by Stacy Adimando, The Salt at NPR Food (12/6/14)
While many know gin for its light, bright, and dry characteristics — citrusy, herbal flavors that goes so well with tonic water — another gin sits at the opposite end of the spectrum. Malty, lightly tannic, and with the subtle sweetness and spice of a young whiskey, dark, barrel-aged gin is pushing the frontiers of this spirit forward.
Dark gins are distilled the usual way, then spend months or even years resting in oak barrels — the same ones used to age whisky, wine and sherry. That final step yields surprisingly complex results. The wood tones down the intensity of the juniper, and adds notes of vanilla, caramel and often baking spices, somewhere between a bourbon-like gin and a gin-like bourbon.
Dark gin appeared in the U.S. in the last 5 to 10 years, but the marriage of gin and oak is not new. "The Dutch have been doing this with their jenevers (a more neutral-tasting predecessor to gin) for 400 years," says Tad Henry Seestedt. Seestedt founded and owns Ransom Spirits, a distillery and winery in Sheridan, Ore., that helped pioneer barrel-aged gin in American in 2008. The same is true of European Old Tom gin, he notes, a fuller-bodied, long-lost cousin of modern dry gins that was sweeter, spicier, and popular in the 1800s and 1900s. Historically, both were transported in barrels at full proof, then later cut with water by the bartenders.
Seestedt says a return to old-school styles and flavors is what sparked his pursuit of bringing barrel-aging back to gin. His barrel-rested Old Tom today makes up over 40 percent of Ransom's total offerings. "A lot of old classic cocktail books called for Old Tom gin (in recipes like the Martinez) and we wanted to bring it back."
It took Ransom two years of trial batches working with friend and well-known cocktail historian David Wondrich to nail the aromatics and barreling process. "We found that if you make a gin that maintains a lot of presence of the grains and cereals used in the distilling process, it will respond much better to aging in barrels," Seestedt says.