Bites: Bourbon barrel-aged coffee comes to Swing’s

I wasn’t drunk, but one sip of Swing’s bourbon barrel-aged cold brew coffee made me say so aloud.

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“I’m drunk.”

I wasn’t, but one sip of Swing’s bourbon barrel-aged cold brew coffee made me say it aloud.

While I was in Swing’s for my regular bean buy, Javier Medrano stopped me. He used to roast at Cervantes, which is where we first met when I was working on the Coffee Issue.

Medrano is now the lead roaster at Swing’s. (And by the way, even though he used to roast beans, it took Medrano six months to work his way up at Swing’s, where he started behind the coffee bar, to become lead roaster just last week. It’s like moving from dishwasher to chef in the restaurant world.)

At the counter, Medrano had me take a sip of the shop’s latest project.

While using bourbon barrels to age ingredients isn’t new—see: beer, mustard, hot sauce—it is a delicious and effective way to impart flavor. When Swing’s owner Mark Warmuth traveled to Seattle for a coffee convention and tried Starbucks’ version of a barrel-aged cold brew, he returned to Del Ray with a directive.

Neil Balkcom, the director of coffee operations, bought four barrels from D.C.’s Jos. A. Magnus & Co. Distillery and started experimenting with what coffee would work best. The team held a cupping with 10 different brews and decided on Ethiopian Peaberry. Then it was time to determine how to make the aging process work.

First, the beans sit out for a day, letting moisture evaporate. Then the unroasted green beans sit in the barrel for 10 days, gaining back moisture and soaking up bourbon notes. The team initially tried aging for up to four weeks. “It reeked,” says Medrano. At public tastings, he says the bourbon drinkers liked the versions aged for up to a month but that he “needed to find that middle ground.”

After aging, the beans rest, then get lightly roasted, ground, steeped for up to 24 hours, then decanted to become a concentrate (losing almost half its volume). It’s then diluted with water and mixed with a housemade vanilla bean syrup.

It’s presented in a rocks glass with a giant whiskey cube—just like an actual bourbon pour—and leftover liquid is served in a glass flask on a wooden plate. (It’s 12 ounces for $8.25 or $30 for a 32-ounce growler, which should last up to two weeks in the fridge.) It’s available through the summer, or whenever Swing’s runs out of barrels.

And I’m not the only one who thinks it’s strong. Medrano says they had one of their regulars, a police officer, try a sample. If he smelled that on someone’s breath, the cop said, “I’d pull someone over for it.”