Ever since I’ve been wading deeper into the world of gins, recommendations for ones to try have been coming out of the woodwork. One of the top recommendations that I’ve heard from a few different folks is this bottle of Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat Gin, a simple sounding recipe that reads like a list of my favorite things in a gin: honey, juniper, and barrel aging.
Caledonia Spirits was founded in 2011 by Todd Hardie and Ryan Christiansen, an unexpected duo. Todd had been a lifelong beekeeper and Ryan had a history of home brewing and had operated a store selling supplies to local home brewers. Together, they had the idea to use honey as part of the fermentation process when distilling their spirits, taking advantage of the floral and botanical compounds collected by the local bees.
After many successful years as a small distillery, they moved in 2019 to a new much larger facility that enabled them to start cranking out spirits for mass distribution.
- Learn More: What Is Gin?
The folks at Barr Hill do things a little differently. Usually, with a spirit like gin, the distillery will start with a grain-based neutral spirit as the base mainly because grains are cheap and it doesn’t particularly matter what raw materials you use in that situation. In this case, however, the distillery starts with raw honey as the base ingredient and simply adds water and yeast to get it to ferment — a full four pounds of honey goes into every 750ml bottle. In that sense, this is actually closer (spiritually, at least) to a rum than it is a gin, since a raw form of sugar is the source material.
Quick aside on what makes a “Tom Cat” gin or an “Old Tom” gin: Old Tom style gins came about during the mid-1700s London Gin Craze when (according to legend) bartenders would surreptitiously pour shots of cheap gin to waiting customers through hidden slots underneath carved images of black cats (hence the name). There was never really a consistent style or defining characteristic to gins that use this name, but it’s often significantly sweeter and much less juniper-forward than the traditional London Dry style.
In this case, once fermented, Barr Hill does a first run distillation to create raw alcohol, and then adds juniper for the second distillation when they create their gin (a simple recipe, similar to the Old Tom style). After distillation, they add some of the raw honey back to the spirit, sweetening it and adding many of the local flavors back in. For this version of their gin, the end result is then placed into charred new American oak barrels (just like a bourbon would be) for six months to age.
This is a fairly common bottle shape: there’s a big bulbous round base, rounded shoulders, and a short neck that’s capped off with a wood and cork stopper. The one thing that I will point out here is that they use some beeswax to seal the bottle, which I think is a really nice touch that adds some uniqueness to the bottle design and is a great callback to the raw materials. Extra points there.
As for the label… well, there certainly is quite a lot of it. Normally, I’m not so concerned about seeing the liquid inside when it’s a gin, since it should be pretty much clear and colorless. But in this case, since it is not only flavored with added honey but also barrel aged, there’s some color there that I really do want to see. And instead, there’s a big black dot on the front and a useless band the color of a Manila file folder.
I appreciate that the big black dot is representative of the inside of a charred barrel, which is a callback to the manufacturing process (as indicated by the barrel staves around the image). But it is rather large, obscures your view of the spirit inside, and I just feel like there’s a way they could have conveyed that concept without taking up as much space.
Usually with a gin, the juniper is the first thing you smell. But here, it’s all about the citrus. There’s this big, bright orange note that kicks things off, supported by some lemon zest, and then the juniper finally joins the party. As it sits in the glass, the aroma gains a bit of spice, smelling almost like incense.
There’s a viscosity to the liquid that feels very unfamiliar for a gin, thanks to the liberal use of honey as a flavoring agent. But that doesn’t mean that honey is the only flavor you get. In fact, the juniper is actually the first thing that comes across, but it’s still more muted than with a traditional London Dry style gin. That juniper is quickly supported by the citrus elements we smelled earlier — namely, the orange with a touch of lemon zest. As the flavor develops, more of the barrel aging components start to appear (vanilla, caramel, toffee) and then finally, near the end, you get the floral sweetness of the honey that brings some balance to those richer flavors.
All of that coalesces into this lovely brown sugar flavor with an accompanying sweetness that lingers on the finish.
The sugar content is really noticeable here. You can see visible streaks in the liquid where the thicker sugary spirit and the new chilled water are separating as the sugar simply can’t stay in solution at that temperature. It makes the spirit considerably more cloudy than before.
Unfortunately, with the ice, most of the barrel aging components I tasted before seem to have dropped out of the mix. There’s the juniper and honey very clearly still prominent, but the only remaining hint that this was barrel aged is that brown sugar impression that remains near the end. (And even that is much harder to detect.)
Going into this, I thought that the sugar content from the honey would make this a slam dunk cocktail. I really don’t like how bitter a standard negroni cocktail is, and some added sugar should take care of that. However, the problem here is that there just isn’t enough flavor in the gin itself to make a difference.
The bitterness is definitely under control, for sure… but there’s nothing in here besides Campari. You might as well have just added simple syrup at this point for all the good the gin is doing.
Fizz (Gin & Tonic)
The hallmark of a good G&T is that you get a bunch of herbaceous notes that are elevated by the carbonation in the tonic water. It’s supposed to be bright, potentially served with a slice of lime. We don’t really get that here, though, with only a tiny hint of juniper peeking through. What I do get quite clearly is that impression of incense (probably frankincense, specifically) that has a bit of spice and honey combined together with a wisp of smoke.
It’s not a traditional G&T by any stretch of the imagination, but it is certainly an interesting and novel flavor profile.
This is absolutely amazing when taken neat. It’s sweet and delicious, like a slightly lighter take on a good bourbon with some added herbal elements. But I think once you start trying it in different formats, the simplicity of the flavors in the gin really doesn’t allow it to add anything significant to those cocktails. There’s some sweetness, but that’s something that you can add yourself with a little local honey as a sweetener.
I love what the folks at Barr Hill are doing. I think the use of local materials is fantastic, the idea of using local honey for the raw materials is certainly novel, and the end result on its own is fantastic. That alone makes the bottle worth the cost. But the lack of flavor and ability to hold it’s own in some mixed drinks is keeping me from giving it higher marks.
|Barr Hill Tom Cat Gin|
Vermont, United States
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Price: $45.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
A sweet, floral, and sometimes spicy gin that is great on its own… but does not seem to want to play with others.