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Is Barrel Aging Spirits Like Gin, Shochu, and Vodka Really Necessary?

Why are all spirits aged in barrels now?

<p>Getty</p>

Getty

The first time I tried a barrel-aged vodka, I laughed it off as a fad. Sure, I thought, it’s common knowledge that so-called “brown spirits” like whiskey and aged rum acquire their amber hue and vanilla-and-spice character from time spent in barrels, but isn’t the point of vodka to be clear and crisp?

Today, I’m not laughing.

More and more barrel-aged spirits are showing up on the shelves, spanning well beyond the traditional categories. Producers are dumping gin, shochu, aquavit, vodka — even liqueurs — into casks.

The results can be interesting, to be sure, but do they all serve a purpose?

“Barrel aging can completely transform a spirit,” adding depth and character says Madelyn Kay, national brand ambassador for The Botanist Islay Dry Gin, which recently introduced a pair of cask-matured gins. “Both spirit producers and customers are becoming more aware of this and seeing it as an opportunity.”

Kay explains how it works: “When a spirit is matured in cask, the liquid moves in and out of the pores of the wood. This process draws out different notes depending on the type of wood itself and the liquids that were previously held in the cask.”

As a result, barrel aging can introduce entirely new flavors to a spirit, she says. “In early maturation stages, we find that the cask introduces spicier, more wood-forward notes. Over time, the richer, sweeter, more mellow notes come forward. Barrel aging also emphasizes existing flavors in a spirit — for example, highlighted notes of citrus that may already exist in the core formula.”

With this maturation arc in mind, The Botanist introduced two separate bottlings: a “cask rested” offering that spends six months in oak, and a “cask aged” version, aged three years.

Note that neither of these is called “barrel aged.” According to the TTB, the U.S. government bureau that oversees alcohol regulations, that’s not an official designation for gin, so gin-makers twist themselves into all kinds of linguistic pretzels to describe the product. (My all-time favorite aged gin descriptor: “rusty.”)

Of note, cask finishing has long been about access. So many brands are part of giant international conglomerates — meaning a Scotch whisky distillery may have easy access to sherry casks from Spain, or rum casks from the Caribbean under the same portfolio. Maybe looping in traditionally clear spirits was just a matter of time. For example, The Botanist is under the umbrella of Islay Scotch maker Bruichladdich. In turn, plenty of emptied barrels are available for experimentation.

“With over 300 unique cask types at our distillery, we’ve actually been playing around with aging The Botanist for years, since its first distillation in 2010,” says Kay.



"“We brought it in because we had trouble getting bars interested in non-barrel-aged shochu. They just didn’t understand it.” — Paul Nakayama, president and co-founder, Nankai Group"



Appealing to whiskey drinkers

Japan’s shochu is another category that U.S. consumers don’t typically associate with barrel-aged expressions, but several golden-hued shochus have been released, such as Nankai Gold and the newly-arrived Iichiko Special, aged a whopping five years in white oak and mizunara casks.

Japan has a long tradition of aging shochu in enamel or clay vessels, says Paul Nakayama, president and co-founder of Los Angeles-based importer Nankai Group. By comparison, oak aging is a newer development, but that just means it’s been used for decades, not centuries.

While distillers are permitted to age shochu in barrels, strict regulations in Japan set limits on how deeply tinted the finished liquid can be, specifically to prevent shochu from being sold as Japanese whisky.

Western enthusiasm for Japanese whisky has provided a familiar reference point for selling shochu. For example, Nankai imports two barrel-aged bottlings to the U.S., including one bottled at 43% abv, a higher proof compared to the typical 25-35% range of most shochu.

“We brought it in because we had trouble getting bars interested in non-barrel-aged shochu,” says Nakayama. “They just didn’t understand it.” But a high-proof, oak-aged spirit gave American bartenders a familiar reference point: whiskey.

Today, consumers are more familiar with shochu, “and we can talk about it within its own frame of reference,” Nakayama says, without comparing it to whiskey.

