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Barrel Aged Gin

A Defining Name

Barrel or Cask Aged Gin, as the name might imply, is so called because the spirit is stored in a wooden barrel for a period of time. This often results in a change of color varying from light straw to dark amber (just like dark spirits such as Whisky, Rum and Brandy), with some consequently referring to this as Brown or Yellow Gin. During this storage time the Gin also takes on flavors and other nuances in both taste and mouth feel as it interacts with the wood (and air), in a process very similar to that often associated with Whisky. This has led to some modern day hipsters referring to it as “Ginskey”, a nickname originally used for the Imperial Barrel Aged Gin made by Roundhouse Spirits in Colorado, USA.

Although used and generally accepted by most, the term “Aged” is not necessary the most suitable or accurate of descriptions. Some view the term “Aged” implies the spirit has been stored for years…and thus has an age (e.g. 5-years old). As most Gin stored in barrels tends to be for a short period of time (i.e. months) it has led to words like “Finished”, “Refined”, “Reserved” or “Rested” being thought of as a more appropriate term. Further exacerbation for the terminology is provided by the law, whereby Gin is not permitted to have any age statements on it’s labeling, although the enforcement of this is rather “hit or miss” across jurisdictions – no doubt due in part to understanding what the phrasing means and the relative novelty of “aged” Gin.

Weather it is called Barrel, Brown, Cask, Wood or Yellow and coupled with Aged, Finished, Refined, Reserved or Rested, or even referred to as Ginskey – it shouldn’t matter. The names may be confusing, and are used interchangeably, we still know what it is: Gin that has interacted with wood.

Genever Begins

Genever was the forerunner to Gin, as we know it today, and differs by often being sweeter, made with a proportion of mixed malt grain and traditionally aged in barrels for around 1-3 years. This style of Genever, dating back to the 1500’s, is called “Oude” (Old) because it is the old style of making it - not to be confused with it’s clear colored more modern version called “Jonge” (Young) Genever. Predominantly made in the Netherlands of Europe (notably Holland) it is the earliest form of Barrel Aging for a juniper-based spirit. Tasting more like Whisky it has an oily, fuller mouth feel, and is usually drunk neat, being more akin to a Liqueur. To gain a sense of this spirit try Bols Barrel Aged Genever which, besides being one of the better ones, is also one of the most widely available Oude Genever’s. So, did barrel aged Gin follow on from Oude Genever?

Nothing New Under The Sun

Although not called so at the time, Barrel Aged Gin unlike Oude Genever was first encountered by default rather than design. While we may expect to find Gin in a bottle today, this type of container wasn’t how Gin was stored from its inception in the middle 1600’s through to the late 1800’s. The container of choice during this time was the wooden barrel and used to store and transport a myriad of produce especially “liquids” such as oils, molasses, spirits, tar, wine etc. This was because wood was readily available, it made a robust and sturdy vessel, provided a “tight” container (with the liquids swelling the wood), skilled coopers were universally available to make the barrels and the barrels were relatively inexpensive.

Why Wood?

By comparison, glass containers while available were expensive and usually thin, being more fragile than the bottles of today. In addition to this, Britain and it’s colonies found the cost of glass was further prohibited by the introduction of tax on glass from 1645 to 1699 and again when reintroduced in 1746 to 1845. There were other alternatives such as earthenware “stone” jugs (or crock pots) but these could be thin and fragile too, and if made thicker to increase their strength, became too heavy and so were usually reserved for storing only small quantities of liquid.

Happy Accident

Most Gin produced during this era would have gone from the distiller to a tavern and drunk by consumers in a fairly short time. Thus it would have spent a few days to several weeks in the barrel, without the wood having too much of an impact on color and taste. No doubt some Gin would be left for a little longer than this, with some change being encountered such as a light yellow coloration and a degree of mellowing. However, the best effects of aging were realized when the Gin was being transported by ships on long voyages. This could result in the Gin being left in wood for months, and in rare cases of over a year, before the ships stores could be replenished. It was probably from this people realized this “accident” produced a pleasing amber color, a sweeter oaked and spicy taste and a softly mellowed Gin.

