barrel-aged gin

Barrel-aged gins: welcome to a world of wonder

We all know how far gin has come over the last decade or so.  It has moved from being an old fashioned, last generation drink to the coolest cocktail base in town.  There has been an explosion of gin making over that time period, with major distillers taking risks with unusual flavours and new techniques while small, imaginative boutique distilleries are inventing gorgeous new gins from spaces as small as most people’s kitchens.  Flavours, infusions and new techniques have become the clarion call for gin lovers everywhere and variety is only restricted by our imagination. 

The gin explosion

There have been many gin trends introduced over this period – some welcome, some not.  Flavoured gins are making a name for themselves with classics such as gooseberry, lemongrass, strawberry and rhubarb gins competing with more novelty flavours including Christmas pudding, toffee apple and candy cane gins.  We’ve seen gin made from ants, gin built around Asian flavours such as fresh chili and ginger.  There are gin liqueurs, gin shots, retro gins and even zero alcohol gins.  

All shapes, styles and flavours

Some of these you may love, others you may hate – but one thing’s for sure, gin is one of the most versatile spirits out there and it now comes in all shapes, styles and flavours. There are also different taste experiences that sometimes vary by country.  In the UK and Spain, we are blessed with a rich history of alcohol production going back hundreds of years and that has influenced many of the gins we have come to know and love.

When gin meets whiskey…

In the Philippines, they still have a penchant for sweeter gins and that dictates some of the styles that have become most popular over there. But in some countries, where there has been a rich tradition of whiskey making, gin has absorbed many of traditional skills and techniques from the whisky industry and applied them to gin making – with extraordinary results.  Scotland and Ireland led the initial wave as small, local whiskey distillers began to experiment and jump onto the gin bandwagon. 

New ideas and old techniques 

Many of them found old whiskey barrels lying around and began to decant their distilled spirits into these barrels to see how it affected the taste, colour and complexity of gin – and the results were delicious.  Subtle infusions from the wooden barrels slowly transferred their flavours into the liquid. This process imparted subtle, complex, smoky whiskey tastes, oak tones and other flavour notes from the aged cask itself.  Scotland and Ireland in particular now produce a number of beautiful, barrel-aged gins that are each unique, subtle and which add real character (and colour) to the distilled spirit that lies within.

The American Revolution

But, with all the competitive gins flooding the UK market, barrel-aged gins never took off in the UK in quite the same way as they did in North America.  The rich whiskey traditions of both the USA and Canada lent themselves to experimentation.  And the entrepreneurial spirit and “anything goes” attitude of the American micro-brewery tradition was the perfect fermenting ground for these two great drinks.  Bourbon flavours from American or French oak barrels subtly infused the gin within. Similar flavours are imparted from the small oak barrels that are used in Canada, which can be new, old, charred or uncharred.  But it’s in North America where barrel aged gins have become a “thing”. 

What makes barrel aged gins taste so different?

So, let’s take a look at the world of barrel aged gin and see if we can come up with a few stunners for you to enjoy as you start to get to know this subtle variation on a standard gin.  It’s not for everyone, but if you love it, we think you’ll be hooked for life.  What is it about barrel aged gins that makes them so delicious? First of all, it’s worth noting that barrel aged gins are not a new thing. In fact, they’ve been around for years. The original Genever gins from Holland were often cask-aged, but the crisp, more easily mixed English styles eclipsed them over the years and have been the dominant global style for several hundred years now.

Experimentation and innovation

But in recent years, more and more gin distillers, eager to explore new flavours and to set them apart from the crowd, have begun to experiment with barrel aged gins and they are starting to have quite an impact.

Gins aged in barrels absorb the subtle, complex characteristics of the wood within the barrels.  The type of wood, the size of the barrel, the previous liquids that have been stored in it and its age all contribute to making barrel aged gins truly unique – and that’s part of the charm. But with gin, the ageing process is usually done in a matter of months, not years.

Roll out the barrel…

Some distilleries use barrels made from virgin oak, which means that the cask has never been used for storage at this point. American oak delivers a cleaner, softer taste (think caramel and vanilla). European oak tends to be a bit more flavoursome and spicy and is often sourced from Spain, Portugal or France.  While most barrel aged gin distillers use these sorts of casks, experimental distillers are now trying out new woods such as mulberry, chestnut or cherry. Some people use virgin casks, others prefer whiskey and still others prefer sherry, Bourbon, wine or vermouth – all of which will leave their own unique mark on the colour, taste and smell of the final product.

