Barr Hill Gin
We love bees. Those fluffy little workaholics keep our planet breathing, and the honey they produce is liquid gold – a divine, nutritious and healing nectar. That said, our own affection for the insects is nothing compared to that of Barr Hill Gin founder Todd Hardie, who bought his first beehive in 1976 at the grand old age of twelve.
This whim led to a lifelong obsession and a decade later, in 1986, Hardie opened Honey Gardens Apiaries. He spent thirty years working with and making money from honey, only deviating from the course in 2009 when he got hold of a 15 gallon fire heated pot still and began tinkering around with spirits. Just a year on from that he decided that he might light to bring raw honey into distillation, and – whaddya know – Gin just happened to be a great match.
Just as soon as he launched Caledonia Spirits (named for the county in Vermont that he calls home), Hardie sought a distiller to help him get going. He met with the owner of a local home brewing store, Ryan Christiansen, who – with an almost perverse interest in fermentation – gladly accepted a part time position. The alchemy of distillation reeled Christiansen in soon enough, so he sold up his shop and joined Hardie full time.
Caledonia Spirits took off, with Barr Hill Gin and Barr Hill Vodka selling 235 cases between them in the first year. This had its downsides, too, as Christiansen had a task to keep up with demand, running 450 distillations in the first year alone. In 2015, Hardie sold the distillery to Christiansen, though he didn’t step away entirely. Instead, he bought a farm, Thornhill, on which he planted barley, rye and elderberry with which to supply the Caledonia Spirits.
Barr Hill Gin is a unique endeavour in that just two botanicals are used: juniper and honey. Juniper is added to a neutral spirit and left to macerate for a period before being put through Caledonia Spirit’s custom designed 300-gallon extraction still. The spirit is then blended down to 45% with water before the honey is added.
Barr Hill Gin to taste…
Given the simplicity of the recipe we didn’t expect such a complicated assault on the senses, but Barr Hill is one of the most surprising gins we’ve happened upon. Scents of waxy flowers so strong you can almost feel the bees stealing the pollen and buzzing up out of the glass ring out, followed by strict, heavy juniper pine and a candied honey note.
To taste, it’s the honey that comes first. It lands on the tongue and rolls sideways, filling the mouth with a sweetness that is utterly satisfying and dangerously moreish. The honey is never usurped; instead the juniper steps in and takes it by the hand, leading the mouth deep into the heart of a luscious, (almost sticky), pine forest. That peace is only shattered by the ABV, which is high enough to bring a slight alcohol sting. Not a harsh burn, but a gentle, comforting warmth. Barr Hill Gin’s parting gift is a final breath of wild flowers, delicate and sweet.
Tasted neat, it’s everything it says on the label, but we’d go one step further say that it’s the best that juniper and honey could hope to be in a bottle. Caledonia Spirits has nailed the balance of the two, with both botanicals loud and clear. It is an impressive feat.
With tonic, the complexity is lessened. That’s not to say it’s a lesser G&T; there’s still a huge mouthful of piny juniper and a great big spoonful of honey, but there’s less symbiosis amongst the two ingredients. The juniper rears up and charges, before the honey sweeps it away, flooding the mouth with nectar. It is, quite simply, delicious.
Explaining the use of raw honey, Christiansen said: “It allows us to stand out from the crowd. The honey brings a compelling depth that makes it an enjoyably sippable gin.” It also allows Caledonia Spirits to support agriculture. “We’re rooted in a special part of Vermont where agriculture and local food is a way of life,” he explains. “Distillation is an opportunity to support farmers while bringing fascinating spirits to market.”
Caledonia Spirits also has another gin in its arsenal: Tom Cat. The distillery launched its barrel-aged edition in 2014 and it ran away like an out-of-control train, selling an entire years worth of stock in just three weeks. A barrel shortage stood in the way of producing more, so true to their ‘support local’ ethos, Hardie and Christiansen spent six months working with local foresters to build their own barrels, with a little help from Master Cooper Bob Hockert.
Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat Gin to taste…
This is certainly less nuanced than its counterpart, with wood dominating the nose in a typically brutish capacity. That said, the peppery juniper still finds it’s way through, like a skinny stream of light in the cracks of an old cask. A whisper of honey chimes in the background, though it’s muted and possibly more a result of the mind willing it to be there given the amber colour the gin has taken on.
To taste, wood dominates the fore with it’s typically bulky vanillins. Juniper joins in to steer the gin down a – and we say this with caution – macho route, but plays second fiddle to an oaked effect that gains confidence along the journey. The honey is present throughout, adding richness and depth over sweetness, with an initial candy hit quickly pushed aside. It starts to re-emerge towards the end, wherein the mouth is stained with a burnt caramel taste, adding to the typical sweet tones and long finish that American Oak imparts on spirits.
This is undoubtedly a sipping gin, and should definitely be pushed in the direction of whisk(e)y fans, especially in an old fashioned (use orange bitters if you do) as it’s a lovely example of the effects of wood. Unfortunately, it’s just not as accomplished as the flagship, whose simple purity of flavours imbue a complex taste, like a prism of glass that can refract a multitude of colours. Here the oak is too bullish and invasive to really allow any finesse to emerge and while the flagship is a tour de force, the aged expression is a slightly cliched example of the over-reliance of heavy charing and ageing to impart obvious and bulky flavours without really thinking how to make them textured, evolving or nuanced. It’s got us quite at odds here, and with the tremendous high of one, the shortcomings of the other has us frustrated.
With tonic it’s odd, but that’s par for the course with aged gins. We’re firmly of the opinion that wood and tonic are a no go, and while this is far from unpleasant, it’s also far from a natural combination. Try soda or Ginger Ale if you are after a long drink as both are better options, but this is one for sipping neat on ice, or in a classic cocktail like a Martinez.
Barr Hill Gin (and it’s aged sister) comes in a clear glass bottle that shows a light honey tint. The bottle is sealed by beeswax and trussed up in a label that tells the story of the Caledonia community. It’s sweet and outdoorsy, with green font representing the land and sketched mountains giving a clear impression as to the terrain.
Currently the gin is available in 29 states and five other countries: Canada, Denmark, Japan, China and – thanks very much – the UK. That said… there’s no stock in the UK at the moment, so it seems we may have to pause before investing. Sadly.
Barr Hill Gin, we can comfortably say, is one of America’s great gins. Smooth and sweet, yet never, ever forgetting its juniper heart, it’s amongst the best examples of how keeping it simple doesn’t mean having a one dimensional product – far from it. It sets the bar very high indeed for what ‘new wave’ gins could and can be when given appropriate consideration and a focus on singular quality. We’re completely and utterly transfixed by it, and if you happen to make it to the eastern side of America, seek it out. That isn’t a request, it’s a demand.
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