Wooden Effects

This “happy accident” was not restricted to Gin but other spirits, wines and fortified wines encountered this phenomenon too. This accounts for why today we are familiar with products such as sweet Bourbon, oaked Chardonnay, tawny Port, spiced Rum etc. In these instances the flavor primarily comes from the wood rather than the original source, whereas Gin is specifically flavored at source by using botanicals including juniper berries. So, what does the wood do to Gin? Like other liquids it adds wood notes to the aroma (such as oak, but this depends on the wood used) and may include additional tastes like: caramel, chocolate, coffee, malt, tannin, toffee, vanilla plus some baking spices, smokiness, and/or sweetness. It may even bring new flavors from previously held liquids such as Brandy, Sherry or Whisky. However, where this wood effect uniquely differs with Gin is in the softening and reduction of the juniper and any floral notes the Gin may have. This is just as likely to be undesirable as it may be desirable – all depending on the original flavor profile the Gin had, and the personal palate preferences of the individual tasting it.

Wooden barrels were frequently reused and would be “fired” (the interior of the barrel set alight) to eradicate lingering residues and odors from previous contents. This practice of charring the interior was found to have a positive effect on alcoholic beverages both on their flavor and in clarifying the liquid. The carbonization allows the alcohol greater access to the wood and matures the spirit quicker, while the carbon filtering cleans the spirit, including the removal of congeners such as sulphur compounds. Today barrels are purposely treated in this manner, including sometimes only being lightly roasted by close proximity to a flame. So how and when did this accidental aging move away from barrels?

Size Does Matter!

Besides the expense, glass containers were originally hand blown and varied in shape and size, making them inconsistent for transportation and resale purposes. In England the sale of alcohol (such as wine) in bottles was illegal due to their non-standard size and remained so until The Single bottle Act was passed in 1861. Did you know? A “lungful” of air used to blow a glass bottle was around 700ml to 800ml and this led to 750ml becoming the standard bottle size.

By the time the glass tax was abolished people had begun to experiment further with glass bottle production. In 1847 Joseph Magown in the USA registered a patent for an iron bottle mold and by 1866 a chilled iron bottle mold was invented. These developments meant glass bottles could be produced quickly, cheaply and to a reasonably uniform size so that by1870 Whitbread (a brewery in London UK) was producing large quantities of their beer in bottles. One draw back was the labor-intensive insertion of corks but this too became a thing of the past with the invention of the screw-top bottle by Henry Barrett in 1879 and the crown cork by William Painter in 1892. The invention of the automatic glass blowing machine in 1903 finally meant glass bottles and jars could be produced consistently with the same, height, width, weight, density and volume.

Seeing Clearly

With glass containers now at a reasonable cost, made sturdier due to increased thickness, and having the added benefit of keeping liquids in better condition for a longer time, the bottle by the early 1900’s was becoming the popular container of choice for liquids. While some spirits had purposely been matured in barrels and “wood” continue to do so, those never intended for aging now went straight from still to bottle, resulting in the demise of Barrel Aged Gin (well…almost). As with so many things about Gin there are always the exceptions to the rule and at least two brands bucked the trend of the declining usage of Barrel Aging.

Two Bucks

Booth’s based in London, UK was the world’s largest producer of Gin during the 1800’s, and purposely continued producing their straw colored Yellow Gin into the 1980’s. Although this brand has been reincarnated under the patronage of Diageo, and now made in Illinois USA, it is produced without any wood aging to create a clear version of the same recipe. In 1939 a new Barrel Aged Gin entered the market in the USA, Seagram’s Extra Dry, and is the longest continuously produced Gin in this category available today. Although it was lightly straw colored, in 2005 they began making it colorless despite still aging it in wood. This decision to make their offerings clear rather than yellow colored is probably due to meeting consumer needs (either perceived or researched). Apparently the clear pristine look is not only expected but is seen as more attractive from a marketing perspective, and thus sells more. This view may account for Hayman’s releasing their colorless Family Reserve Barrel Aged Gin (previously called 1850 Reserve) in 2011.

