Barrel Aged Gin showed no signs of slowing in 2017. In fact, the sub-category has exploded over the past 12 months, with greater understanding of its history and production and much more experimentation taking place. Different wood types and maturation periods have been explored, as well as some extraordinarily clever secondary leaching of the cask’s previous occupants, imparting entirely new flavour combinations and transforming gin into a new, brilliant hybrid sprit.
While there are old print adverts from the late 30’s and 40’s that seem to indicate extraordinarily long maturation for gin (read: booze was confiscated before Prohibition and resurfaced some ten years later…), few companies today are creating Gins that have been aged for a considerable duration of time. The majority of aged gins sit for less than six months in their respective casks, as very few distilleries have the luxury of time nor the favourable conditions for the liquid to improve during such lengthy slumbers.
So then, enter Martin Miller’s Gin. Following on from their 9 Moons release in 2016, the company has unveiled 26 Moons, a gin that has been aged in a single Madeira cask for over 2 years. Two years, two months, to be exact, which isn’t quite a rounded number, but then time, as the Martin Miller’s team has proved again and again, isn’t really a factor for them. If it was, there probably wouldn’t have been a 13 year interval between the release of their higher proof Westbourne Strength Gin in 2003 and 9 Moons.
In keeping true to the authentic spirit of the brand, the arrival of 26 Moons was not quite an orchestrated affair, though the process behind it was very similar to its barrel aged predecessor, which involved an inordinate amount of tasting, testing, moderation and further dormancy. The sensible thing, of course, would of have been to release this alongside 9 Moons (which was aged in an ex-bourbon barrel) but during quiet monitoring over the course of its initial resting, the preliminary drafts from the Madeira cask revealed an ethereal pink hue to the liquid, yet no real flavour impact.
The first public tasting of 26 Moons took place in Borgarnes, Iceland back in late Spring 2016 during a press trip for the launch of 9 Moons. We took detailed notes at the time not for the sake of foresight in being able to track a possible future bottling, but in order to fully understand how the 9 Moons release was affected by the choice of its barrel.
When tasting it at that 10 month to 1 year stage it was clear that the previous occupant, Madeira, was loud. The wood on the other hand much less so and the rich, redolent fruits were front and centre. We felt the gin had changed a lot as a result overall, certainly when served at a loosely cut higher strength (not cask strength mind, as it was laid to rest at an undisclosed but higher proof than 85%ABV!). It quickly become one dimensional when closer to 40% ABV however, and the overall impression was of something interesting happening, but not completed yet. A spirit bustling with anticipation but not quite ready for its time in the limelight. Much of the rose colour incidentally, was already there at that stage too.
For those of you less familiar with Madeira, it is a fortified wine available in a range of dry to sweet styles. Grape varietals aside, Madeira’s unique taste comes from repeatedly heating the wine, creating beguiling flavours that can vary from roasted nuts and stewed fruit to bright aromas of cucumber and dried hay. It’s important to recognise what it is, because while a lot of flavours are extracted from the wood when it comes to ageing spirits, there is always a percentage of the previous occupant left in barrels that is stored in the staves. Both impart their character onto any subsequent liquids that are matured in the cask.
While there’s a lot of talk about the effect of oak and previous occupants in gin maturation, there’s much less talk on the effects of oxidation and aeration, but both are important factors when contemplating the mysterious dark art surrounding long term storage. It’s a factor the Scotch industry knows well, and in our opinion, no matter how much you tinker with the size of the wooden vessel and change the spirit to wood ratio in order to “speed up” maturation, you’ll never produce the same tasting liquid as when you let nature do its thing. No method is the right way, just different and that difference in part, lies with allowing (or not being able to stop to be more precise) air to affect the spirit.
Tasting the final bottling, we’re left with no doubt that both wood and more importantly time has played a key role in the 18 months since we first tried this spirit. The glacial and pure Icelandic environment has enforced itself on the contents of the cask, seemingly subduing the spirit and botanicals. One would expect an over-oaked beast after two years in a barrel, but the region’s climate seems to provide the ability to slow down the ageing process significantly. That time greatly helped in allowing the wood to come through and coaxing out a secondary layer of interest, having had much of the high octane impact of Madeira already in the first year.
