If any one spirit were the poster child of the craft distilling resurgence, it would be gin—a liquor that easily lends itself to a signature style and has very few restrictions. It’s no wonder, then, that it’s become something of a blank canvas for distillers looking to express their aesthetic point of view.
Over the last eight years, the rise of barrel aging in the category has pushed the boundaries of the spirit even further: There are gins being raised in everything from new American oak to used Cognac, bourbon, wine and sherry casks of various sizes, and for periods ranging from just a few weeks to years. What’s more, many distillers are also building new botanical blends to complement the flavors imparted by aging.
Despite the recent production boom, aged gin isn’t exactly new. Maison Ferrand’s Citadelle is generally credited with making the first widely released, modern barrel-aged gin in 2008. As a contemporary product, Citadelle stood alone until it was joined by Ransom’s Old Tom Gin, the distillery’s collaboration with cocktail historian David Wondrich; it was the first successful attempt at an authentic, aged Old Tom style since Prohibition. “Old Tom in Europe was an un-aged gin,” says Keli Rivers, who overseas the gin program at San Francisco’s Whitechapel. “But by the time it made it over [in barrels] to the United States, it had spent some time in wood.” The revival of the style allowed bartenders to hit closer to the historic character of classic drinks like the Martinez and the Bijou.
Today, the canon of barrel-aged gins extends far beyond the resurrection of historical styles to include both small and large distillers making wholly modern spirits. Some lean more toward the whiskey end of the spectrum by aging for longer periods in new oak with a botanical mix specifically designed for this purpose, such as the floral-heavy Lockhouse Distillery’s Barreled and Treaty Oak Distilling’s Waterloo Antique gins. Others, like Distillery No. 209’s Barrel Reserve collection, use refill wine casks to subtly round out the flavors of their flagship gin without altering the botanical character, while Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat does a little of both, using a custom botanical blend and both new and refill barrels to create a flavor-bomb spirit that’s hard to classify.
These aged gins are both a reaction to the popularity of brown spirits and, according to Rivers, “the next phase” in the ongoing evolution of gin. But their proliferation has raised the question of whether aged gin is still, well, gin.
Unlike bourbon, there are no rules on how long or in what vessels gin should be aged because TTB regulations contain no mention of “barrel aging” when it comes to gin. For now, the style exists in a legal gray area. In fact, the term “aged” is currently prohibited on gin labels, while the process of aging itself is totally permitted. As Cory Muscato of Buffalo’s Lockhouse Distillery and the New York State Distillers Guild puts it, “If you want to call something a gin, you can’t call it ‘aged.’ And if you want to call it aged, you [can’t] call it a gin.” Thus, shelves are now filled with “barreled,” “barrel-rested,” “reserve” or “antique” gins.
Regardless of what they’re called, bartenders have taken to the new spectrum of flavors these gins offer. The natural application for an aged gin is stirred drinks like the Negroni, the aforementioned Martinez and Bijou, and even the Old-Fashioned. But just as an aged rum can revolutionize a Daiquiri, a barrel-aged gin in a drink like the Bee’s Knees can completely transform the drink, adding a strong savory counter to the honey’s sweetness.
Some bartenders have taken it even further. In St. Louis, Natasha Bahrami, owner of The Gin Room, is trying her hand at aging finished gins in-house. Mindful not to let the barrel character overwhelm the spirit’s botanicals or become too “whiskey-esque,” Bahrami looks to make barreled versions that retain their essential gin character while absorbing flavors from the wood that mellow the gin’s bite. In the absence of an exact definition of what barrel-aged gin is or should be, Bahrami has homed in on what’s endeared this new category to so many: not only serving as what Danny Shapiro of Chicago’s Scofflaw calls a “bridge” between clear and brown liquor, but bringing out new dimensions in an already beloved category.
Five Barrel-Aged Gins to Try
The following are some of the best examples of aged gins in the market. Some were made as aged, high-end versions of the distillers’ flagship products, while others were designed as entirely new products specifically intended to be aged.
Where it’s made: San Francisco, CA
ABV: 46 percent
What makes it unique: Under the same ownership as the Edge Hill Estate in Napa Valley, head distiller Arne Hillesland has access to used French oak wine barrels, in which he ages a portion of the distillery’s flagship No. 209 Gin each year. The base product is consistent, so it is easy to track how each barrel effects the gin as they are aged for between four and seven months.
How it tastes: The cabernet sauvignon version has a reddish hue and tastes of citrus and spice with subtle red fruit. The sauvignon blanc and chardonnay versions, both light gold in color, each take on different characteristics of the wines that rested there before; sauvignon blanc supplying bright fruit notes and the chardonnay bringing buttery sweetness to the original’s light juniper notes.
Where it’s made: Philadelphia, PA
ABV: 47 percent
What makes it unique: Distiller Andrew Auwerda wanted to create a second spirit to go along with his crisp, juniper- and citrus-tinged Bluecoat American Dry Gin, but he was wary of making what he calls a “whiskey-gin.” While he uses 100 percent new American oak, the barrel finishing offers more texture than it does the overwhelming flavor of wood.
How it tastes: Strong juniper and coriander with a buttery, rounded finish.
Where it’s made: Buffalo, NY
ABV: 45 percent
What makes it unique: This tiny producer in western New York is similar to many Scottish gin makers in its dedication to recreating the local landscape through its spirits. Distiller Cory Muscato makes a specific botanical blend intended for barrel aging.
How it tastes: A surprisingly pleasant lavender bomb up front, followed by orange and ginger spices, plus rich caramel and toffee from the charred oak.
Where it’s made: Hardwick, VT
ABV: 43 percent
What makes it unique: Tom Cat started as a batch of “almost-Barr Hill,” a failed test blend of their flagship gin that Head Distiller Ryan Christiansen couldn’t bear to throw away, so he put it into the barrels they had been prepping for bourbon-making. Made with a grain base, flavored with raw honey and aged in new, charred oak, Tom Cat is a wonderful gateway gin for whiskey drinkers.
How it tastes: White flowers, cedar, sandalwood and rustic juniper-pine and a subtle, sweet finish.
Where it’s made: Southwest France
ABV: 44 percent
What makes it unique: Citadelle may be credited with starting the modern barreling craze in gin, but it certainly can’t be accused of resting on its laurels. Head distiller Alexendre Gabriel changes up the recipe every year, using different botanicals, aging for different lengths of time, even instituting a solera system for the ex-Cognac casks he uses.
How it tastes: The 2012 bottling is sweet and mellow, honey gives way to wine and spice with the juniper coming in to wrap things up.