Perhaps surprisingly (given it’s not talked about that much) there are quite a few barrel-aged gins on the market. Some are merely rested in casks for a small amount of time, others have spent years interacting with wood. The colours are just as variable as the flavours and the variety of reasons as to why the gin has been barrel aged differs from brand to brand too.
To explore this sub category of gin we teamed up with David from Summer Fruit Cup, pooling our resources to get hold of as many gins we could and meeting together with a few other knowledgeable gin fans (Emma from Gin Monkey and Adam from Juniper Society) for a tasting. We had quite a few questions going in, but namely: Why would anyone want to do it and what, if any, is the main attribute gained by ageing gin?
For the tasting, we decided to taste through the gins going from least time aged to most. This seemed to be the most logical way to do it and given some of the latter gins had some peat influences, appeared like the best way to keep all our taste buds alive until the end. Moreover, doing the tasting in such a way would allow us to see if there was a point where the clarity of juniper is so diminished that it has stopped being gin and merely an aged spirit.
David uses the term Yellow gin for the sub category as calling all of them “aged” gins is somewhat misleading given some only spend a few weeks in a wooden vat. We agree with this but whilst it is a very valid point, ‘yellowness’ is also subjective and some of the gins are positively a leathery brown colour, so we’ll keep to the rested / aged descriptors. Gins such as Old Raj are yellow because of their saffron infusions too, further adding complication to the descriptor and also, call us puerile, but the term yellow gin reminds us a little too much of the type of snow you shouldn’t eat. Whatever the name, yellow, rested, aged – all are as valid as each other – the prerequisite to be included in the tasting was time spent interacting with wood.
Seagram’s Extra Dry and Seagram’s Distillers Reserve were the first two gins up for inspection (as mentioned above they had not been aged for long) but namely to our collective knowledge, Seagram’s was one of the first brands since Booths to rest or age their gin. Booth’s Gin used to age their gin up to 12 weeks and since their demise, few have done this until recently. Both Seagram’s Gins are made in Indiana, USA. The Seagram’s Extra Dry as we know it today first made its appearance in 1939 and is mellowed for 3 months in charred white oak whiskey (ex-bourbon) barrels. Ironically given that barrel resting is actually quite rare, there is no mention of it on the brand’s website who have opted for imagery of girls in bikinis instead, as well as promoting their low vacuum distillation. If you can stomach the clichéd, tired and desperately crass calendar girl marketing and dig a little deeper, Seagram’s has quite an interesting pedigree. Seagrams Gin has been around since 1857 and a quick Google search for example, allows you to see the changing culture of American drinking through their adverts. The Seagram’s Extra Dry is bottled at 40% ABV and has a relatively light aroma. Held up to the light, it has a slight hue. We felt it has a mellow, soft mouth feel with gentile juniper, spice and citrus- all quite well balanced. To us, the effect of wood was not that discernable other than hypothesizing that the softness was a direct result of the cask. We’ll never know for sure as to do so, we’d need to taste before and after resting – after all it could just be because of the 40% ABV, the choice of botanicals, the method of distillation etc…
The Seagram’s Distiller’s Reserve (reserved but not tame as they like to point out), is bottled at 51% ABV and is a blend of the casks from the best Extra Dry barrels, selected by the Seagram’s Master Distiller. Launched in 2006, there are clear similarities between the two, however the Distiller’s Reserve seems to focus on the best bits. The nose for example was as soft, but the citrus and juniper slightly more discernable. On the mouth, it felt fuller – both in texture and in flavour. It’s a silky, slightly more viscous gin and surprisingly smooth given the ABV. The wood effects were clearer to point out and we feel it’s one of those products that does what it set out to – a better, hand-selected version of the original. Interestingly, we felt the most noticeable difference was that you could tell it had spent time interacting with wood and that this had resulted in an altered profile – not something we could have honestly said for the Extra Dry.
Following the Seagram’s duo was Hayman’s 1850 Reserve. Hayman’s chose to use a traditional gin recipe (including juniper, coriander, cassia bark, liquorice and five other traditional gin botanicals) to make the gin. Based on the time before the Single Bottle Act of 1861 legislation was passed when gin was stored and transported in barrels – the liquid only spends a few weeks (four or five) in the barrels. It is distilled in small batches of 5000 bottles and each bottle is then individually numbered alongside the batch no.
