American microdistilleries have a tendency to be built on whiskey dreams, but sustained by vodka and gin realities. Bourbon, after all, remains the kingpin of sexy American spirits. It’s the spirit that distillers envision as their company’s flagship, the one that’s going to make their brand a household name. It’s usually a bottle of whiskey that a young distiller hopes will be recognized as his legacy.
But of course, that’s easier said than done. Whiskey takes time—years, if you’re doing it the old-fashioned way and not aging in small barrels or otherwise trying to accelerate the maturation process. And even then, what you’re left with is a young spirit in a sea of similar young spirits; a bourbon that will likely need many more years before it becomes something unique or grandiose. Who has that kind of time, when you’re getting a small, independent business off the ground?
Enter vodka, gin and rum, the building blocks upon which so many young distilleries are built—in addition to the ubiquitous white whiskey/moonshine, which I really wish we could stop pretending to enjoy. Faster and cheaper to produce than anything in the aged whiskey arena, a successful vodka, gin or rum brand can keep a distillery going during the years of waiting for a stubborn first batch of bourbon to arrive. And that’s how a lot of distilleries tend to treat their vodka or gin, as a result—as a means to an end, something to occupy them until they get into the whiskey they’ve been seeking all along.
That’s not Watershed Distillery. These Columbus, OH mainstays have not only built a successful gin brand; they’ve embraced the way that gin has become the public face of their company. Sure, they have a bourbon as well—but you can feel the pride they have in their gin, first and foremost.
Currently, Watershed produces three distinct gins. And so, in typical Paste fashion, let’s run through a simultaneous tasting of the whole gin lineup. All three clock in at 44 percent ABV (88 proof).
Watershed’s flagship gin plays up the various citrus peels used among its botanicals, which also include cassia, Jamaica pepper, coriander and the necessary juniper. Its marketing materials seem to style it as a member of what you’d call the “New Western Gin” substyle, which eschew juniper dominance in favor of sweeter or more fruit-forward notes. Most consumers would likely associate the New Western Gin style with the likes of New Amsterdam Gin, which I must remind you we thoroughly detested while blind tasting bottom shelf gin. My initial impression of Four Peel, though, is that this gin really isn’t quite so new school as it implies itself to be.
Certainly, Four Peel doesn’t have the overwhelming sweetness or candy fruit domination you find in the likes of New Amsterdam. Nor is it at all lacking in the classic juniper notes—if anything, it finds itself in a middle ground between styles.
On the nose, Four Peel is sweet and quite grassy, with an intensely perfumey character that implies both fruit and florals in abundance. This stuff is intense and hugely flavorful on the palate, some of which can be ascribed to the higher than average proof, but it’s also just a bombastic gin in general. Green, resinous and peppery, it actually has a significant amount of bitterness, in the same way you might experience bitterness from citrus pith. As for the citrus, lemon and grapefruit essential oils stand out to me most strongly, but peppery spice is what I keep returning to. Curious how this would compare to a classical London Dry Gin, I sampled a little bit of Gordon’s next to it, and found that the Four Peel was just bigger in every facet—simultaneously sweeter, more bitter and hotter. It’s honestly a little bit much for neat drinking, but this is gin, after all—you’re probably going to be using it in cocktails. I can at least say with certainty that this stuff will not be getting lost in a mixed drink. I would expect it to shine through regardless of what you mixed it with.
Watershed refers to this stuff as “light,” but that’s not the word I would use. In comparison with classical gins in the 80 proof range, it comes off as loud and proud.
Watershed’s Bourbon Barrel Gin is exactly what it sounds like—the Four Peel, stuck in a bourbon barrel for a year. Not too complicated, but a common trend among microdistilleries these days. You may have tasted bourbon barrel gins at some point and come away a bit confused—when they don’t turn out well, it’s often because the barrels have completely overwhelmed the original spirit. Four Peel, though, is certainly assertive enough to stand up to a year in the wood, and I ended up both surprised and pleased with the way that the barrels affected this gin.
On the nose, things don’t change too much. There’s a light ribbon of oak/woodiness that is added, and a sweetness reminiscent of wildflower honey and apple juice. There’s also a bit of more savory, herbal quality that reminded me a tad of herbs de provence, in a way.
On the palate, though, this has become a significantly different product. It’s sweeter for sure, a “golden syrup” note of light caramelization that works to bring out the citrus candy qualities of the gin in a way that is surprisingly natural. It drinks surprisingly well neat—the oak has worked to smooth out some of the rougher edges present in Four Peel. It makes me very curious about various cocktail options, such as how its richer, sweeter character would play opposite Campari in a negroni. All in all, I was surprised to find that this was probably my favorite of the gins, and one that I could actually see myself drinking neat, from time to time. I also happened to find the following recipe (pictured above) via the Watershed Facebook page, and it intrigued me enough that I’m curious to try it.
RAKE THE LEAVES
1 oz. Watershed Distillery Bourbon Barrel Gin
1 oz. Cocchi Americano
1/2 oz. Allspice Dram
Directions: Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass or tin and stir with ice to chill. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish with a lemon or a grapefruit peel. Enjoy!
The distillery is understandably proud of this gin, which was voted “Best Flavored Gin” at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, but it would be a mistake to think of it as a radical departure from the Four Peel. Rather, it’s basically the Four Peel with a subtle, delicate twist of additional botanicals: Rose petal, nutmeg and chamomile. To my palate, it doesn’t really go out of its way to stake claim to its own territory—instead, it’s a riff on the Four Peel’s formula, and one that I like.
The Guild Gin possesses a nose that is quite similar to the Four Peel, with perhaps only an emboldened floral quality derived from the roses. It’s fairly similar on the palate as well, with the one big difference being a warming, delicately spicy chamomile tea note that extends will into the finish. It’s a subtle distinction, but one I can appreciate—it adds an oddly comforting quality to the gin. Overall, of the two, I think I slightly prefer the Guild Gin to the base Four Peel. The warming quality plays well.
Yeah, yeah, I know. I went on and on about gin vs. bourbon above, and here I am tasting the bourbon as well. What was I going to do, leave it off entirely? Besides, Watershed’s Bourbon is unique enough that it merits at least a little bit of discussion.
This is an unusual bourbon in a few ways. It’s a five-grain whiskey, using BOTH wheat and rye, along with barley and spelt, in addition to the obvious corn. It’s aged for “up to 3.5 years” in newly charred barrels and bottled at a stout 47 percent ABV (94 proof). Inquiring about the addition of spelt in particular, Watershed Distillery CEO and distiller Greg Lehman said the following: “The inclusion of spelt in particular is our nod to Ohio, our home state. Ohio is one of the top spelt growing states in the US, and it has a long history here. Including it, we think, pays homage to our roots and to those of the business. The fact that it lends a unique flavor to our Ohio bourbon is even better.”
Tasting completely blind, you might actually pick up on the multi-grain quality, because this bourbon does achieve a certain “malt complexity” that you don’t really see in traditional, three-grain bourbons. It has a lot of things going on at once—grainy, slightly bready and doughy qualities meld well with intense caramelization (for its age) and pronounced maple syrup sweetness. This is a big, rich, viscous dram with a very full mouthfeel and oily texture. It’s desserty—not something I always approve of—but in a good way. Very much a nightcap or after-dinner dram, it’s a sweet, malty, toasty bourbon that I would probably reserve for neat drinking rather than cocktails, thanks to its richness.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident alcohol geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.