Shhh, don’t tell: We’re taking a risk with this month’s category—barrel-aged gin— because technically it doesn’t exist.
You see, U.S. regulators don’t recognize “aged gin” as a spirit type, so it must be given another designation. As a result, spirits producers perform all kinds of labeling contortions to get around that technicality. Instead of calling their product “barrel aged,” as you’ll see below, they test the limits of creativity with descriptions such as “barrel rested,” “barrel finished,” or “barreled.” Perhaps the gin is “dark” or “rusty,” or maybe it’s billed as “barrel reserve” or “single barrel” gin.
Barrel time can really push gin in new directions.
Yet, that sticky naming issue hasn’t stopped gin producers from continuing to plunk gin into barrels, layering sprightly botanicals with vanilla and honey oaky notes. What’s the attraction?
“I found inspiration from Bourbon barrels,” says Ben Capdevielle, founder/distiller at Seattle’s Captive Spirits, which has experimented with aging its flagship Big Gin in barrels that previously held Bourbon and American single-malt whiskey (see reviews below). “The barrels go all around the world and age all kinds of spirits in them. I said, let’s keep this tradition alive and add a new flavor to the liquid,” in this case, gin. He describes the resulting flavor as a “ginskey,” a mix of gin and whiskey influences.
From a distiller’s point of view, he notes that barrel time can really push gin in new directions; for example, he’s currently working on a Reserve bottling that will spend three years on oak. “The juniper gets squashed in the barrel,” he explains, while “the warming spices like cassia, cardamom, grains of paradise, really come to the forefront.” The end result pushes beyond gin to resemble “a spicy botanical whiskey.”
Wine cask experiments also abound in this space (California’s No. 209 in particular has broken some ground with wine cask-aged gins—look for their Chardonnay-aged bottling), as do whiskey barrel experiments.
For those of us more concerned with finding good things to drink, barrel-aged gins can be an exciting experience.
Citadelle Reserve Solera Gin (France; W.J. Deutsch & Sons, Stamford, CT); $35, 94 points. An unusual, complex gin made using a total of 23 casks, including barrels that previously held Cognac, Pineau de Charentes, and Bourbon, among others. It has a light straw hue and gentle vanilla scent, opening smooth and sweet with hints of grapefruit peel, ginger and pink peppercorn zing, and a mellow fade marked by cinnamon, coriander, almond and coconut. Sip or mix. Best Buy. abv: 44%
Bristow Gin Single Barrel Reserve (USA; Cathead Distillery, Jackson, MS); $55, 93 points. Reminiscent of gingerbread, this honey-hued gin is aged in new American oak for more than one year and has a sweet scent and bold palate that shows vanilla bean, cinnamon, clove, cardamom and a hint of molasses, finishing with a sarsaparilla-like roots-and-bark finish. Try it in an Old Fashioned-style cocktail. abv: 56.5%
The Revivalist Botanical Gin Solstice Expression (USA; Brandywine Branch Distillers, Elverson, PA); $40, 92 points. This robust, deliciously juicy sipper spent time in former red wine casks. It has a rose-gold hue and shows plenty of fruit and spice, starting with dried cherry and leading into ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon, plus a burst of anise on the finish. This barrel-aged gin is begging to marry with sweet vermouth, so mix it into Old Fashioned- or Manhattan-style cocktails; cherry garnish, of course. abv: 46.5%
Woodcut Barrel Rested Gin (USA; Temple Distilling, Lynnwood, WA); $39, 92 points. Made with a Navy Strength gin base rested in ex-Bourbon barrels, this gin has a light straw tint and aromatics that suggest a classic dry gin: mild juniper and citrus, plus a hint of almond nods to the oak influence. The palate is distinctly sweet and light, weaving honey, coriander seed and lemon peel with lychee-like floral notes. Plenty of white pepper and ginger braces up the zingy finish. Think gin and tonics. abv: 45%
Booth’s Finest Dry Gin Cask Mellowed (England; Diageo, Norwalk, CT); $45, 91 points. This gin, “mellowed in sherry oak casks,” offers a pleasing balance between citrus, spice and juniper. Light straw in the glass, look for mild vanilla sweetness, delicate vanilla, cardamom and lemon peel, and a solid juniper backbone. The crisp, slightly drying finish is accented with white pepper. abv: 45%
No. 209 Chardonnay Barrel Reserve Gin (USA; Distillery No. 209, San Francisco, CA); $60, 91 points. Part of a series of wine barrel-finished gins, this will please those who can’t decide between a martini or a glass of Chard. Complex and nuanced, the soft palate opens with gentle vanilla, almond and coconut, leading to a mildly spiced midpalate with hints of coriander, cardamom and white pepper and wrapping up with lemon zest zing. abv: 46%
Peat Barreled Big Gin (USA; Captive Spirits, Seattle, WA); $33, 91 points. The peat influence in this intriguing FrankenGin is very subtle, showing as just a faint iodine breeze on the palate. Overall, this gin, which spent four months in emptied Peated American Single Malt Whiskey barrels from Westland Distillery, has a light straw tinge and almost neutral scent, while the palate shows almond, a juniper-menthol zing, plus a bit of peppery heat on the finish. Best Buy. abv: 47%
Beehive Distilling Barrel Reserve Gin (USA; Beehive Distilling, Salt Lake City, UT); $39, 90 points. This small batch gin starts with a classic London Dry profile, but takes a surprising turn, aged in charred French oak barrels that previously held white wine. The end result is a mild honeysuckle fragrance and warming, honeyed flavor with a spiced midpalate, finishing with juniper twang. abv: 42.5%
Bourbon Barreled Big Gin (USA; Captive Spirits, Seattle, WA); $33, 90 points. Aged for six months in former Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels, this gin has a light straw hue and aromas that hint at coconut and white flowers. The palate builds on that mild coconut sweetness with vanilla and plenty of spicy fireworks—coriander, white pepper and cayenne—finishing flavorful but fairly hot. Recommended to mix. Best Buy. abv: 47%
Stonecutter Spirits Single Barrel Gin (USA; Stonecutter Spirits, Middlebury, VT); $55, 90 points. Aged in former Bourbon barrels for four to six months, this “Bourbon barreled” gin has a pale straw tinge and spicy aroma. The palate shows mint, vanilla and cardamom. The drying, oaky finish sizzles with cinnamon heat. Sip or mix. abv: 45%