One of the most interesting developments in the Pacific Northwest has been the increasing popularity of gin barrel aging of beer. In particular, gin barrel aging of sour beers produces an interesting combination. This should not be surprising. Whereas whiskey, bourbon, and rum barrels can confer an overwhelming, “oppressive” note to beer (which is not always unwelcome, as in the case of imperial stouts), the pale ales and sour beers usually require a lighter approach, and the herbal and dry character of gin is an obvious choice in theory. In practice, the choice to age a beer in gin barrels is not so obvious because gin usually is not produced or aged in barrels.
The origins of gin go back to Dutch jenever (genever), a juniper-based spirit from which gin originated. Supposedly the tradition of adding juniper berries to distilled malt wine was to mask the poor flavor. When distillation methods improved, the use of juniper berries and other herbs was retained and jenever has been a popular drink in the Netherlands and Belgium since. Contemporary jenever can range from industrial neutral “jonge jenever” made with whopping amounts of sugar and juniper extract to authentic “oude jenever” made from 100% grain and fermented juniper berries, aged in barrels (unfortunately, modern oude jenever is often colored and sweetened with caramel). Naturally, only the rarer practice of using wood aging in jenever and gin produce barrels suitable for barrel aging of beer.
There are at least three approaches in which gin (or jenever) and beer can meet. Gin can be blended with beer, such as in the making of beer cocktails. Beer can be brewed with juniper berries and herbs that are typically used for gin to give a gin-like property to beer. Finally, beer can be aged in used gin barrels to impart the flavor of gin during barrel aging of beer. I will leave a treatment of beer cocktails to the side except to note that I once got reasonably interesting results from mixing gin and a pale ale (one needs to experiment a little for arriving at the right proportion). Distillerie Claeyssens de Wambrechies in France actually makes a top fermented beer blended with gin during the brewing process called La Wambrechies.
In Oregon, Rogue Ales makes a Juniper Pale Ale that has some subtle gin connotations. Of much greater interest is Rogue’s limited John John Juniper, which is aged in spruce gin barrels. Unlike Rogue’s regular Juniper Pale Ale, this beer had an unmistakable dry and spicy gin character. Another beer that was inspired by gin is Midnight Sun’s Bathtub Gin Gruit Ale.
But the most interesting application of gin barrel aging, in my opinion, is for wild and sour ales. Gin barrel aging can greatly enhance the aroma and taste of sour beer. Lambic is traditionally associated with the use of fruit but brews such as Cantillon’s Mamouche show impressive results for blending herbs into sour beers.
One of the pioneers in gin barrel aging of beers, and sour beers in particular, is Portland’s Upright Brewing. Aside from being the most innovative sour beer brewery in Portland to date, Upright has done gin barrel aging for a number of its beers using Ransom Old Tom Gin barrels. In fact, Upright seems to like the idea of a meeting between beer and gin so much that they brewed a special beer to be matched with Dutch jenever called Kopstootje Biere. Kopstootje is a Bière de Garde made with the same botanicals as Bols Genever. This beer was launched to great enthusiasm at special pub events where it was consumed in a challenging one-two punch with jenever, according to Dutch ritual.
Other recent and upcoming gin-inspired and gin barrel aged releases include Breakside’s Gin-Barrel Double Wit, Soursop Wheat, Citra Gin IPA, and Simcoe Gin IPA; Ninkasi’s Ransom Old Tom Gin Wood Barrel Aged Maiden the Shade; Oakshire’s Gin Barrel Saison and Gin Barrel Aged Imperial Overcast Stout; some beers in B’ United’s Zymatore series; and Stillwater’s Artisanal Kopstootje.
One of the common observations about beers that have been aged in gin barrels is that the aromatic properties this procedure confers tend to produce some variability in detection. There is little information to date how the “gin” character of gin barrel aged beer evolves over time. For example, I recently sampled a bottle of Belmont Station’s 14th Anniversary Commemorative Ale and Upright’s Special Herbs (a gruit aged in Old Tom Gin barrels) and I could not detect much gin character — in the case of Upright’s beer less than I recall originally tasting on tap. In the case of Rogue’s John John Juniper I was struck by the difference in gin character between the bottled and draft version. Such observations about gin barrel aged beers are not confined to my own, and I have read similar statements from other people. These complexities notwithstanding, gin barrel aging and brewing with traditional jenever herbs offer great potential for producing exceptional sour beers and lambics.