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This Changes Everything: Barrel-Aged Soy Sauce

Rachel Tepper Paley
February 7, 2014

Photo credit: Danny Lee

When the Catoctin Creek distillery in Purcellville, Virginia offered an empty, rye-soaked barrel to Sixth Engine, a restaurant in Washington, D.C., owner Jeremy Carman and head chef Paul Madrid figured, “Why not?” But it wasn’t until their friend Danny Lee, owner of nearby Korean eatery Mandu, set eyes on it that the trio resolved what to do with the darned thing.

Why not whip up some barrel-aged soy sauce?

The concept isn’t entirely new. Soy sauces have been barrel-aged for centuries, although not usually in casks that once contained spirits. In 2008, however, the New York Times spotlighted Bluegrass Soy Sauce, which is fermented in discarded bourbon barrels from Woodford Reserve Distillery. Few outfits have risen to the challenge since.

Until now. Carman, Madrid, and Lee filled a white oak 30-gallon Catoctin Creek cask with Kikkoman, sealing it very tightly to ensure that the soy sauce pressed right up against the staves. Six months later, the group had a very different concoction on their hands. 

"The sugars from the cask really mellowed out the saltiness of the soy," Lee told us. "It turned into this really nice, smooth, almost buttery soy sauce."

The two restaurants split the yield, each claiming about 15 gallons of the stuff. Lee gave away some of his share as gifts to some (very, very lucky) Mandu patrons. The remainder, which Lee thinks will last about a year, will make cameos in menu specials. There’s talk of using the soy in a fried rice and egg dish garnished with roasted, seasoned seaweed, and a Korean spin on ramen employing a rich, barrel-aged soy sauce broth. There is the possibility, too, of finishing tduk bok gi—chewy rice cakes simmered in chili oil, gochujang (a pungent chili-and-soybean paste), and beef stock—with the aged soy sauce.

"If you’re using regular soy sauce [in tduk bok gi] you need to add a little bit of sugar to mellow out the salt level, but with the soy that we aged I haven’t been adding any sugar,” Lee said. “By no means is it overly sweet. It’s balanced.”

So what happens to the barrel now? “It’s a rye and soy-soaked barrel!” Lee said, laughing at the novelty. “One idea is putting in a white vinegar and letting it sit for six months,” he mused. “Then you can have this incredible vinegar you can use for anything.”

Vinegar-rye-soy sauce? We see potential here. Probably someone would put it in a cocktail