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Barrel-Aging Has Come for Chocolate

Bean-to-bar chocolate makers like To’ak and Raaka are experimenting with aging in whiskey casks, Madeira wine barrels, and more

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Wrapped chocolate bars from Raaka, To’ak, and Ritual Lille Allen/Eater

My very first foray into barrel-aged chocolate began in Quito, Ecuador with a square of To’ak’s Islay Whisky Cask Aged. I instantly noticed how smooth it was, much more mellow than any chocolate I had tried before, but still deep and rich. There was no bitterness or sharpness, just soft cocoa, caramel, and honey. But above all, I tasted hints of peat smoke from the Laphroaig single malt barrel the cacao lived in for three years. The experience left me thinking I had never actually tasted chocolate the way it was meant to be tasted before.

Small-batch chocolate producers around the world have learned over the last few years that just as barrel-aging imparts a wide array of flavors into coffee, cocktails, hot sauce, and, of course, wine and spirits, it can do the same for chocolate. As a former whiskey-tasting guide at Stranahan’s Distillery in Denver and a South America travel specialist, I get super nerdy about this. And after trying as many of these bars as I could get my hands on (all in the name of research, of course), I can tell you chocolate and barrel-aging may be the best match yet.

Cacao is particularly well suited to barrel-aging: Cacao beans are about 50 percent fat. This fat, otherwise known as cacao butter, is extremely absorptive. When the beans are placed in a vessel, they easily pick up the natural notes of the wood barrel and hints of the bourbon, rum, or other ingredients that previously inhabited the cask. (This is also why chocolate should never be stored in the refrigerator or freezer, as it can absorb the flavors of that onion you’ve been storing next to it.) These flavors of vanilla, caramel, and even coffee and coconut, complement and highlight the cacao bean’s own natural flavor profiles.

Though the flavor profile of barrel-aged chocolate is generally subtle — think light oak and the essence of spirit — some companies will also straight-up soak the cacao beans with spirits while simultaneously aging them in the barrel, or add spirits to the chocolate bar, depending on the final flavor profiles they’re looking to achieve. And because barrel-aging chocolate is really only in its infancy, the combinations of barrel and bar will probably prove to be endless. From subtle vanilla and oak to bright and fruit-forward, there’s quite a variety to try now.

Barrel-Aged Chocolate Bars to Buy Now

To’ak, from Quito, Ecuador, has done a deep dive into this aging technique, experimenting with around 40 different vessel types like sherry, rum, and tequila casks, as well as Ecuadorean wood containers that the company builds by hand. And it has tested the incredible absorptive powers of chocolate even further, aging its product in a vessel along with strongly aromatic ingredients like Ecuadorean palo santo and Kampot pepper. To’ak’s most popular batches so far have been the 2014 Cognac Cask Aged, 2014 Islay Cask Aged, and 2018 Ecuadorian Rum Cask Aged batches. Its bars are made from heirloom Arriba Nacional beans, a rare type of cacao renowned for its fruity, floral notes and lack of bitterness.

Ritual, which has a factory, cafe, and tasting room located in Heber City, Utah, produces an award-winning Bourbon Barrel Aged bar, made from cacao nibs aged for several months in former bourbon barrels from Park City’s High West Distillery. This one is the oakiest of the bunch I tried. Tasting it felt like licking the inside of a barrel, in a really good way. It’s exactly what I had in mind when I thought of what barrel-aged chocolate could be like — subtly smoky with notes of charred oak and vanilla.

Raaka, from Brooklyn, ages single-origin Tanzanian cacao in bourbon casks for two months, resulting in its best-selling bar with a “cocktail-like vibe,” according to its website. It’s oaky and smooth, with hints of cherry cordial. This bar was surprisingly tangy due to the unroasted cacao nibs Raaka uses to capture the bright and fruity natural characteristics of the raw chocolate.

Askinosie, based in Springfield, Missouri, aged its Tanzanian cacao nibs in oak whiskey barrels for five years to create a very limited batch of its Barrel-Aged Dark Chocolate bar, which promptly won four awards and sold out. Keep an eye out, as Askinosie expects to release its second batch in 2024.

Kasama Chocolate, from Vancouver, British Columbia, has been around since 2015 but has already won multiple awards, including one for its unique Wallflower Gin bar. This 70 percent cacao bar is made from Papua New Guinea cacao beans, which are soaked in Odd Society Distillery’s Wallflower Gin inside an oak cask for four weeks. The result is a floral, botanical bar with notes of evergreen and orange blossom. Kasama’s lineup of barrel-aged chocolate also includes bars made from beans aged in Portuguese Madeira wine barrels, Tanduay Rum barrels, and Canadian single malt whiskey barrels.

Dick Taylor, from Eureka, California, produces a straight bourbon whiskey bar made from Belize cacao nibs aged for six months in bourbon barrels. This was the most spirit-forward of the bars I tried — very robust and spicy.

Fruition, from the Catskills in upstate New York, is the ultimate comfort chocolate. Its Hudson Valley Dark Milk bar is crafted from cacao from the Dominican Republic aged with bourbon barrel staves that have been soaked in Hudson Baby Bourbon. Bryan Graham, co-founder of Fruition, has a slightly different approach to barrel-aging. He disassembles the barrels and ages the cacao nibs with the individual staves of the barrel to maximize the surface area that the nibs come into contact with. The cacao is then combined with whole milk powder, resulting in a creamy, dense bar with warm, rich caramel and vanilla oak.

Honoka‘a Chocolate Company, from Honokaʻa on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, created its Drunken Goat Milk bar from cacao nibs soaked in Kahlúa inside of oak barrels. A touch of goat milk is added to the final bar for a little sharpness to the creamy, mellow chocolate. Honokaʻa also produces a barrel-aged rum bar and a barrel-aged bourbon bar, using a similar process where the cacao nibs are soaked in rum or bourbon, respectively, while aging in an oak barrel. Honoka‘a is perhaps one of the most prolific barrel-aged chocolate producers out there, currently experimenting with around 50 barrels that are available only to its monthly subscribers. Co-founder Mike Pollard says he was inspired to try barrel-aging after working at the local rum distillery and sugarcane farm Kuleana Rum Works.

Marci Vaughn Kolt is a custom travel specialist, travel writer, and photographer currently based in Denver with a focus on all things South America and the polar regions. Follow her on Instagram @whereintheworldismarci