Shochu is made using koji, a type of mold that adds notable savory and umami notes. Cask resting (like gin, shochu-makers can’t put “barrel aged” on labels here, as per the TTB) helps amp up those umami elements, layering them with vanilla and oak. “When we play with that element, we get flavors we couldn’t otherwise achieve,” Nakayama says.

And of course, it doesn’t hurt that it helps to “capture the interest of whiskey and rum lovers out there,” including encouraging mixing the spirit into cocktails like a shochu Old Fashioned. “We wouldn’t have those kinds of fun experiments if we hadn’t started doing barrel aging,” says Nakayama.

Related: Not All Aged Spirits Are Worth the Hype — Here's What to Look For

Inspired by cocktails, inspiring cocktails

Cocktails, and one famous cocktail in particular, was the driving force behind founder/owner Absinthia Vermut’s experiments in making a barrel-aged version of her namesake absinthe.

“I was inspired by the Sazerac,” says Vermut, referencing the beloved New Orleans cocktail, which features rye whiskey in a glass rinsed with absinthe. “I said, what if we make an absinthe rested in ex-rye barrels, how would that turn out?” Resting the anise-forward liqueur in rye barrels for four to six months adds a tawny hue and subtle vanilla and char tones that don’t overpower the herbaceous core.

Bartenders, meanwhile, seem to appreciate having access to the extended palette that barrel-aged spirits can provide. For example, at San Diego’s Botanica, the menu features drinks like The Gorgon, made with sotol, barrel-aged gin, beet juice, and fig.

“I’m a huge fan of barrel-aged spirits,” says Botanica’s general manager/bar manager Marina Ferreira, who likens the category to fusion cuisine. “It’s a fun category to play around with. It helps us open up our minds to the possibility that anything can be anything, and not restrict [ourselves] to ‘this goes in that drink.’ It’s a whole new world of flavor and exploration you’re allowing yourself to participate in.”

A caveat: using these spirits often requires a little extra education for guests, Ferreira notes. “Generally, I explain it using verbiage about flavors they’ve had before,” she says. “If you say ‘barrel-aged gin,’ they stare at you blankly. But if you explain the flavor profile, they’re down to try.”



"“In general we’re beyond barrel-aging for barrel-aging’s sake. That’s the problem. Are you following a trend or adding to the category? What purpose are you really serving?" — Josh Wortman, portfolio director of North America Distill Ventures"



Does the world need more barrel-aged spirits?

Of course, not everyone is a fan. “I feel ‘barrel aged’ or ‘barrel finished’ is not that interesting anymore,” says Josh Wortman, portfolio director of North America for independent drinks incubator Distill Ventures. “Haven’t we seen that trend for a while?”

Specifically, he’s skeptical that ubiquitous barrel finishes are often a craven play to draw consumers, without adding anything new. “With the rise in American whiskey, you have other categories trying to reach that consumer, [marketing spirits as] ‘an añejo tequila for bourbon drinkers’ and the like,” he says.

Sometimes limited edition barrel finishes do help generate excitement for brands, Wortman concedes. For example, he points to Mr Black Cask Coffee Liqueur, finished in Ilegal Mezcal casks, or last year’s Ancho Reyes Barrica, which matured the poblano chile liqueur in ex-bourbon barrels for two years. “You layer something else on it, like a little smoke,” which in turn can “broaden the appeal to a broader range of consumers.”

Looking ahead, Wortman hopes that spirits-makers will ask themselves a few key questions before rolling out the barrel, so to speak.

“In general we’re beyond barrel-aging for barrel-aging’s sake,” says Wortman. “That’s the problem. Are you following a trend or adding to the category? What purpose are you really serving? And the ultimate question: why does the world need this?”

Even staunch advocates like Ferreria see the possibility of the barrel-aged bridge too far. For her, it’s mezcal.

“I think mezcal is meant to stand alone on its own without adding barrel aging to it,” she says. “It should be left alone the way it is.”

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