In the conversations I’ve had with other spirits writers, I’ve come across quite a few people who profess to not understand the allure or point of barrel-aged gin.
It’s a very small offshoot of the gin market, to be certain. Your classic gins, whether they’re in the U.K. London Dry style or the sweeter and more fruit-forward New Western style that has become the norm at American distilleries, are both unaged, crystal clear distillates. Incidentally, you may want to check out our blind-tasting of 10 bottom-shelf gins right about now.
Sticking one of those gins into either a newly charred or re-used whiskey barrel is a considerable alteration of the crisp, bitter flavor profile of the spirit, but it’s a contrast that I believe can work pretty well. Certainly, barrel-aged gins are right at home in a few of the classic gin cocktails, complementing something like the rounded sweetness and vanilla tones of good sweet vermouth in a well-made negroni. For a drinker like myself, who already prefers the whiskey-based Boulevardier cocktail to the classic, gin-based negroni, a barrel-aged gin nicely bridges the gap.
Still, it’s a sub-genre that requires a rather delicate touch. You can’t age one of these gins for too long, lest it lose its grasp on its botanical-based flavor profile, drifting too far from being recognizable as gin. But at the same time, the barrels must speak for themselves—if it’s just a tinted gin, then what was the point?
Kentucky’s Rabbit Hole Distillery is known for rye whiskey, as their popular Boxergrail has put their own spin on the “95-5” blend of rye and malted barley that is a common mash bill. To apply that signature rye flavor to gin, however … ah, now we’re getting into interesting territory.
The result is Rabbit Hole’s new year-round “Bespoke Gin,” a product that is sourced, as the name would imply, from a U.K. distillery before being aged in Kentucky in barrels that previously contained the brand’s rye whiskey. As there aren’t that many barrel-finished gins on the market, this could be an area of opportunity for Rabbit Hole.
Let’s get to tasting, though, and see how the rye barrels impacted this spirit. It’s bottled at a curiously precise 89 proof (44.5% ABV).
On the nose, this is an interesting mix of competing notes vying for supremacy. I get hints of toffee and pine, along with prominent notes of orange citrus and vanilla. There’s a contrasting nature to this profile that is curious but not unpleasant, with a slightly musty, grainy note that slowly becomes identifiable as rye bread-like in nature.
On the palate, I get sweet citrus, florals and spice in equal measure. There’s definitely a big orange citrus note, which combines with moderate residual sweetness and vanilla to get it a slight “orange creamsicle” note, but it’s also nowhere near as sweet as many New Western gins I’ve sampled. The sweetness is tempered by substantial juniper, which comes through both in fruity berry notes and moderate bitterness, balancing itself pretty nicely. Peppery spice is prominent as well, although it’s hard to put a finger on if it’s more a product of the rye barrels, or the botanicals involved in the base gin itself.
Regardless, this seems like a category that remains a bit on the “love it or hate it” side, but I feel like barrel-aged gin has a place in the mixology game in particular. At a roughly $50 MSRP, this isn’t exactly cheap for gin, but it makes up for pricing with novelty that hasn’t yet become commonplace in this genre.
Distillery: Rabbit Hole Distillery
City: Louisville, KY
Style: Barrel-aged gin
ABV: 44.5% (89 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $49.99 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.