Barrel-aged foods are products of a singular process: Take an old barrel that formerly held bourbon, gin, or another spirit, place a culinary item inside, let the item rest inside for a specific time, and allow the barrel’s influence to enhance the flavor. These concoctions also tend to emerge from the same philosophical question. Namely, “what would happen to this food item if I treated it like a spirit?” To consumers who enjoy the bevy of barrel-aged syrups, sauces, and other miscellaneous foods on the market, answering this simply depends on what positive flavor adjective they wish to use.

For the distillers and food companies behind the brands, the answer is much more complex, and achieving a proper response requires a collaborative effort built on mutual trust, a shared passion for creative sustenance, and a collective curiosity about what a barrel can do after it has aged a spirit.

The Roots of Collaboration

Successful barrel-aged food collaborations are often the result of “game recognizing game.” After all, a distillery cranking out award-winning juice won’t likely be willing to partner with a mediocre food brand with a penchant for cutting corners. This sense of mutual respect lays a foundation of trust that governs the collaborative process. How this admiration begins and evolves inevitably becomes part of the collaboration’s story.

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One such story follows the union of a Virginian bourbon company with a local honey brand. Around 2018, siblings Owen and Kira King of Ironclad Distillery Co. stumbled upon AR’s Hot Southern Honey by chance and decided to pick up a bottle. The honey’s sweet, peppery essence inspired Owen to call AR’s founder, Ames Russell, with a proposal: Ironclad would give him bourbon barrels for his hot honey, and he’d give the barrels back to Ironclad for a hot honey-finished bourbon. Since the barrels are technically repurposed, this also allows Ironclad to circumvent laws prohibiting distilleries from using a barrel to make the exact same spirit twice. “Owen didn’t even finish his sentence before Ames said he was in,” says Kira, Ironclad’s creative director. “That first collaboration ended up tasting phenomenally, and it’s led to a strong relationship over the years.”

“Making a hot honey aged in bourbon barrels was such a beautiful concept, and giving the barrels back to make bourbon was such a cool idea,” Russell says. “We started working on the honey shortly after that initial conversation, and it’s still a cool, exciting project. The bonus of the collaboration has been getting to know the King family over time. They’re lovely, smart people.”

Right around the same time, in Stephens City, Va., Brandon Clark had his own idea for a collaboration. As the founder of the Virginia-based culinary sauce brand Clark + Hopkins, Clark wanted to see what would happen if he threw his Virginia-style barbecue sauce in a bourbon barrel; at the same time, he wanted to work with a Virginia distillery that was close to where he grew up. This led him to contact Catoctin Creek in Purcellville to inquire about a potential collaboration. The first visit sealed the deal. “The first time I stopped into Catoctin Creek, I watched [Catoctin Creek co-founder] Becky Harris pick up these big 70-pound bourbon barrels like they were miniature schnauzers,” Clark says. “It was badass, and it seemed like a sign of how much she cares about what she does. I knew I wanted to work with her as soon as I saw that.”

Both collaborations have the advantage of the partnering parties being in the same state, enabling all parties involved to promote Virginia’s artisan food and craft distilling scene in the process. However, strong collaborations aren’t bound by state lines.

Since 2017, FEW Spirits in Evanston, Ill., has been involved with a barrel exchange program with craft syrup producer Mount Mansfield Maple Products, located some 920 east in Winooski, Vt. Their exchange is similar to the pact held by Ironclad in AR’s, except maple syrup is the food, and the brands have expanded the barrel roster to also include rye, single malt whiskey, and gin. According to FEW founder Paul Hletko, the driving force behind the exchange is joy. “None of us are really making any extra money from doing these things,” he says. “We do these collaborations because they’re fun to do, and we have a good time doing them.”

Hitting the Shelves

Some bourbon barrel-aged food collaborations occur on a routine basis. Others function more like rock and roll side projects. They happen only when the parties involved have the time to divert focus from their main gig; When they do get together, their collective efforts could yield some experimentation. “Our last collaboration we did with Catoctin Creek was two years ago, when we left the sauce in the barrel for 141 days,” Clark says. “This year, we’re leaving it in for about 150 days, just so we can see what the barrel can do with that extra time.”

How the finished products are promoted once they do eventually hit the shelves varies by collaboration. FEW and Mount Mansfield, for instance, have mutually agreed to a silent partnership, and both brands refrain from putting their logos on each other’s bottles. Ironclad and AR’s take the opposite approach and give each other clear label shoutouts. “Cross-branding feels like an intuitive part to telling our story,” says Russell. “It’s important to us because these products wouldn’t exist without both our involvement.”

Elements like branding or time between releases are of course subjective. The only thing that is truly objective is a mission to make something that tastes terrific. As long as distillers and food companies are getting together and making barrel-aged culinary deliciousness, this objective will no doubt continue to be achieved.

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