I’m a sucker for anything barrel aged. Whether it’s whiskey or tequila, sticking a spirit in an oak cask for a period of time just makes it that much better and more delicious. And now, there are a few distilleries taking that same approach with gin, such as Oregon-based Pilot House Distilling’s Barrel Aged Painted Lady Gin.
Pilot House Distillery is a small craft spirits distillery located in Astoria, Oregon and with tasting rooms and shops in Portland and Cannon Beach. The distillery was founded in 2013 by husband and wife team Christina and Lawrence Cary after their move from Tennessee to Oregon. As Christina tells it, her husband started taking distilling courses after their move to the Pacific Northwest and got bitten by the distilling bug hard enough that he wanted to try opening up his own shop.
The distillery was off to a rocky start after being forced to change the distillery’s name twice as the result of two different lawsuits but has found recent success after introducing Oregon’s first “ready to drink” canned cocktail in 2017 and opening up two additional storefronts over the years. Their brand focuses on the nautical history of the Oregon coast communities and even uses fishing boats from the area to age their spirits.
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This gin starts out life as a pretty standard take on an American style gin, but then takes a deliciously hard turn into something else completely.
As you’d expect with an American gin, this is a re-distilled spirit that starts with high proof neutral grain spirits. To that pot of raw alcohol is added the herbal elements and spices that give the gin its flavor — the elements that Pilot House calls out in their mix are juniper, lavender, rose hips, chamomile, orris root, coriander, lemon zest, peppercorns, and cucumber. Since this is an American style gin there’s likely a bit less juniper in the mix, and cucumber is definitely a unique ingredient not commonly appearing in other gins.
Those components are added to the raw alcohol and allowed to soak for a whole, letting the alcohol pick up the flavors from the oils and components of the herbs and spices. Once the flavors have been properly absorbed, the spirit is then re-distilled to produce a pure white gin that they ship and sell as their Painted Lady brand.
For this Painted Lady Barrel Aged expression, though, the newly made gin is placed into previously used Pinot Noir barrels for a period of time and allowed to absorb the flavors of the oak and the remnants from the Pinot Noir that used to live in the barrel. Once properly matured, the spirit is bottled and shipped for sale.
We’ve seen this bottle design before from a number of different distilleries and, while it might not be original, it remains a popular choice for a reason. The flat bottomed, short-but-stout cylindrical shape of the bottle and the clean lines look great on a shelf, but won’t help it stand out very much.
Thankfully, that’s where the label and branding comes in to help. This design is stunning, feeling like something straight out of a turn of the 20th century sideshow advertisement. It’s helped by the choice of old style paper for the label, complete with some faux tearing and damage to the edge, which just feels like fantastic attention to detail.
It’s a label so good that it literally won an award, taking home the sole gold medal from this year’s American Craft Spirits Association packaging awards in the gin category.
It certainly doesn’t look like a gin at first glance. The spirit has a defined color, and it’s more reddish-brown than you’d expect from just the time in the whiskey barrel. I feel like from the moment you lay eyes on this, you’re seeing the tangible impact of those pinot noir casks, and that reddish tint gives off a velvety impression.
While this might be an American gin with “less” juniper, that doesn’t mean that the juniper is absent from the aroma. In fact, it’s the first aroma that you’ll pick up from the glass. That’s followed quickly by some earthier components like the orris root, coriander, a little bit of licorice, and some cedar that provide a nice balance. There’s also a bit of lemon zest in the background that brings a touch of brightness to the aroma.
Taking a sip, you can instantly tell that this was a spirit designed to be as sippable on its own as it is mixable in cocktails. There’s a delicious balance and complexity to the spirit that makes going back for a second or third sip just as enjoyable as the first.
Up front, the first things I’m tasting are the orris root, chamomile, lemon zest, and lavender that combine to produce something very close to a whiskey old fashioned — but one where you’ve used a highlands scotch with orange bitters. It’s a delightful mixture of earthy notes combined with floral components and just a hint of brown sugar. It’s a delicious introduction to the spirit, complete with a bit of citrus peeking in to keep things interesting. As the flavors develop, the coriander and peppercorns join in, adding some spicy complexity before the juniper finally shows up to provide a bit of levity and herbaceousness that reminds you that this really is a gin and not a whiskey.
There’s something interesting happening here, and I can’t tell if it’s intentional or not. If intentional, I think this is a smart move designed by the distillers. If not… well, happy accidents happen.
When you sip this spirit neat, the juniper is almost an afterthought. It joins the party late and elevates the flavor profile, but it isn’t prominent or overpowering. It hits just the perfect level and then backs away.
When a bit of ice gets added to the spirit, it seems to unleash that juniper a bit more. The earthy notes and the floral components are all still there, but they seem to have been proportionately toned down compared to the juniper that is now the star of the show. It still doesn’t overpower everything else in the glass, but it is just enough to be prominent.
Why I think this is interesting and promising is that juniper is the key ingredient to many of the cocktails that we normally try in this testing regiment, and without the juniper they tend to fall apart. This should give the gin a chance to be a versatile option, both sippable when taken neat and mixable in cocktails.
Fizz (Tom Collins)
At first, this seems like a pretty standard Tom Collins. (Well, except for the reddish tint to the liquid.) There’s some good lemon flavors combined with the bright and herbal juniper that makes for a bright and beautiful drink. But then things develop into something new, as more of the peppercorn and coriander start coming through, adding depth and character that you don’t normally see in this cocktail. It all rounds out with a bit of orris root flavor for a cherry on top of the metaphorical flavor sundae.
This is a version of a Tom Collins that captures the essence of the original but builds on that foundation to make something truly delicious.
This is the point where the juniper has run out of steam. Normally in a negroni, the juniper is all you can reliably see of the gin… but here I don’t think I see any of it. The flavor is simply drowned out by the Campari and the vermouth.
But that doesn’t mean that the spirit isn’t working in this cocktail. Rather, I think the spices and the barrel aging components are helping more than the juniper alone usually does. There’s an underlying sweetness and richness that I usually don’t see with a negroni, with the orris root, coriander, and even a bit of brown sugar from the barrel maturation process coming through to provide some balance to the other mixers.
I’m not usually a fan of a negroni. But this one ain’t half bad.
I’ll list my biases up front here: I’m the kind of person that adores sipping spirits neat. I love being able to taste it straight out of the bottle and experience the spirit the way that the distiller intended. My wife thinks it always just tastes like “burning”, but it’s something that I really do enjoy.
Typically, a gin is something that is best mixed or at least diluted like in a gin & tonic. The flavors are intended to be mixed into a cocktail and are often purposefully bright or shouty. Not ideal for sipping.
But this gin, on the other hand, is something that I’d happily take into the back yard all by itself while I smoke a cigar or two. There’s plenty of depth and complexity in the flavor to make it interesting all on its own, and the balance of those components is truly remarkable.
Combined with the fact that this also makes for some pretty great cocktails, this might be the perfect all-around gin. If you can find it I definitely recommend picking up a bottle.
|Pilot House Distilling Barrel Aged Painted Lady Gin
Produced By: Pilot House DistillingProduction Location: Oregon, United States
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $40 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 5/5
A gin that you can sip neat all day long, and then make into a cocktail when the sun sets.