Perhaps the most attention-getting riff a bartender can make on a classic cocktail is to swap out the core spirit with something wholly unexpected.
Barrel-aged gin started making an appearance in the past several years, but it’s only been in the past few years that there have been enough of them to offer choices, and with it the ability to tailor a specific riff into a signature. So, while it’s fair to say barrel-aged gin isn’t novel anymore, only recently has the category’s door been open to exploration in classic whiskey cocktails.
Technically, barrel-aged gin is a brown spirit, but in practical terms, not so much as others. They often retain more of their botanicals-rooted fundamentals than is the case with aged rum or even tequila, to say nothing of whiskey—the flavor of which is up to 80% down to barrel maturation. Some barrel-aged gins share not even one characteristic with whiskey, so snatching the wrong bottle will probably take you farther than you want to go in making that substitution. These are the best choices for putting some gin into a Sazerac, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Boulevardier, or other whiskey cocktails.
FEW Spirits Barrel Gin
Introduced in 2012 and one of the earliest examples of a barrel-aged gin, FEW took their standard Breakfast Gin, aged it in a mix of new oak, ex-bourbon and ex-rye barrels (all from their own whiskey production), and blended those constituent barrels together to create a robust concoction. The botanical base of citrus zest, coriander and juniper are neatly balanced with some weighty barrel-driven notes, namely vanilla and earthy, almost smoky cocoa. You could put this in any whiskey cocktail calling for bourbon or rye, and maybe even Scotch or Irish Whiskey, and it will work just fine.
Bourbon Barreled Big Gin
Another early craft entry is this item from Captive Spirits in Seattle. They took a standard botanicals base, added Tasmanian Pepperberry for some extra herbal kick, and aged it for six months in ex-bourbon barrels. It remains a spicy with a current of pine at its core, but with an accent of vanilla. It’s used in place of rye whiskey in a Sazerac and a pre-Prohibition style Manhattan, with pleasing results.
New Riff Wild Gin Bourbon Barreled
Northern Kentucky’s New Riff Distilling went the extra mile to root their barrel-aged gin in Bourbon Country. They included a pair of wild seasonings into their botanicals—local juniper and American Spicebush—plus goldenrod, the state flower. Going into the pot with the botanicals is some of their own rye whiskey white dog. Then the gin sits in some of their ex-bourbon barrels for seven months. They hit the target with trying to mingle a little wood tannin and spiciness with the botanical spiciness, and New Riff already endorses putting it in that Manhattan-Martini fusion, the Martinez.
KOVAL Barreled Gin
Located in Chicago, Koval ages its dry, small-batch, organic gin for six months in barrels that previously held Koval whiskey. The nose exudes traditional gin flavors including juniper, coriander, and cedar, while its palate is rich in vanilla, malt, and cookie flavors, making Koval Barreled Gin a bonafide gin and dark spirit hybrid that appeals to gin and whiskey drinkers alike. It’s a great substitute for whiskey in an Old Fashioned cocktail.
The next step beyond barrel-aged gin is barrel-aged genever, which raises the technical debate of whether genever is even gin or not. Think of them as siblings; gin is basically vodka or neutral grain spirit with botancials; genever is made in a pot still and distilled to a lower proof than neutral grain spirits, so it’s heavier and retains more of its native flavor, but also with botanicals. If you’re thinking genever is closer to whiskey to begin with, you’re not wrong, so throw in the barrel-aging and the result is not so far off from creating a youthful fusion of the two. So, if you reach for barrel-aged genever instead of whiskey for a classic cocktail, you’re keeping a full foot planted atop the recipe’s original direction.
Bols Barrel-Aged Genever
Bols has been in the genever and gin game since the 16th Century. This particular release is somewhat more modern than a Bruegel painting, drawing on 19th Century inspirations and aged in French oak casks for 18 months. This particular example of genever leans more on its malty character, with the botanicals and oak very much in the background, so it smacks of honey accented with apricot and vanilla. Try using it in Scotch- and Irish Whiskey-oriented recipes, like the Rusty Nail, Irish Coffee, Rob Roy, or Presbyterian.
De Borgen Old-Style Genever
This is a Dutch spirit made at a family-owned distillery now in its fourth generation, and their Old-Style is made with an eye on what genever was in the 17th and 18th Centuries, when speaking of “Dutch courage” referred to seafaring and not bracing your nerve to ask someone out. The mash uses about one-fifth malted barley and leans heavily on juniper, but the kicker is that De Borgen Old-Style is a blend. Some of the constituent elements aren’t barrel-aged at all, but some have been sitting in casks for up to 17 years. Like New Riff’s aforementioned gin, it’s a sound spirit to base a Martinez around, while being both more complex and mellow.