We're used to it with tequila, we're used to it with rum: spirits that are delicious on their own can be transformed into something even more delicious with a little barrel aging. So I guess we shouldn't be surprised that barrel aged gin is on the rise.
Some folks putting their gin into barrels cite the smooth texture gained by time in oak, while others say it's an obvious spin on tradition. "Davorin [Kuchan] and I are both Croatian," says Joseph Karakas of Old World Spirits, whose Rusty Blade gin is aged in French oak for two years. "Backyard distillation and wine production is very common" in Croatia, he says. "The price of stainless steel is expensive, so Croatians would use Baltic wood and age everything in those barrels. We decided, why not gin?"
The barrels tend to add richness and spice to the spirit—but the question is, do you want a little vanilla with your juniper? Does the barrel aging add something that bright, fresh gin needs? We tried 4 different bottlings to explore the question.
Old World Spirits Rusty Blade Gin
Rusty Blade starts as Old World Spirits' Blade Gin, a 'California-style' gin flavored with orange, lemon, and tangerine, plus cardamom, cilantro, cinnamon, ginger, and black pepper. The 12% of the base of the Blade Gin is Zinfandel brandy sourced from Santa Cruz Mountains, and the gin is returned to the Zinfandel wine barrels for two years of aging to make Rusty Blade.
"The result is something you might want to put in eggnog: it's decidedly spicy, with sweet cinnamon and cardamom scent."
The result is something you might want to put in eggnog: it's decidedly spicy, with sweet cinnamon and cardamom scent. The rich, clove-like flavor is more about the holiday spices than it is juniper—this stuff is more for the spiced rum drinker than the gin fan. We could see drinking this in a light Old Fashioned, though it also works well in a sour.
St. George Spirits' Dry Rye Reposado Gin
This Alameda distillery has done a bit of exploring of what gin can do—we particularly love their Terroir gin, flavored with Douglas fir, California bay laurel, and sage. But it's their Dry Rye that sees a little barrel aging here, which makes sense. St. George's Dry Rye Gin is made with a base of 100% pot-distilled rye, flavored with lots of juniper berries, black peppercorn, caraway, coriander, grapefruit peel, and lime peel. For the 'reposado' version, it spent about a year and a half in six different French and American oak wine casks that previously held Grenache rosé and Syrah. (The barrels came from Blacksmith Cellars, whose winemaker is the brother of St. George blender/distiller Dave Smith.)
The results are some of the most successful we tried. It's more savory than any of the others, with a musky, eucalyptus-like scent that reminded some of us of Fernet Branca. The spirit is the most savory of the aged gins we tried, with a more prominent botanical flavor, and a clean caramel quality. There's wood here, especially in texture and richness, but this gin seems more focused and well-integrated.
Though most of these spirits work better in traditionally whiskey-based cocktails than in those where gin is the usual star, St. George's Dry Rye can work well in a 'martini' mixed with a little high quality dry vermouth.
Citadelle Reserve Gin
Since 2008, Citadelle has experimented with different variations on a barrel-aged gin, varying the char on the barrels, the proof, and botanicals. The 2012 edition includes yuzu and cornflower, and was aged for six months in lightly charred casks.
The result is the palest aged gin we tried, with a fresh cedary scent. This gin is pleasantly round and silky, thanks to the barrel, with a touch of vanilla that suggests sweetness, though the finish is slightly bitter. Did it gain something important from the barrel aging? We're not convinced.
Corsair Experimental Collection Barrel Aged Gin
Kentucky's Corsair Distillery is known for its wacky experiments, and this barrel-aged gin emphasizes the sweet spice notes you get from any barrel by using spiced rum barrels as the aging vessel. The result is very rich, with loads of cola and licorice flavor, and bold, aggressive spicing. It's an interesting crossover, but the flavors didn't seem quite integrated to us when sipped straight. It's tasty, though, in a sour made with fresh lemon juice, with the spice coming through nicely.
Have you tried any barrel-aged gins? What do you think—should gin go into barrels?
Tasting samples provided for review consideration.