Modern Day Renaissance

There may only be a few Barrel Aged Gins on the market but this number has been steadily increasing, produced no longer by accident but by design. In 2000 they represented about 0.1% of all Gins, by 2010 this was around 1% and now this number is reaching 5%. The rebirth of this Gin category really happened in 2008 when Cognac Ferrand in Ars, France released their Citadelle Reserve and Ransom Spirits in Oregon, USA launched their Old Tom Gin. While both are Barrel Aged Gins, Ransom had the added bonus of being one of the earliest producers to revive the Old Tom Gin category too, and both Gins have generated much publicity.

A Barrel Trend

Since 2008 a few producers have begun to follow this trend, mostly from independent micro-distillers (predominately in the USA). This not only provides a useful additional product to their portfolio but may use existing Barrel Aging skills from their Whisky making (and even provides further usage for “spent” whisky barrels). Also as Whisky takes at least 3-years to mature it can provide a whisky-like substitute in a fraction of the time, generating income from their Gin while waiting for their dark spirits to become available.

However these small producers did not remain alone for long in this endeavor, as several major producers have added Barrel Aged Gins to their portfolios too. This could be perceived as providing a level of validity and approval to this style – at least in the eyes of the industry, if not the consumers. These include Burrough’s Reserve in 2013 from Beefeater (owned by the Pernod-Ricard Group, and now includes a 2nd Edition aged in red and white Bordeaux wine casks launched in 2016) and Bombay Amber in 2014 from Bombay Sapphire (owned by Bacardi Ltd.).

The popularity of Barrel Aged Gins is certainly gaining greater momentum. An example of this is when Watershed Distillery in Ohio, USA introduced their Bourbon Barrel Gin in 2012. They opened at midnight for a planned 1-hour special session to sell their first bottles, and were met by 750 eager fans queuing up round the block ready and poised to buy the first Barrel Aged Gin available in Ohio State.

The Power of Time

Most Barrel Aged Gins are matured in wood for a short period of time, anything from 3 weeks (e.g. Hayman’s Family Reserve) and up to 24 months (e.g. Liberator Barrel Aged Old Tom by Valentine Distilling, Michigan, USA). Anything less than this and the Gin will not pick up any real nuances from the wood, and anything more than this then the principle aspect of Gin (juniper) tends to diminish and may even be lost. By now we should be aware of Gin and it’s “exceptions” and the German based company Alambic Classique proves the point, with a range of Barrel Aged Gins matured for anything from 5 to 16 years! Another exception is Myrtle Gin made by Croquet Whisky (in Northumberland, UK), which is aged for 10 years. The exact time spent in wood is determined by numerous and varying factors, making Barrel Aging much more of a scientific art form than people may at first realize. These factors include:

Gin ABV – the original alcoholic strength (ABV) of the Gin is important, the ideal being around 120 proof  (55% to 65%) and hence this level tends to be referred to as cask strength. If the ABV is too high then more tannin is extracted from the wood making it taste “tough”, plus a greater amount of water is required to dilute it down to bottling strength which in turn diminishes the flavor. If the alcoholic level is too low then less tannin is extracted than is desirable, plus less water is required to dilute it and the flavor profile may be too strong.  

Botanical Flavor - the level of botanical flavor such as strength of juniper in the original Gin is diminished when aged in wood. To lessen this effect more juniper may be required and producers often need to change the Gin’s botanical proportions and even the recipe to facilitate this increased amount of juniper accordingly.

“Firing” - the degree of roasting or charring of the barrel changes not just the flavor profile but the strength of that flavor too. This often requires a reasonable amount of trial and error for each Gin being aged.

Barrel Size – the smaller the barrel the greater the surface area in contact with the spirit and the faster it matures. These factors decrease as the barrel size increases.

Wood – the type of wood used to make the barrel and where the wood originates from has a significant impact on the flavor of the Gin (see below for more detail on this factor).