26 Moons Gin to taste:
As one might expect from fine Madeira, there is a subdued but distinct caramelised walnut oil on the nose of 26 Moons. Beneath it, there is a red fruitiness from the wine and the familiar citrus forward notes of Martin Miller’s. Lemon and lime in particular glitter in the distance.
The citrus flush so familiar with the original gin is present to taste, but joined by a troupe of fruity characteristics. There’s less inherent sweetness than with bourbon barrelled gins and a less viscous mouthfeel. Rather, this is more akin to an elegant cognac – thinner and more subtle. Furthermore, there is of a less sudden gear change midway through the journey, where the flavours do not revert back to oak in such an obvious way, which so often happens with Bourbon aged gins. Typically in those cases – the cask reclaims possession of a gin, but here, it remains mellow and adds quieter, soft caramels which bring the wood back to the fold in a much more gentle and gradual way. To finish, dried, lemony hay combines well with the underlying heat from the cassia bark.
The major difference between 26 Moons and 9 Moons is the sweet, charred vanilla. Whilst 9 Moons has huge vanillins throughout, 26 Moons has a much more nuanced discrete profile. To wonder how the cask affected the juniper is to ask the wrong question here; Martin Miller’s is not a big juniper forward gin. Rather, the choice of cask has allowed the signature factors of the original (the slight cucumber note, the overall levity, the bright citrus and the gentle finish) to remain intact while also imparting a new dimension to them.
There is a very limited quantity of 26 Moons available. Just 960 bottles have been produced, and only around 480 bottles will be available to the public. The remaining bottles will be kept and relished by the co-founders. Each bottle is individually numbered and has been drawn from the Madeira cask, then blended at source to a bottling strength of 42% ABV with Icelandic spring water.
The price to get hold of the precious few bottles is hard not to wince at. A half bottle 375ml-sized 26 Moons Gin will set you back £95. Blame the exclusive retail agreements or the finite amount of bottles if you will, but it’s hard not to baulk at such a valuation, which in our opinion actually devalues what’s been achieved here.
Even if unintended, the unfortunate reality is that the resulting price comes across as a little cynical and reflects poorly on both retailer and brand. Exclusivity and rarity, which this product has in equal measure, deserves a price to match but to make it one of the top 5 most expensive gins in the world seems a little far fetched… In our opinion, it takes a release that’s intriguing, interesting and that would appeal to many and taints it with smattering of something that feels unnecessarily elitist.
If one were to be able to swallow such a cost however, you’ll find the packaging is detailed and highly tactile. It’s bright on shelf box captures the eye, but it’s the foiling on the cap and smaller details on the bottle itself that hold the attention.
It’s something of a mystery as to whether more 26 Moons will be created, or whether the current batch will be the only one that ever exists. We hope there is more and at a greater volume, so that a wider audience can enjoy it. This could well be the only chance however, and they may release an entirely different proposition altogether. If such is the case, we hope that Martin Miller’s move to consolidate future barrel aged releases under one banner should the experimentation continue with other casks. Otherwise, eventually if all of them are individual casks, each with their own peculiarities, there will be too many “moons” to track. Many Scotch distilleries have set precedents to follow, and a lot of the work has already been done in how to have a line of single cask releases that are neatly and succinctly packaged, easily explained at an affordable (ish) price tag.
Presumably, however, with the popularity of 9 Moons and the quite clear quality and resplendent nature of this liquid (and in spite of its ambitious price tag), the practical thing would be to get a Solara system of multiple barrels up and running, cross blending them to perfection and making a permanent “aged” line extension with much larger volumes of stock available to consumers.
As the two barrel aged variants show however, a lot of this adventure into the world of casks and aged gin is not something that the founders planned that far ahead. It’s more organic. More intuitive. More trusting in time and fate, and willing to accept that some ideas may not come to fruition as planned. While there’s a beauty and sense of whimsy in that, there’s also more messiness. So, who knows what lays next, either in the barrel or for these bottlings… Suffice it say that if the liquid remains as easily drinkable, there’ll be many wishing the experimentation does not stop!
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