A variety of barrels are used, primarily old Scotch Whisky barrels, mostly constituting of American Oak wood. The process results in a very, very slight straw colour to the liquid and when tasted neat, Hayman’s 1850 Reserve seems like a mellow, rounded gin. Although only really noticeable when drinking it neat, it is also possible to discern some slight tannic qualities left by the wood, however this is almost impossible to detect when it is mixed in a G&T. There’s a good juniper backbone with citrus and spice notes complimenting as one would expect from a high quality, full flavoured gin. For us, the defining characteristic was that it feels softer in the mouth. It would seem that the wood has smoothed the sharp notes out of the gin and the resulting liquid is silky and approachable because of it. As if it were a bigger gin that had been slightly subdued by the interaction with the cask.
Next up were the Citadelle Gin offerings. We tasted the 2008 & 2010 vintages during the session, but having made notes on the 2009 vintage previously – we’ve included all three here. As these gins are intended as vintages and not as a consistent product, they vary year on year and from what we can understand, the Cognac Ferrand team actively look to highlight a different type of botanical each time – be it spice, floral or other.
The first aged Citadelle Gin Reserve was born in 2008, when Gabriel and cellar master Frederic Gilbert began to experiment with ageing gin. They placed their Citadelle Gin in used French white oak, ex-cognac casks that had a strong char for between six and nine months. The effect is both visible to the eye as well as on the mouth. Oak notes combined with the overall botanical mix to creates a hybrid gin that crosses the boundaries of gin and genever, along with a touch of cognac.
For the 2009 release, Cognac Ferrand wanted less wood flavour and more of the finesse that ageing in wood can provide, so they placed Citadelle Gin in oak casks that had a medium char for around five months (essentially, placing it in barrels for less time and with less char). This produced more subtle flavours and a better overall balance where the nuances are more reserved. The 2009 vintage seems to be more floral than the 2008, but when tasted side by side, along with the original Citadelle Gin there are similarities between the three that make it just about possible to see they are all from the same family.
The production of Citadelle Reserve 2010, the third vintage aged gin from the company (bottled at 44% ABV) was limited to less than 12,000 units. While this was the third year that Citadelle Gin Reserve was created, it was the first time that the cellar master has changed the actual recipe for the gin itself with a specific combination of botanicals intentionally designed for oak ageing. The result is a much more overtly floral combination where juniper comes to the fore briefly, followed by lavender and other perfumed notes. We were surprised to taste the oaky, wooden notes along with the overtly floral ones at the same time as both are very clear. Whether it’s a good gin or not, or to our liking or not – is debatable and clearly left the panel with mixed impressions on the night. What is clear is that it is possible to age a perfumed gin without loosing the floral clarity on either the nose or palate.
Our next gin of the night was a return to the USA and in this case, Illinois. The USA is seeing a surge in craft distilleries over the past few years and this seems to have created the opportunity for inventive and different products to be released. With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that a lot of innovation in the super niche category of barrel-aged gins is coming from the US.
As well as producing Gin, Rye and Bourbon – FEW Spirits also make limited edition releases, one of which was FEW Barrel Aged Gin. Given the relative uniqueness of this, the distillery saw it fitting to release a limited edition, small batch product on 29th February, which marked 2012 as a leap year.
FEW Barrel Aged Gin is aged for four months in small 5-gallon virgin American oak barrels with relatively severe charring. They used a different recipe to their American Gin for the barrel ageing release, with a more traditional heavy juniper and spice botanical mix, which they felt would be more suitable for effects of interacting with wood. The exact list is undisclosed but it includes a lot of citrus with bitter orange and lemon peel, as well as cassia and angelica.
Bottled at 46.5% ABV, the wood is evident from the amber, leathery colour. Sugary liquorice on the nose; while clove, candied citrus and base tones of grain come through on the palate. The relatively high ABV isn’t apparent other than as a way of carrying layered flavours and much like NYC Distilling’s barrel-aged version of Perry’s Tot, the balance between the clarity of the juniper, other botanicals and wood is well struck. Familiar gingerbread flavours come through too – perhaps a result of the grain, while the finish lingers nicely with soft caramelised sugary notes coating the palate.
