Aged Gin & Yellow Gin,
by Simon Difford
The first edition The Savoy Cocktail book published in 1930 features an advertisement for a “barrel-aged gin”. Perhaps the most revered of all aged gins, Booth’s Finest Dry Gin, is sadly no longer made. This was aged in ex-sherry butts at a time when sherry was still imported in butts with large numbers of casks arriving in London, the centre of gin production. The sherry oak gave the gin a distinctive flavour and pale golden colour. (The oldest gin brand still in existence, Booth’s Gin survives in North America, but this modern day iteration has no connection to the Booth’s of old other than by name.)
Another historic aged gin, ‘Seagram’s Extra Dry Gin’, introduced in 1939 and still sold to this day, mainly in its U.S. domestic market, is “mellowed” for “several weeks” in charred white oak barrels which have previously been used for maturing bourbon whiskey. Sadly, the golden hue this gin once had is now barely noticeable, probably as a response to the dominant consumer perception that gins should be clear.
Depending on the condition of the cask (new to well-seasoned with numerous previous fillings), leaving a gin to sit in a cask for one to six months will impart a range of colours from a pale straw tint to a deep whiskey-like amber hue. The oak also typically gives the gin vanilla, caramel, nuts, butterscotch and smoke flavours. These aged gins are great when used as an ingredient in cocktails such as Negroni, Martinez, Martini and even Bee’s Knees #2 and the growth of cocktail culture is creating increased demand for these gins.
Sadly, the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB), the American federal agency tasked with enforcing regulations covering the contents and packaging of liquor, only permit ‘age’ statements on whiskies, rum, brandy and tequila. Other spirits such as gin may disclose a maturation period in oak casks but specifically can’t include the term ‘aged’ on their labels.
The TTB’s rule book, Code of Federal Regulations 27 CFR Part § 5.40(d) states: “Other distilled spirits. Age, maturity, or similar statements or representations as to neutral spirits (except for grain spirits as stated in paragraph (c) of this section), gin, liqueurs, cordials, cocktails, highballs, bitters, flavored brandy, flavored gin, flavored rum, flavored vodka, flavored whisky, and specialties are misleading and are prohibited from being stated on any label.”
Those rules were not applied to brands such as Corsair Barrel Aged Gin (released 2009) and Smooth Ambler Barrel Aged Gin. These were launched on the U.S. market with TTB approval before the wave of ‘barrel aged’ gin releases encouraged the folks at the TTB to take a good look at their rules and from 2013 they started rejecting such applications. This has led new applicants to instead describe their yellow gins as being: “oak rested” (e.g. Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve), “barrel rested”, “oak finished” or “oak refined”.
Hopefully U.S. regulations will eventually be amended to permit use of the term aged on gin, and indeed vodka for that matter. Regardless of this, with gin requiring such a short aging period compared to the likes of whiskey, thus rendering the cost of aging relatively low and the effects profound, we can expect to see many more aged gins. I foresee every gin brand having an oak aged iteration.