How To Use Barrel Aged Gin In Cocktails
Oak rested gin is all the rage, but what to do with it beyond the neat serve?
Over the past decade, barrel-aged gins have become an increasingly common sight. The spirit has both the botanicals of a classic gin and the smooth barrel notes of a whiskey. But even though it’s more common, there’s just one problem: What are you supposed to do with it?
McClintock Distillery in Frederick, MD planned to produce a barrel-aged gin even before it opened its doors to the public in December of 2016. The idea, says co-founder Braeden Bumpers, was to add complexity and depth to McClintock’s gin recipes. Only, there weren’t too many barrel-aged gins on the market at the time, and Bumpers wasn’t sure what the response would be. It didn’t take long for him to find out, though. In 2018, McClintock’s Reserve Gin won double gold in the gin category at the New York International Spirits Competition — the first barrel-aged gin to ever wine double gold.
“We were absolutely shocked and didn't expect to even medal there,” Bumpers says. “We took that as a sign that the spirits industry is certainly open to barrel-aged gins.”
The category has been slowly chugging along since around 2008, when Citadelle released Réserve, one of the first modern barrel-aged gins. Ransom Spirits’ barrel-aged Old Tom Gin followed shortly after. By 2014, there were around 50 on the market, and by 2015 a range of media outlets from industry-focused drinks publications to NPR were talking about this upstart style of gin. Now barrel-aged gin is coming into its own and brands like McClintock and Cutwater Spirits, which won gold at the 2018 New York International Spirits Competition for its Barrel Rested Old Grove, are scooping up tasting awards.
Still, four years and many (many) barrel-aged gin releases after the category got mainstream attention, consumers are still generally perplexed.
“One of the most common things I see at our events and tastings is people coming up to try the ‘whiskey,’” Bumpers says. “When I tell them that it is a gin, not a whiskey, they say that gin should be clear and then are very curious about trying the ‘gold gin.’”
Trail Distilling co-owner Sara Brennan encounters much of the same, saying that many consumers “don’t know about it or assume it’s an Old Tom Gin” when confronted with the Oregon City, OR brand’s Trillium Barrel Reserved Gin, a silver winner at the 2018 NYISC. One way to decipher the spirit is to look to the past.
Barrel-aged gin isn’t a truly new concept. The Dutch spirit genever was a precursor to modern gin and is made with a barrel-aged malt liquor. Later, gin was stuck in a barrel as a mode of transportation and storage in the 18th and early 19th centuries, where it naturally picked up some oak characteristics. Technology has eliminated the need for barrel transportation, leaving wood as a modifier rather than a necessity. Today, distillers are experimenting with the different flavors that certain barrels add by aging gin in old Madeira, bourbon, wine, rye, and Cognac casks. Others, like Caledonia Spirits in Hardwick, VT for its Barr Hill Tom Cat Reserve , use new American oak barrels.
That experimentation means that how you use a barrel-aged gin largely depends on the gin itself. “I used to be steadfast when we released our Reserve gin that it only should be enjoyed neat or on the rocks, and I think a lot of people come to the table with that preconception,” Bumpers says. “After seeing cocktails that the industry have come up with for barrel aged gins, I have completely come around on mixing these gins.”
Swapping barrel-aged gin for bourbon or other classic whiskey cocktails is usually the first step in learning how to use the spirit. In general, “cocktails that lean toward cool weather months can be replaced with barrel-aged gin,” says Krissy Harris, owner of Jungle Bird in New York City. She adds, “I like to let the characteristics of the particular barrel aged gin drive the end cocktail.”
Another guideline to keep in mind: Longer aged gins work well with drinks like an Old Fashioned or Manhattan, while gins with a lighter barrel influence work well with cocktails like an Aviation or Bees Knees. “I like to focus on the vanilla flavors when mixing barreled gin,” says Max Lents, founder of Baltimore Spirits Co., which makes Shot Tower Barreled Gin. “I often start by subbing it in for a bourbon or rye, carrying the vanilla notes that already work with the cocktail and giving it a unique botanical twist.”
