By Victoria Bourne | Photograph by Shannon Moffit
What hits you first is the aroma, a subtly sweet and smoky pungency that draws your nose down into the recesses of the container to inhale deeply a time or two. The smell fills the kitchen similarly as it’s brewing, wrapping you in a warm, earthy embrace. But the flavor is smoother and more approachable than you’d expect for a dark roast.
Vessel Craft Coffee’s Bourbon Barrel Aged Coffee debuted in October 2017 when the company opened in Norfolk’s Selden Market. “As you know, bourbon-barrel-aged anything attracts buyers,” says Sarah Cowherd, founder and managing partner.
A search for barrels led her to the family-owned-and-operated Ironclad Distillery Company in Newport News, where Cowherd says she found ready partners – and business mentors – in distiller Owen King and creative director Kara King. “I aspire to have the sales, reach and distribution that they’ve worked so hard for,” she says.
Most roasters age green, unroasted beans in the barrels, she says. Vessel uses freshly roasted coffee, which Cowherd says allows the beans to take on the bourbon flavor without absorbing too much liquid. “The time in the barrel is a company secret – we think it’s what differentiates us. And it really is as much of an art as it is a science.”
While in confinement, the beans acquire the distilled spirit’s essence from the barrels, which are rolled daily to ensure equal distribution. We noted that the bourbon flavor intensifies as the drink cools, a phenomenon that Cowherd says is true of most coffees; lower temperatures reveal more of a brew’s origins. A recently released cold brew version of Vessel’s bourbon barrel-aged coffee showcases notes of vanilla, caramel and, of course, rich Ironclad bourbon.
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