We have long loved barrel aged beers, and we’ve been intrigued by juniper beers, so it seemed only natural that when we were making a barrel aged gin at Liquid Alchemy Distillery that we would start planning our gin barrel aged beer. Then, when Gigantic Brewing brought their Pipe Wrench gin barrel aged IPA to Beervana 2014, not only were we further inspired, but half the brewers in the place were suddenly after our barrel.
Sadly, when we left the distillery, we had to leave the gin barrel behind. (Yes we had just the one.)
Looking into the style on the interwebs, Rate Beer has over 50 commercial versions from around 40 breweries. Does that surprise you? Since New Zealand doesn’t yet have any commercial barrel aged gin, it obviously isn’t a style here yet though they’ve been around the US since at least 2010.
But that’s still sort of a small number given that thousands of barrel aged beers in the US. What we kept reading is “Lack of gin barrels = lack of gin barrel-aged beer.” While even the US has only very few barrel aged gin producers, you don’t actually have to make a commercial barrel aged gin to make a gin barrel.
Going back to our long history with barrelled beers, we have had some very tasty bourbon or whisky porters made in wine barrels seasoned with another booze. That might seem like cheating, but the wood in an empty cask only holds a few litres of liquid, and so it makes sense that you can saturate the wood without filling the barrel.
It seems the key to a good gin barrelled beer is finding a nice balance of gin and wood and beer. You want the gin flavours to compliment the beer, and the oak to add a nuance but not be too strong. So if we:
- choose barrels that don’t have an overpowering flavour
- season with the right gin
- pick the right beer style
- don’t age it too long,
we should be able to achieve the same results as getting hands on the elusive barrels used to age gin.
We happen to have a few very old spirit barrels that weren’t needed at the distillery. They were originally bourbon barrels, then whisky barrels, and then used over and over for either whisky or rum. They have a nice spirituous quality and somewhat surprisingly still have a little oakiness.
Back in the distillery days, we tried a few genever and the two modern barrel aged gins we could get our hands on to develop our recipe for barrel aging. For this beer, we didn’t get to use our own gin, but we knew the flavour we wanted, so we used commercial gin and modified the flavours somewhat with additional botanicals.
So what beer goes with gin? It’s not a big shock that those 50 or so beers we found are almost universally pale styles. While barrel aged gin is sometimes called the whiskey drinker’s gin, the flavours seem to go best with pale ales, Belgians and sours. The Gigantic IPA version was delicious, but we decided to feature the gin flavours by choosing a French Farmhouse style called Bier de Mars.
Bier de Mars is a once-lost style that falls between a Saison and a Biere de Garde. We made ours with a blend of Pilsner and Munich barley, wheat and rye malts, and used a French Farmhouse yeast and a somewhat generous hopping with US and NZ varieties.
Our target is a moderately strong beer (6%abv) getting distinctive spicy flavours from the malt, yeast and hops. We think this will support the alcohol and spice of the gin and the soft vanilla sweetness we expect of the barrel.
Once we put that all together, we have to age it just right. Too long in the barrel and we fear it will become too dry and/or too oaked. Too short, and it won’t meld together. I know you are crying for us as we taste it every few days until it’s ready.