If you spend any time in good liquor stores — as I do, even when they call my family and beg them to come for me — you’ll have noticed that more and more gins seem to be going on vacation, traveling to exotic barrels and coming back with a tan.
That’s right: Don’t tell Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, but like Santa Claus, gin isn’t always white anymore. (It’s probably too late for that joke. Can I hashtag it #funnythreeweeksago?)
Some gins explicitly call themselves “aged,” while others tiptoe around the A-word, using “finished,” “rested” or “refined.” It’s marketing speak, of course, but also a way to avoid running afoul of federal regulations, which forbid gins to be labeled with any age statements — rules that so far seem to have been sporadically enforced.
These gins are turning up in shades from soft beige — France’s Citadelle Réserve, last winter’s Ginavit from D.C.’s own Green Hat and the elegant Burrough’s Reserve released last fall by Beefeater — to the amber hues of Corsair, Smooth Ambler and Few, and darker still. If you spotted Roundhouse’s Imperial Barrel Aged Gin across a room, you might wonder who mis-shelved a whiskey.
And tasting? It’s hard to generalize. Although they all retain notes of juniper, they vary enormously in what else shows up on the nose and palate. Some have made the equivalent of a weekend getaway to the barrel; others have practically emigrated. The type of wood, what the barrel previously held, whether it’s toasted or charred inside: All of these have an impact. The aged gins on the market display a variety of flavors, including some — like vanilla, caramel and smoke — that might bring to mind more well-known aged spirits, like whiskeys and cognacs.
Aged gins may be trending, but they’re not new. The Dutch genevers in which gin has its roots have long been aged, and “yellow gin” was once well known. (Hemingway mentions it in “The Denunciation,” his classic bar-and-war story from the 1930s.) In fact, though we think of gin as a white spirit, most spirits traditionally were stored and transported in wood, which always adds some color; the colorless gins we’re familiar with are a relatively recent development that arrived with stainless steel-storage and shipping in bottle.
Modern iterations kicked off around 2008, when Citadelle Réserve and Ransom Spirits’ Old Tom gin hit the market. Those reading booze historian David Wondrich’s 2007 “Imbibe” these days might puzzle at references to the lack of Old Tom: Six years after publication, Old Tom is available again, but at the time, it was lost to history.
Wondrich had a hand in its revival. Back in 2006, Ransom owner Tad Seestedt (who started as a winemaker and moved into brandies, grappas and eau de vies) mentioned to Wondrich that he wanted to make a gin. Wondrich suggested he try for an Old Tom. They aimed, Seestedt says, “to replicate what would have happened to an Old Tom made in the 1800s . . . when they were shipping everything in barrel. So even spirits that weren’t being intentionally aged would have been unintentionally aged for some period” — long enough to pick up some color and wood characteristics.
Alexandre Gabriel, owner and master distiller at Cognac Ferrand, which makes Citadelle, is not convinced that all earlier aging of gin was incidental. He recalls seeing a first edition of 1930’s “The Savoy Cocktail,” which contained ads for barrel-aged gins. “They brag about what kind of barrel they use. So it was not only a transport vessel, but also a way to make specific gins.”
Gabriel experimented with different barrels for Citadelle Réserve. The first version was aged in rinsed cognac barrels, but the release changed every year until 2013. Now Gabriel has begun aging via a solera system, common to sherries. Gin is aged in multiple casks, including those that held cognac and a French aperitif; portions are removed and blended, while new gin is added to the old casks, ensuring consistency across batches.
Enthusiastic about the aged gin trend, several distillers pointed to the challenge of these spirits: At the end of the aging, is the spirit still recognizably a gin?
“With cognac, you have a spirit where the aging is going to concentrate the taste, where with gin you work a lot with the freshness of the juniper berries,” Gabriel says.
“If you leave something in wood for too long, I think you lose the ‘ginniness’ of it,” says Desmond Payne, master distiller at Beefeater.
In crafting Burrough’s Reserve — a gin designed to be sipped neat after dinner, like a cognac — he sought a barrel that had a relationship to the gin it would hold. He settled on casks that had held Réserve Jean de Lillet, an aperitif that shares some of the botanical notes that are in Beefeater. He’s sure there are other possibilities: “I think a logical one would be vermouth casks, for instance. But that was the one that gave me the inspiration . . . that complemented the ‘ginniness’ without overtaking it.”
Too much a gentleman to name names, Green Hat’s Michael Lowe suggested that a few aged gins had pushed the “Is it still gin?” question a little far; Green Hat’s own Ginavit has just a faint trace of color from its months in former apple brandy barrels.
Then again, the darker, woodier gins might bring some whiskey fans into the gin world through this odd antique door. Fans of Roundhouse’s Imperial, after all, delight in referring to it as a “ginskey.”
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears monthly. On Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.