Oak was used for its sturdiness, and the antibacterial qualities it holds. As the Gin remained in the barrels, it would change colour, and in those days, it was often known as ‘yellow Gin’. But more than just changing in physical appearance, the Gin took on flavour from the oak barrels which mellowed the Gin, giving it a sweeter, slightly spiced note.
The 1861 Single Bottle Act changed all this, as it allowed distillers to sell Gin in glass bottles for the first time, giving them greater control over the colour, flavour and quality of their Spirits once they left the distillery. With that, barrel-aged Gin practically died out until the late 2000s, when the Gin-aissance was in full swing in America thanks to the rise in craft distilleries and resurgence of cocktail culture.
The Bourbon bitNow bear with me as I switch tack and tell you a little tale about Bourbon (don’t worry, we’ll be back to Gin before you know it). Bourbon has to be made in the US, and it also has to be aged in new, charred oak barrels (note the word ‘new’ there, that’s important). So when craft distilling was born out of the American craft brewing movement, producers were focused on experimenting with recipes and trialling new things.
Bourbon producers were also making other spirits, such as Gin (told you we’d be back), but due to the classification and production method of Bourbon, there were plenty of charred oak barrels lying around which had fulfilled their single use purpose. It wasn’t long before some bright spark thought to combine the two, and barrel-aged Gin was re-born.
But it’s not limited to Bourbon, today, the practice has been adopted by distillers all over the world, and while ex-Bourbon casks are still the most-widely used, you’ll also find Gins (and increasingly, Vodkas) on the market which have been aged or ‘rested’ in Cognac, Scotch, Rye or even Sherry casks.
The main difference between aged Gins and the Wine or Spirits which used to reside in the barrels they’ve adopted is the time each has been rested. Scotch, for example, legally must be aged for a minimum of three years and a day, but aged Gins are usually just finished in barrels for a few months before they’re ready. This is because there’s a limit to how much flavour of the Gin will change, due to having fewer congeners (that’s compounds that alter its flavour) than a Brandy, for example.
So that’s the history bit, but ...
How do you drink these Gins?With all the botanical flavours of Gin, plus a honey colour and notes of wood and vanilla, it can be hard to know what to do with aged Gins, but the truth is it’s entirely up to you. Sip them neat or over ice, drink them with tonic (but we’d suggest one with less sweetness such as Fever-Tree or Fentimans), or really let them sing by using them in cocktails.
The sweeter notes of aged Gins means they make the perfect ingredient for lots of classic cocktails like the Martinez.
50 ml aged Gin
20 ml sweet Vermouth
10 ml dry Vermouth
5 ml Maraschino liqueur
1 dash of Angostura bitters
Add all of the ingredients to a cocktail shaker, filled halfway with ice. Stir, then strain into a chilled Martini glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
Aging a Gin gives it many of the flavours common to spirits such as Bourbon, with sweet and smoky notes like caramel, oak and vanilla. For this reason, you’ll find many cocktails using aged Gin as a replacement for Whisky in classic cocktails with a twist, such as an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan.
Which Aged Gins are worth trying?We’ve picked five of the best to get going. Let us know your favourite in the comments below.
Hayman’s Gently RestedMade by aging in old Scotch Whisky barrels for just three weeks to give the Gin a peppery spice in addition to its dominant botanicals of juniper and coriander. Warming and subtle, this Hayman's Gin it smooth enough to sip neat, or tastes great with ginger ale.
Four Pillars Chardonnay Barrel GinAustralian distillery Four Pillars is known for its unusual Gin releases, everything from its Bloody Shiraz Gin (Dry Gin combined with Shiraz Grapes) to Spiced Negroni Gin (designed to be the best Gin in a - yes, you guessed it - Negroni).
To date, they’ve released seven batches of the Chardonnay Barrel Gin, which rests for a whole year. With citrus notes, a light sweetness and a dry finish, this Gin is best served over one large ice cube with a drop of honey and a small sprig of rosemary. Delicious.