A lot of young whiskey distilleries have good reason to become fans of gin. It is, on the simplest level, much faster to produce than something like American bourbon or rye whiskey, and comparatively inexpensive as a result. The botanicals themselves may not be cheap, but the advantage of a product that is ready to be bottled within months, rather than years in oak barrels, is obvious to anyone. There’s a reason why so many young distilleries with big whiskey ambitions turn to gin as a practical enterprise in their early years.
Of course, the typical modus operandi for such operations is just to create a flagship gin brand and then stick with it for the foreseeable future, while devoting the majority of time to the slowly maturing whiskey. And to their credit, that’s not what Castle & Key Distillery has done at all. Instead of creating one static gin brand, they created a living template for a brand that varies wildly with each biannual release, leaning into a variety of different profiles. You might say that Castle & Key decided to seriously court the gin geek market, offering a more enticing rationale for consumers to buy each subsequent release, while the whiskey geek market continues to wait patiently on the sidelines.
And there have indeed been a lot of people waiting for Castle & Key whiskeys, it must be noted—perhaps no other Kentucky distilling operation has earned so much media attention over the last few years without having a single drop of its whiskey released to the public. It boils down to a combination of history, location and the personalities involved. The campus itself is gorgeous, looking like a medieval fortress come to life, and it can boast the story to go along with its visuals. Once the Old Taylor Distillery, it was built in 1887 by the legendary Colonel E.H. Taylor, the namesake of one of Buffalo Trace’s most famous brands. It operated in several phases subsequently, surviving Prohibition to open once more and was finally shuttered in 1972, sitting fallow afterward for more than 40 years. It was then discovered by partners Will Arvin and Wes Murry, who went to work bringing the castle-like grounds back to their former glory, while the distilling operations were taken on by Master Distiller Marianne Eaves, who made headlines aplenty as Kentucky’s first female master distiller. Eaves has since departed to pursue her own ventures—she revealed her own whiskey subscription service just yesterday, actually—but the whiskey (bourbon and rye) is still there, waiting for its moment in the sun. I’ve heard that first look at Castle & Key’s whiskey could come as soon as winter of 2020, and you can be sure there will be a lot of attention on it when it does.
Until then, though, we’ve got gin—and Autumn 2020 London Dry Gin, specifically, which Castle & Key describes as possessing a suite of fall-friendly flavors. Says the distillery:
“Our Autumn 2020 Gin reimagines what traditional gin is by adding an element of smoke and woodsy tones, similar to those seen in mezcals and peated whiskies,” says Jon Brown, Quality Manager at Castle & Key Distillery. “This release required 12 unique botanicals, like Cedar Leaf, Spicebush, Caraway and Orris Root, in order to create balance and allow the flavors to blend together, and we look forward to continuing to create diversity in the market by focusing on producing high-quality spirits rather than focusing on consistency.”
This gin is bottled at a robust 49% ABV (98 proof), which actually falls in the middle of previous Castle & Key London Dry Gin releases, which have ranged from 93-106 proof. It comes from a run of roughly 11,400 bottles, with an MSRP of $36.
So with all that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, this definitely registers as closer to classic London Dry Gin than the citrus-forward New Western Gin style that has increasingly become synonymous with craft gin in the U.S. I immediately get resinous juniper and lots of floral/herbaceous notes, along with delicate citrus and complex spice that is hard to put a finger on—cardamom and licorice for sure. It smells like it has a bit more of a warm spice profile than your really classical London Dry Gin might, but there’s no mistaking the juniper. One thing I’m not getting is anything that registers as “smoke” or overt campfire-ness, making me wonder whether Castle & Key’s comparison with scotch or mezcal might be greatly overstated.
On the palate, though, things begin to make a bit more sense as far as the “smoky” description is concerned. This is warm and spicy on the palate, with some lovely notes of cardamom and licorice that play nicely with moderate juniper resin and subdued red berry notes. There’s also a more nebulous spicy quality that I might attribute to the “spicebush” mentioned among the botanicals that is decidedly woodsy in flavor, and very fall appropriate indeed. On the back end, finally there is a wisp of something more charred and roasty, which gives the lightest possible kiss of char. It should be noted that the proof point works beautifully, and the ethanol is very restrained in comparison with some other similarly high-proof gins I’ve sampled recently.
All in all, I’m not sure I would have marketed this gin as containing a “smoke” element, as those who are looking for that note are probably expecting it to be more assertive than it is here. I do, however, find myself very much admiring the blend of flavors they’ve achieved here in the Autumn 2020 gin—it’s very warm and festive, and the 98 proof goes down frighteningly easily. I look forward to experimenting with this gin more in cocktails as the weather gets colder, and it’s easy to admire the company’s desire to continue experimenting even after they hit on a winner like this.
Distillery: Castle & Key
City: Frankfort, KY
Style: London dry gin
ABV: 49% (98 proof)
Availability: Seasonal, 750 ml bottles, $36 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.