For us, this marked the step up in class and the first real example of an aged gin that is still discernable as a gin and as an aged spirit. Hayman’s 1850 and Seargram’s Extra Dry are affected by wood but not to such a degree that it’s easy to point them out. The effects in Seagram’s Reserve are more noticeable but still quite subtle, while the Citadelle Reserve wood notes are also quite pronounced but it is so overtly floral, it pushes conceptions of gin before the wood has been anywhere near it and so isn’t the best example of a gin that has been aged – rather a perfumed gin that has been aged. FEW Barrel aged gin sets down a marker that combines the best of both. The flavour may not be to everyone’s liking but at that stage of the tasting – it was the best example of what was possible when maturation and gin combine.
A few shortbread biscuits, a quick break and some furious note making later, we moved on to Ransom Old Tom Gin. Made in Oregon, USA using a base wort of malted barley, combined with an infusion of botanicals, distilled in a copper pot still and then cask aged for three to six months. The recipe for Ransom Old Tom was developed in collaboration with David Wondrich and is designed as a gin to recreate vintage cocktails dating from the mid to late 1800′s. As such, it’s not the best example of an aged dry gin as the flavour profile is clearly not intended as such – it’s an Old Tom. Six botanicals are used: juniper berries, orange peel, lemon peel, coriander seed, cardamom pods and angelica root, with a final bottling strength of 44%ABV. Piney forest notes on the nose, Ransom Old Tom delivers a zesty citrus and juniper centered gin. It also has a slight smoke on the finish.
It’s hard to tell what came from the distillation, the initial grain, the natural sweetness or the barrel with Ransom but perhaps it reiterates that it is possible to use barrels to marry flavours, add complexity and augment candied citric notes while not compromising (too much) on the clarity of juniper. In this light, Ransom is an interesting example of how barrels are just another tool at the distillers disposal in order to reach the desired outcome. Obviously, this is true with all the other gins too – but with Ransom it seems that the barrel ageing process is not the “hook” or the focal point, merely another part of the process, much like Seagram’s but more noticeable from a flavour and colour perspective.
On to the next; Myrtle Gin. Produced for the Spirit of the Coquet, Myrtle Gin is aged for 10 years, and infused with Northumberland Myrtle. It is undeniably full flavour, but for us, not any of the flavours we would want to see in a gin. At 47% ABV there are woody and herbal notes, a slight hint of juniper to start and then a long peaty finish that we felt sat uncomfortably alongside the other flavours. It’s worth pointing out that as keen Speyside whisky fans, it’s quite clear that peat is one of those flavours we are not the biggest fans of, but in the right amount and occasion, can be enjoyable. The problem is that it’s such a distinct note that it’s unavoidable, and we felt that for Myrtle Gin – it totally dominated everything other than the initial second on the palate. Smoke is one thing, peat another and in this gin it was more of a boggy mess rather than bog myrtle infused.
Palate cleansed and refreshed from another break- next up was our final gin of the night – Alambics 13 year Old Caribbean Gin. It is distilled, matured and bottled in Scotland, but each run is of just 272 bottles. It spends 11 years in old ex bourbon whisky barrels and is then finished for two years in ex-Caribbean Rum casks. The Balvenie’s Caribbean 14 year old Cask finish is the closest comparison to this in whisky terms and since the tasting, has been put side by side and has no resemblance whatsoever to it’s Alambics counterpart – proof perhaps that using whisky as the palate guide for maturing gin as totally misleading. Wood may impart the same notes but the base spirit going into the barrel is so different that calling one “like” the other doesn’t seem to do either much justice.
The years of maturation gave the Alambics Gin strong oak and vanilla notes, along with a sugary caramelized note to boot. Citrus and gingerbread come through, followed by a long finish. In that way, much the same notes appear as they do in a whisky, but with the other gin botanicals in the mix they do not make the same ensemble. At 65.6 % ABV, the gin is remarkably smooth. Surprisingly, given that it has sat in wood for 13 years, the balance is still there too. It certainly leans more towards an aged gin than just an aged spirit. The fact that it is possible to recognise it as a gin is interesting as before the tasting, we were all wondering if it was possible to put a maximum time on maturation before the liquid stopped being gin. It would seem that there is not.
There are other barrel aged gins that we have tried since the tasting: a variation of Perry’s Tot Navy Strength Gin and Master of Malt’s Cask Aged Gin the most note worthy pair. Perry’s was particularly interesting as the high ABV, rooty nature of the base gin going into the barrel has transformed to create something really special. Ironically given the lack of notes and the omission from the tasting – it was our favorite barrel-aged gin.
