Barrel-aged gin isn't new, but after decades out of the market, it's making a resurgence because of its shared lineage with whiskey, the popular spirit of the moment.
So while you might not have heard of barrel-aged gin before, that’s not surprising. The last time it was in great supply, it wasn't actually referred to as barrel-aged.
Technically this is gin in its most natural state — barrel-aging wasn't a choice a few centuries ago; it was an involuntary process that occurred any time you transported or stored alcohol for a period of time in a barrel. The crisp, clear, straight-to-bottle stuff we drink today may be what the distiller always had in mind, but it wasn't what the average guy had the option of drinking then. Nowadays barrel-aging is a financial hurdle (because barrels are so expensive) and a luxury (because wood is not the default material for storage vessels).
That means that it can be a choice, like it was for Few Spirits. Few founder Paul Hletko says that's where his brand's Barrel Gin came from. "We were sitting around with a gin recipe we didn't really love," he explains. "We felt like it was missing something really big to be a great gin. So we came up with the idea on a lark to throw it in a barrel and see what happens. And six months later it came out of the barrel and we were like, 'Wow, that's really good." When we got started I don't think there were a lot of folks doing it. But now there are."
Few, for its part, is a really floral gin — and Hletko says that makes it ideal for barreling. "The coriander gives it a really wonderful floral note," he says, "that plays really well with a lot of wood characteristics — caramel and pepper."
Many whiskey distilleries like Few start with gin — and there's a good reason: the price. Gin doesn't need time in the barrel to go out the door: After the botanicals are added, it's ready for bottling. Whiskey, though, takes time in the barrel — precious time when you're trying to pay bills. It doesn't hurt that Few uses a Bourbon-like new make spirit: The mash is comprised of corn, rye, and malted barley. That's good for whiskey, later, but it makes a good gin now.
There are plenty of reasons why Hletko suggests drinking barrel gin neat, or with a couple of cubes, despite most people not usually going that route — it's a complex taste experience, and when done correctly is a sort of brilliant marriage of both styles.
But if you find yourself going for a cocktail, it works both ways: as a gin, or as a whiskey.
"We have people that do whiskey cocktails with it, we have people that do gin cocktails with it. We're pretty agnostic about how you use it," Hletko says. "We’re just excited about it being something different that not everybody's had before."