll soon add a couple more to their arsenal, Myers said.
There’s still some of the Old Fashioned — which includes a little of Topo’s Eight Oak Whiskey, an aged wheat spirit — available at Willow’s, and likely will be for about another week. Despite the drawn out aging process, they’re going for normal cocktail price, in part because Myers said it’s their first run and also because it’s a draw to get people in the door.
The barrel will last for about three more infusions, Myers said. He clearly enjoys tinkering with it, but given the limited lifespan and wait time for each batch, he’s cautious too, avoiding bitters in the first batch that might’ve turned the flavor too much and testing the mix continuously throughout. There isn’t a lot of information about the process online, he said, so he’s learning as he goes, and occasionally reaching out to his friend and Topo owner Esteban McMahan for advice.
But given the miniscule amount of ingredients he adds and the minimal amount of labor required, Myers said it’s a fun way to experiment without much of a risk.
Visit Willow’s Bistro at 300 S. Liberty St. #125 (W-S) or follow Travis Myers on Instagram at @chef_myers.