Barrel-aged gin that is worth seeking out

So, just as you thought the gin revolution has gone as far as it can go, it surprises us with a new angle – and this time, North America is leading the way. Here are a selection of barrel aged gins from around the world that are making their mark on gin:

Citadelle Reserve (France): 44% ABV

Citadelle gins come with a well deserved reputation for excellence. Citadelle was one of the first modern gins to embrace the barrel aged process, back in 2008.  The brainchild of Alexandre Gabriel, Citadelle Reserve has been wood-aged in an egg-shaped 8 foot tall barrel for around 5 months.  The gin features botanicals including cherry chestnut, french oak and mulberry and the result is a pale gold gin with herbal notes of tobacco and bitter orange.  There’s loads of pepper and spice in there as well. But the ageing process mellows all the flavours into a smooth, easy to drink gin that is perfect in a classic Dry Martini.

Big Gin – peat barreled (USA): 47% ABV

Big Gin’s peat barreled gin is handmade in Seattle in small batches before being aged in Ardberg and Laphroaig scotch whiskey barrels.  This earthy gin has a twist of bitter orange and warm spicy notes derived from 9 unique botanicals including Tasmanian Pepperberry, grains of paradise and bitter orange peel. It’s a perfect drink to sip on as you nibble on a plate of cheeses for charcuterie – and great on its own or in a smokey Negroni. And at 47% ABV, this carries a big kick.

Twisted Nose (UK): 40% ABV

This delicious gin is cask aged gin is made in the heart of the beautiful Hampshire countryside (alongside its delicious watercress infused original gin).  This time, the folks at Twisted Nose have mellowed some of the more astringent notes of herbs and peppery watercress through cask-aging for a few weeks in German oaked barrels, imparting a softer, creamier, vanilla flavour. This results in a smoother, more fragrant spirit which shares some flavour characteristics with the original Genever gins. This delicious gin can be drunk neat, on the rocks – or in a classic gin cocktail. And at a manageable 40% ABV, you can afford to have a few of them.

Stillhead London Dry Gin – Barely Aged gin (Canada): 43% ABV

This award winning London Dry gin from the Stillhead Distillery in British Columbia, Canada has been barrel aged for a year in an oak bourbon barrel which imparts the flavour of holiday spices into the gin. Take a sip and you’ll immediately get a sense of complexity as the star anise, cloves, cinammon and vanilla start to come through. The colour of this gin is a delicate golden yellow and it delivers a deep complex , balanced gin with the oak barrels and spicy vanilla working beautifullyb with the botanical. The finish is citrusy and clean and we think this one works really well in a gin and tonic made with Fevertree mediterranean tonic.

Avva Cask Finish Scottish Gin (Scotland): 55% ABV

This is the first cask gin to be made in Speyside, the spiritual home of malt whiskey. Avva Cask Finish Scottish gin is made annually in a limited edition and is matured in a Bourbon barrel sourced from the famous Speyside Cooperage. Only 200 bottles of this gin have ben produced, making it harder to find than the Loch Ness monster, but if you get your hands on a bottle, you’ll find it’s delicious. Rich juniper notes blend seamlessly with a floral bouquet. Then vanilla, butter cream and spices kick in to reveal an incredibly smooth, rich tasting gin. And with a long, warming finish, it’s almost whiskey like in its characteristics. This is another one that works well with ginger ale and a slice of orange. But make no plans for the morning after – at 55% ABV, this is a gin you should handle with care.

Boatyard Double Gin (Ireland): 46% ABV

This young, but innovative distillery is only a few years old, but it’s making quite a name for itself.  Made in the Boatyard Distillery, on the shores of the beautiful Lough Erne, this place has already established a reputation for its delicious Boatyard Double gin.  But this one is a touch different, aged in Wild Turkey bourbon barrels and sweetened with local Fermanagh honey, this smooth tasting barrel aged gin dispenses with locally produced Irish whiskey casks in favour of the stronger flavors of Kentucky bourbon. The result: a sweet and smokey gin with a distinctive Old Tom flavour. This gorgeous gin with its rich bourbon notes works well with a Fever Tree ginger ale and a slice of apple. And at 46% ABV, make sure you’re sitting down while you’re drinking.

Written by Steve (with a little help from Ruddles, the gin dog!)

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