For gins with strong barrel flavors, using a barrel-aged gin instead of rum is another option, says Barbara Molloy, bar manager at Corgi Spirits, which was named New Jersey Gin Distillery of the Year at the 2018 NYISC. The brand’s barrel-aged Very Merry has sweet notes of figs and raisins, and is used in cocktails that use infused syrups, ginger, orange and typical tiki ingredients.
“Whiskey cocktails are the obvious start, but subbing it in for cocktails traditionally made with an aged rum is awesome,” says Barr Hill beverage director Sam Nelis. “The [barrel-aged] Tom Cat is a go-to for me when creating tiki cocktails or building off of classic tiki drinks.” Outside of rum and gin, there are some surprising spirits barrel-aged gin can replace or join. “It plays really well with others,” Nelis says. “Using it to blend with another aged base spirit in cocktails tends to work really well, say apple brandy, a Cognac or an añejo tequila.”
One twist on a classic that pretty much everyone agrees works with barrel-aged gin is the Martinez. What it shouldn’t be used for is long drinks like a Gin and Tonic, since the barrel aging softens the aromatics and a heavy hand with the tonic only dilutes the flavors that make barrel-aged gin special. Also to be avoided are Martinis. “It is pretty versatile in most classics,” Harris says, “but its vanilla and woody quality wouldn't play too well in a Martini, specifically if it was dirty.”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with paring it all down to as simple as it gets. When asked about how he drinks the spirit, Lents replied: “As a sipper! Think you don't like to sip on gin? Think again!”
Figuring out how to use barrel-aged gin is something that the bar industry should get used to, because the trend doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Harris has seen this first hand since first experimenting with Ransom’s Old Tom Gin (recipe below) while working at Gramercy Tavern in the mid 2000s. Today, things have changed exponentially.
“With instant information at their fingertips, guest are seeking the hot spirit or cocktail of the moment,” Harris says. “With gin rapidly growing in popularity in the US (yay!), it only makes sense that the interest in barrel aged gin would also grow.”
Besides, who doesn’t want to be the person in the know? “Everyone knows a London Dry Gin & Tonic,” Harris says, “but a barrel-aged gin Old Fashioned...now that’s street cred.”
Once you’ve taken a stab at the classics, give these five originals a try.
The (New) Old Fashioned
from The Center Club, Baltimore
2 oz McClintock Reserve Gin
.75 oz raw cane simple syrup infused with rosemary, lemon and orange oils
4 dashes Angostura bitters
Rosemary sprig garnish
Stir Reserve, simple syrup, and bitters with ice. Serve in a rocks glass over ice and garnish with rosemary sprig.
The Bond Girl
from Baltimore Spirits Co.
Add all ingredients to mixing glass and add ice. Stir and strain into coupe glass. Garnish with an expressed lemon peel.
Trillium Martinez Cocktail
from Trail Distilling
.75 oz Trillium Barrel Reserved Gin
.75 oz sweet vermouth
1/8 oz Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
2 dashes of bitters
Shake (yes, you purists!) all ingredients with ice and serve neat.
Trillium Barrel Reserved Spring Martini
from Trail Distilling
1.5 oz of Trillium Barrel Reserved Gin
.5 oz of Lillet Rouge
.75 oz of lemon juice
.5 oz of simple syrup
Dash of orange bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice and serve neat.
from Gramercy Tavern, New York City
2 oz Ransom Old Tom Gin
.75 oz honey syrup
.75 oz dry mead
.25 oz lemon juice
Shake ingredients with ice. Strain into a chilled Martini glass.
Classic Tom Cat Old Fashioned
from Caledonia Spirits
2 oz Tom Cat Gin
.5 teaspoon Demerara syrup
2-3 dashes of Angostura bitters
Lemon or Orange Twist, or both for garnish
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass, add ice, stir, then strain into an old fashioned glass over fresh ice. Garnish by squeezing the citrus twists over the top of the cocktail.