Master of Malt’s Cask Aged Gin (batch 1) was also very special and while less intensely aged than the Perry’s variation, is to date the best example of what barrel ageing can do to a gin. The gin – Bathtub Gin – already has orangey citrus notes and gentle but pronounced juniper, was further accentuated by more caramelized citrus, soft spice and added viscosity. The resulting liquid is slightly sweet with a soft and buttery feel. Juniper carries all the way while the finish lingers nicely with the spice from the coriander & cloves appearing alongside a warm citrus. The Cask Aged Master of Malt Gin is in our eyes one of the best examples of the potential of the ageing process as, whilst it still carries all the flavour profiles one would want to work with in a gin when making cocktails, it adds certain new elements that make drinks like a Martinez, Negroni, Tom Collins or even a Breakfast Martini that little bit different – in a good way. It is still clearly a gin and not an entirely new spirit or sub category, just with a noticeable difference that won’t fade at the slightest contact with another mixer, nor is too strong to make you wonder what to do with it.
So, are there any conclusions?
Here are a few more obvious suspicions confirmed: A little wood goes a long way – finishing does alter the profile enough to make a difference. Barrel resting and ageing for small amounts of time can and will soften a gin (Haymans 1850, Seagrams Distiller’s Reserve). Earthier and more traditional botanical selections work better with the effects of the wood over a slightly longer period of time (FEW Spirits, Master of Malt and Perry’s Tot).
The obvious conclusions, but less thought about are: Marrying vats are common place in whisky, cognac and other categories – but using barrels as a way to marry batches of gin instead of the regular aluminum vats (for the smaller producers) could really add a dimension to the gin. It would be interesting to see someone try and create a large Solera system much like the Glenfiddich 15 year – as this would allow for both larger volume and consistency on an aged product.
Based off the selection, if we were to choose which gin to barrel age, we would choose a more classic selection of botanicals, a high ABV (to be played with after) and a smaller cask (helps to lessen the amount of time). We would also use American Oak over French or European and opt for a smaller amount of charring. This was discussed at the tasting, and seems to be the consensus of the others there too.
The less obvious; almost none of the barrel aged gins would be our first choice in a gin and tonic, so it may be possible to conclude that barrel ageing doesn’t lend itself well to producing flavours that are enjoyable for that particular serve (Master of Malt’s Cask Aged perhaps the exception to the rule). On the other hand, Perry’s Tot (Barrel aged version), FEW and Ransom all make for very interesting gins to use in sweet vermouth based cocktails so judging them by the ability to make a good G&T is perhaps redundant.
We found that there was a point where the spirit was no longer gin (Myrtle Gin), but comparing the transformation to the liquid being more towards a whisky is not accurate either. Piney juniper and mixed botanical notes is not something that can be found in many (if any whiskies). Some Genevers are barrel aged and as a category is the closet thing to barrel aged gins and when you look at the use of “Hollands” in cocktails – are similar cocktails to the ones barrel aged gins would work well in – a Martinez for example.
Barrel Aged is an interesting sub-category of dry gin, but given there is such a huge wealth of products and profiles available with Genevers, the question still remains – why would you barrel age a gin for a substantial period of time (more than a finish or marrying vat)? Other than a fun experiment or as a one off; there seems little point. Moreover, other than us absolute gin nuts, there’s a very small audience too. Master of Malt’s Cask Aged Gin is the most versatile barrel aged product we’ve tried and probably works across the board for cocktails, but still, is it worth doing given the expense and labour intensive nature of the production? We’re not sure, although very happy that they thought it was worthwhile.
For us, the verdict is still out and we’ll return to the tasting with more information, other barrel-aged gins and more decisive conclusions at a later date. The tasting has been large enough to give an insight into what is possible, but hasn’t really defined what can be done and it will take time to properly come to any firm conclusions. As it stands, with the abundance and quality of Genevers on the market, we recommend that gin fans who like the influence of oak, a subdued juniper and the mystery of maturation to go to your local specialist store and get asking about what they stock. The Ziudam selection for example is a great place to start. There’s still plenty of unanswered questions and more elements to discover in our quest to understand this little area of the Gin world and we look forward to learning more as our barrel aged journey continues.