Tuesday 18 March 2014

Aged gins: is the wood good?

In the march for novelty in the crowded gin market it seems that time of barrel-ageing may well have come. I was invited to a tasting of half a dozen varieties at Megaro Bar by King’s Cross in London last week. The event was hosted by Maverick, who are handling the Professor Cornelius Ampleforth aged version of the Bathtub Gin, and the line-up also included Filliers from Belgium and three from the US, from New York Distilling, FEW and Smooth Ambler.

I suppose it was inevitable that someone would try this, partly because barrel-ageing is fashionable with all manner of drinks (including pre-mixed cocktails) as part of our current love affair with all things small-batch, artisanal and homemade, but also because there is a school of thought that some of the character of the elusive Old Tom Gin may have been the result of resting in barrels.* Certainly Seagram have been resting their gin in charred white oak barrels since time immemorial in order to smooth off the rough edges.

Geoff Robinson from Maverick leads the tasting
Note the term “resting”. In Seagram’s case it is a matter of just 3–4 weeks. Defunct brand Booth’s used to rest their product for 6–12. Some believe that in the days when gin was shipped in barrels, rather than bottled at the factory, it would have gained some subtle benefits from just such a short period in contact with wood. But in any case no-one seems to age gin for more than a few months; extended time in wood is presumably found to erode the character of the botanicals, or subordinate them overly to the barrel flavours.

While we were milling around before the presentation we were given Collinses made with the Ampleforth version. I was immediately struck by a musty note, which I realised was the wood; it did indeed taste a bit like the inside of a barrel. This product ages in “octave” barrels, just one-fifth the capacity of standard hogsheads, which means greater exposure to the wood.

When we came to the tasting proper, this gin was the first one we sampled. The Ampleforth has a strong nose of juniper, orange peel and cloves (all of which are in the botanical mix, plus coriander, cinnamon and cardamom). The palate is strongly bitter-sweet (actually first sweet, then bitter) with a very woody taste. It’s fierce but not rough. In a way it seems typically full-on for the Ampleforth infusions (cf. their smoked vodka compared to the relatively delicate example from Chase; from a cocktail point of view the Ampleforth version proved much more useable, with the Chase example too easily lost in a mixed drink). We are later sent home with a sample that I make into a Martinez (Jerry Thomas style, equal parts gin and red vermouth with dashes of curaçao and bitters), which, being related to the whiskey-based Manhattan, seems like a good thing to try. Sure enough the woody character pokes through. I find it at first a little disconcerting for that musty quality, but at the same time it does work. I wonder if that particular flavour is a combination of vanilla wood notes combined with high aromatic juniper flavours. I gather they create a blend of batches variously aged in bourbon and sherry barrels, and then rest the mix a bit longer in malt whisky barrels. The total ageing time is just 3–6 months, and the flavour is not really like wood as it presents itself in whiskey, dark soft flavours and rich vanilla. Instead it is fresh and vivid, like a mossy tree stump that has just been split.

Next up is Filliers Gin 28, from Belgium. This gin is essentially clear but with a pale, almost greenish tinge. It is aged for four months in ex-Cognac barrels. The nose offers orange, menthol, leafy lime peel, something rooty and floral (angelica?) and, unexpectedly, chocolate. On the palate I’m getting chocolate orange again. I’m not getting much obviously woody about it, though I wonder whether the chocolate notes have been picked up from the Cognac-impregnated barrels. (There are, we are told, 28 botanicals, a secret blend of citrus fruits, herbs and roots.)

After this we move to US samples for the rest of the tasting. First up is Smooth Ambler’s Stillhouse Barrel-Aged Gin. We’re very much in American whiskey territory here: it’s made from a mash bill of 68% corn, 16% wheat and 16% malted barley and aged for at least four months in a mixture of new and used bourbon casks from the same distillery.
The result is a pale gold, with a nose of toffee, pencil-lead juniper, plus odd things like blue cheese and warm vinyl. (I suspect the high ABV—49.5%—is yielding some in-your-face fumes.) It is spicy on the palate with sawmill wood flavours and hints of banana esters and some black pepper. It has a full, mealy mouthfeel. (Botanicals are juniper, coriander, cardamom, angelica root, orange and lemon peel and black pepper.)