Storage Climate - the temperature, humidity and geography of where the barrel is stored all have an impact. A high temperature matures the spirit quicker but results in higher evaporation rate from the barrel. High humidity reduces the alcoholic strength and low humidity increases it but a dry atmosphere is also said to extract more vanilla from the wood. As an extreme example, French makers Noilly Prat age their Vermouth by leaving barrels outside to be “ravaged” by the sunshine, rain and surrounding sea air – all part of the process in giving it a unique flavor.

A tool sometimes used by distillers to reduce the time in barrels, is the use of wood chips, bricks, small stave parts or spirals. These are all names for small pieces of wood added to a barrel, increasing the surface area of wood available to the spirit, which results in faster maturing. Sometimes the barrel might even be omitted in favor of using just wood pieces added to storage tanks. For instance: Strathearn Distillery in Scotland (UK) makes use of barrels and wood chips in the aging for their Oaked Highland Gin; Trail Town Still Colorado Gin uses wood chips from Gambel Oak (a native tree to that area of the USA); and Old Hollywood Ginn is infused for 2 – 5 days (depending on the batch size) with lightly toasted medium American oak wood chips to provide additional flavor and a light golden color.

A Wooden Performance

The main element of Barrel Aging (besides the original spirit) is the wood, as it has a significant impact on the final flavor of the matured spirit. When it comes to the type of wood used, oak is the favorite choice of many as it has a proven background across a range of wine, fortified wines and spirits. The reason for using oak is the compact wood grain (while retaining flexibility), it also has self-cleaning properties (keeping bacteria away) but most importantly it provides an excellent color and flavor. Even within the use of oak there are differences, for instance many prefer to use European (especially French) oak as it is even more compact, provides more tannin (compared with the greater sweetness gained from American oak) and gives the spirit a darker color, although the aging process does take longer.

Oak is not the only wood used and there are three who use casks made from juniper: Launched in 2013 Hernö Brenneri in Sweden were the first in the world to employ juniper wood, producing their Hernö Juniper Cask Gin, and claim it helps to maintain the juniper flavor of the Gin. Small 10 gallon barrels are used, built in Sweden using wood from Oregon, USA, for a faster maturation period lasting only 1-month. In 2015 the Copper & Kings American Brandy Co. in Kentucky, USA launched their Stray Cat Old Tom Gin. Creating a limited amount of only 750 half bottles it was matured for 1-year in a medium charred cask, made in Serbia from juniper wood. Blackwater Distillery in Ireland also launched their Juniper Cask Gin in 2015. This is from as 50-liter sized barrel made locally, using local juniper wood.

The number of times a barrel can be used to age a spirit is limited and each time it is used the potential impact on the spirit is diminished, with many viewed as “spent” after just one use. For Gin it is not uncommon for barrels to be used several times, and some distillers age a proportion of spirit from each batch into different barrels before blending them back together as a batch again once matured. For example a batch of spirit is distilled and then divided into three equal parts. One part goes into a barrel not used before, another part goes into a barrel used once before and the final part goes into a barrel previously used two times before. At the end of being aged for say 5 months, the Gin from all three barrels are recombined and left in a holding tank for 1-2 weeks to blend before being bottled. This process can then be repeated again for each new batch of spirit, with the barrel having been used three times before replaced with an unused barrel. Not only does this reduce cost by reusing barrels several times but it also limits the strength of the wood which can overpower a Gin, thus helping to maintain it’s “Ginniness”.

Added Flavor

Besides the impact of the wood on a spirit, barrels that have previously held other alcoholic drinks are a good source for adding further qualities to an aged Gin. The use of ex-Whisky casks is a common choice, with ex-bourbon barrels being the most popular in the USA. The varieties of used barrels available mean distillers have an array to choose from when it comes to aging their Gin. Here are some examples:

Brandy – Filliers in Belgium have used their Dry Gin 28 and barrel aged it in French oak barrels from Limousin, previously used for making cognac.

