The next time your bartender seems too serious, remember that he has nothing on the 18th-century British artist and satirist William Hogarth, for whom beer and gin were symbols of life and death. Consider Hogarth’s engravings “Beer Street” and “Gin Lane.” In the former, well-fed men hoist mugs of what an accompanying poem calls the “happy Produce of our Isle.” The latter, a streetscape strewn with corpses, seems to prefigure the 2009 novel “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
Of course, Hogarth probably didn’t know that beer historically has had a lot in common with the drink that “Gin Lane” calls a “cursed Fiend”: Early beer styles, such as British gruits and Scandinavian sahtis, relied on botanicals including heather and juniper. And he couldn’t have known that beer and gin, centuries after his death, would converge yet again. Craft brewers, empowered by the rise of barrel-aged gins and inspired by ancient ales, have been blurring the lines between beer and spirit, whether by aging beer in gin barrels or incorporating characteristic botanicals. Some recipes are powerfully ginlike; others are merely suggestive, with traces of herbs or citrus. If they are fiendish at all, they are fiendishly creative — or fiendishly good.
“We were just shocked at the aroma profile of these barrels,” says Alex Ganum, owner and brewer at Oregon’s Upright Brewing, which released an apricot ale aged in Ransom Old Tom Gin barrels as its first-anniversary beer, in 2010. “Bright, complex, just layer after layer. The spirit notes and the oak on top of it: It was kind of like a dream.”
Ganum liked the result so much that he decided to release it annually, and he has also experimented with botanicals and ginlike flavors in other beers, such as Special Herbs, a gruit laced with lemon grass, orange peel, hyssop and Sichuan peppercorns and aged in gin and wine barrels. (To temper the oily mouth feel and spirit notes of gin-barrel beers, he often blends them with wine-barrel versions.) In part due to Upright’s efforts — and because Ransom Spirits, perhaps the best-known distiller making barrel-aged gin, is based outside Portland — Oregon has become the epicenter of the gin-barrel-aging trend, with the Commons Brewery, Gigantic Brewing and De Garde Brewing, among others, trying the technique.
But as distilleries have spread throughout the country, so have barrel-aged gins — and the beers that follow. Darek Bell, co-owner of the Tennessee- and Kentucky-based Corsair Distillery, whose gin barrels have been used by Half Acre Beer of Chicago, points out that brewers’ and distillers’ camaraderie, and a mutual desire to push the limits of their crafts, drive the phenomenon.
Corsair’s founders “started off as home-brewers, and so we became interested in making ancient beers and then distilling them and tasting what ancient whiskeys might have tasted like,” Bell says. “A lot of craft brewers and craft distillers are sort of brothers in arms, and a lot of people became interested: people wanting to not just barrel-age with a typical barrel.”
In the District, this spirit of mingled historical inquiry and experimentation has found a home at Right Proper Brewing, whose head brewer, Nathan Zeender, recently teamed up with New Columbia Distillers to age his flagship farmhouse ale in barrels that previously held “ginavit,” a hybrid of gin and aquavit. (The beer debuted in March; a second version, fermented in the same barrels with souring bacteria and Brettanomyces yeast, is forthcoming.) Zeender has also collaborated with Megan Parisi, the former head brewer at the Navy Yard brewery Bluejacket, on Gotland, a riff on the mostly forgotten Swedish Gotlandsdricka style, brewed with cherry- and mesquite-smoked malt and fresh juniper branches.
“With a gin barrel, you’re referencing, maybe, some of these old beers, because the gin would have that strong juniper flavor,” Zeender says. With future Right Proper beers, he adds, “I’ll work my way through the whole botany textbook.”
There’s a good chance that other D.C. breweries will eventually put out gin-influenced beers: Will Durgin dabbled in gin-barrel-aged beers prior to co-founding Atlas Brew Works, and Greg Engert, who oversees the brewing team at Bluejacket, says he hopes to obtain gin barrels from Smooth Ambler Spirits, in West Virginia. “But that’s the thing about gin-barrel beers: 99.99 percent of gins aren’t barrel-aged, so it’s very hard to find those kinds of barrels,” Engert says.
In the meantime, Bluejacket is putting out beers that, while not explicitly gin-related, contain similar notes of citrus, herbs and spice: a strong Belgian-style witbier perfumed with lavender, lemon zest and basil, and a Belgian-style tripel brewed with a whole lemon bergamot bush.
And if the barrels finally arrive? Maybe Engert will concoct something as inspirational as the Bitter & Twisted blond ale he once tasted from the Scottish brewery Harviestoun, aged in gin barrels by its importer, B. United International. “It was a perfect integration of that botanical gin flavor,” he says. “It was delicious.”
Fromson is the author of the e-book “Finding Shakespeare,” published by the Atavist, and a Web copy editor at the New Yorker.