FEW’s example is a rich amber-gold colour, made from a mash of 70% corn, 20% wheat and 10% unmalted barley, aged in small barrels (the greater surface area to volume ratio yielding more wood influence), some new, some ex-rye and ex-bourbon, all from the FEW distillery’s own whiskeys. There are five botanicals with an emphasis on juniper and coriander. The nose yields lots of strong mentholic juniper fumes, almost like Bostik, with a bit of chocolate, coriander, orange, banana and something floral. On the palate the bold flavours conjure anise and a strong heft of caraway.

The name of the next sample—Chief Gowanus New Netherland Gin, from New York Distilling—is a mouthful in itself. It is a greeny-yellow colour and has a nose of green juniper with a floral musky undertone, some toffee and high, spicy grain notes, perhaps from the three months it spends in the distillery’s own rye whiskey barrels. The palate is not that woody, but strikes me as light and fruity. There are in fact just two botanicals, juniper and cluster hops. The spirit base contains no malt—it is rye-based—yet some people in the room felt that it was evocative of the “Hollands Gin” that you see referred to in old cocktails books (generally considered to be genever): this is certainly the intention of the producers, aiming to recreate the style of spirit that would have been drunk back when Brooklyn was still a Dutch colony.

Finally we taste Dry Rye Reposado from St George Spirits. Its colour is dark amber, but even this one has only spent 4–6 months in wood, in this case casks previously used for Syrah and Grenache wine. The botanicals include juniper, caraway, coriander, lime, grapefruit and black pepper, and the nose suggests juniper, biscuits, orange marmalade, coffee, chocolate and prunes. The palate is surprisingly sweet and soft, with juniper and bananas. (I actually get less caraway from this than from the FEW which, to my knowledge, actually contains none.)

As you can see there was quite a bit of variety in how these products are put together—and almost as much variety in how they are labelled. At our tasting there was much talk of defining a recognised category for this sort of product. You might wonder if this is really necessary, but there are those who feel that these spirits are likely to be overlooked by bartenders and mixologists unless they occupy a recognised seat at the table. Some also worried that, without definitions for the category, some might knock up aged spirits using chips or staves of wood for a quick result, rather than the more time-consuming use of a barrel.**

DBS, looking a bit like Bacchus, with Becky Paskin from The Spirits Business
Which brought us to the matter of terminology. If you want a recognised category, what do you call it? Aged, barrel-aged, cask-aged, rested..? (St George use the tequila term reposado to get at the idea of a shortish time in wood.) DBS tells us that the term “yellow gin” was used for this sort of thing by such people as Kingsley Amis and David Embury, but we all agreed this was not a selling proposition (ever heard of the deadly yellow snow?). Likewise “brown gin”, apparently also used, sounded even worse. There was some favour for “amber gin”, however.

I think the category is a noble enterprise, and there were those in the room who declared some of the examples to be “sipping” gins, which were too complex to ruin with mixing. I’m not sure I really feel the same way: I think it is telling that my favourite was the Filliers, which was probably the least wooded. For my money the influence of the barrels in these examples seemed too coarse and sawdust-like, compared to the smooth subtlety you can get in a whiskey that has spent many years in wood. I’m guessing, however, that producers have found that if you age gin in wood any longer than a few months the delicate influence of the botanicals is lost altogether. It is as if you can flavour spirit either with an infusion of herbs, spices, roots and barks, or by a long period subtly interacting with wood—but not both.

* Old Tom Gin is, generally speaking, a style that was popular before London Dry took over. It is generally considered to have been sweeter, though opinions differ as to whether this was simply through the addition of sugar, or through the use of a botanical intensity focusing on ingredients such as liquorice that give an impression of sweetness. It seems likely that much of this was an attempt to mask poor quality base spirit, and and that the invention of the column still, which makes it easier to produce pure spirit, made this approach unnecessary, paving the way for a leaner, crisper, drier, less botanically heavy style of gin.

** I’m not convinced this is such a big deal, as long as you don’t actually lie on the label. It’s not as if there is a grand, revered tradition that anyone is trying to piggy-back on. It’s all frontier territory for now.

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