Cherry Brandy - Scheibel's The original Gin from Germany is matured in barrels previously used for Cherry Brandy Liqueur, creating a pink colored liquor.

Port - NAO Gin from Portugal is aged for 3 months in barrels previously used for Port maturation.

Rum – Corsair Distillery in Tennessee, USA produce their own Spiced Rum, with spent barrels recycled to make their Corsair Barrel Aged Gin.

Sherry – Greenhook Ginsmths based in New York USA produce an Old Tom Gin aged for a year in Oloroso sherry casks.

Vermouth - Beefeater use French oak from Jean de Lillet rare réserve barrels for their Burrough’s Reserve Gin. These barrels have been used to make a fortified wine very similar to Vermouth (it doesn’t contain wormwood so can’t be called Vermouth), and is an excellent choice when you consider the traditional pairing of Gin and Vermouth to make the classic Martini cocktail. This may account for Bacardi using ex-Vermouth barrels to age their Bombay Amber Gin and Nginious from Switzerland using casks first used to age Italian Barolo wine followed by Cocchi Vermouth, to create their Cocchi Vermouth Cask Gin.

Wine - Distillery No. 209 in California, USA produce 2 French oak barrel aged Gins: Sauvignon Blanc Barrel Reserve and Cabernet Sauvignon Barrel Reserve, previously used for aging Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon wines and, St. George Distillery also in California have a Dry Rye Reposado Gin, aged in a blend of American and French oak barrels which previously held grenache rosé and syrah wines (creating a pink colored spirit).

Flavored Blends

You may have noticed, for example from the St. George Dry Rye Reposado mentioned above, that distillers have not kept themselves to using just one type of barrel to age their Gins. It is not uncommon for a Gin to be aged in one type of barrel followed by further aging in another type of barrel afterwards, prior to being bottled. Alternatively a batch of Gin can be divided up and put in different barrels before being recombined and bottled. In 2013 Citadelle changed the face of Barrel Aged Gin following their launch of Citadelle Reserve Solera.

Aging by the Solera method is more commonly encountered in the world of Madeira, Sherry, Spanish Brandy and some Rum - Citadelle’s was a world first for Gin. The Solera process involves the spirit being added to different types of barrels to age, in the case of Citadelle this is an ex-Cognac barrel, an ex-Pineau des Charente barrel (a French fortified wine made from grape must and eau-de-vie) and an American oak barrel. Once aged, the time for which can vary for each different type of barrel used, a proportion of the spirit is taken from these barrels (and replaced with new spirit) while the aged spirit is added to a combined “mother vat” or Solera barrel where it is left to blend for a short time. Then a proportion of the Solera barrel is bottled, in the case of Citadelle this is half of the “mother vat”. Only taking part of the barrel ensures consistency, by blending old with new, and maintains the flavor profile of the finished product.

Launched in 2013, Four Pillars Distillery in the Yarra Valley of Australia has grown up quickly. They produced their Barrel Aged Gin in 2014 using the Solera method of aging, and promptly won a double gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Whisky Quibble

One criticism leveled at Barrel Aged Gin is that it is like a poor man’s Whisky and prompts the question: is it still Gin? It seems this view depends on two factors, how it has been made and the individual palate of the person drinking it. Clearly, if you are a Whisky drinker your thoughts about Barrel Aged Gin could be either positive or negative, depending upon how much the Gin tastes like Whisky (or not). A similar view can be said for Gin drinkers, either liking or disliking it depending upon how much “Ginniness” the spirit retains after aging. An interesting position is held when the drinker likes both Gin and Whisky, as we do, and in this scenario Barrel Aged Gins can be a very welcome addition to the world of spirits.

The disappointment or enjoyment of this style of Gin abounds, with a fine line between distillers creating a wood flavored Gin or a botanical flavored Whisky. Producers have little or no regulations imposed upon them to define how or what a Barrel Aged Gin should be like. We know the factors that influence the flavor of aged Gin are critically important and so it really comes down to the intentions of the distiller and what they are seeking to portray. This rebirth of aged Gin is, for many producers, still in its infancy and creative experimentation is the order of the day (and will no doubt continue to be so for the foreseeable future).

Currently being led by the producers, only time will tell how this category will develop. We’ll leave this “quibble” with comments from two leading distillers: Paul Hletko of FEW Spirits (Illinois, USA) is quoted as regarding wood as “just another botanical that needs to be balanced alongside every other ingredient in the gin”. James Hayman of Hayman Distillers (London, UK) is quoted as saying “To our family, gin is about the botanicals - not the impact of the wood.” - these two distillers clearly view Barrel Aged Gins as needing to maintain their “Ginniness.”

We'll Drink To That!

Upon first encountering Barrel Aged Gin people tend to be uncertain what to do with it i.e. what drinks to put it in. Even bartenders can lack an educated background to help them in obtaining the best use of it in cocktails. Frequently people fall back on familiar Gin drinks such as a Gin & Tonic or Martini but these are not the best choice for this type of Gin and it certainly doesn’t shine in them. So how do you drink it and what are the best drinks to put it in?

Straight Up – spirits such as Whisky and Brandy are often drunk neat (maybe with some ice) and this is a good option for Barrel Aged Gins. It’s fair to say not all can be drunk this way but most can and while Gin is usually treated as an aperitif (pre-dinner drink) a Barrel Aged one works well as a digestif (post-dinner drink). A garnish can also enhance the “sipping” experience - consider using: citrus with citrus forward Gins (orange is usually best with its warming sweet notes), spices with spice forward Gins (cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods etc.) or herbs with herbal forward Gins (a bay leaf or sprigs of rosemary, thyme, basil etc.).

Whisky Replacement – because Barrel Aged Gins frequently have Whisky notes to them, they work well in some drinks traditionally made with Whisky. Several of the best working cocktails are the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and the French 95 (simply replace the Whisky with a Barrel Aged Gin instead).

Gin Cocktails – Whereas the Martini uses dry Vermouth, the Manhattan uses sweet vermouth and this forms the basis of other cocktails Barrel Aged Gin can work well in - try an Americano, Boulevardier, Bronx, Hanky Panky, Income Tax, Martinez or a Negroni. Another tack to take is by using cocktails which pair well with woody flavors – try a Bee’s Knees, Gin & Orange, Gin Buck or White Lady.

Barrel Aged Cocktails

An interesting trend may be found in adventurous, hip or experimental bars around the world. Some bartenders have taken to making pre-batched cocktails and a few of these are being added to barrels for a short period of aging, before being served to customers. At these bars you should, in theory at least, be able to identify wooden barrels behind the bar with displays indicating what is inside e.g. Negroni, Martinez, Manhatten etc. In regard to Gin, these pre-batched cocktail mixes make use of a non-aged version of the spirit and the time in wood modifies it (along with other ingredients like campari, sweet vermouth etc.) to provide, when extracted from the barrel and stirred or shaken with ice, a more rounded and flavorsome drinking experience. Next time you are out on the town, look around, and you might be surprised to find a barrel aged cocktail to try.

Personal Experimentation

Picking up a small wood barrel for around $35 (and upwards) shouldn’t prove too difficult and could provide the beginnings of a study in wood. Try using it with shop bought non-aged Gins, or even you own batches of cocktails, to make at home - the results might surprise you! See Online Kegs and Barrels, Red Hill General Store or Amazon. Alternatively try out some wood pieces to add to a bottle - check out: Barrel Aged In A Bottle, Food 52 or Amazon.

Closing Thoughts

Regardless if you think of it as a Gin drinker’s Whisky, a Whisky drinker’s Gin or the offspring love child of Gin and Whisky there is likely to be something of interest for you in this category. However, be aware juniper levels are usually lighter and one Barrel Aged Gin can be very different to the next, so try as many as you can to find those to suit your personal palate. There is a lot of scope for development and experimentation by distillers with an incredible array of new and exciting flavors using Gin (and not found in any other spirit on the market today). This could just be the dawning of a new era.

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