Last night, during our in-store kick-off event with Founders Footwear, we were joined by Alex Weiss from Barr Hill Gin, who was on hand with a couple gins and several cocktails. I sat down with Alex for a few minutes before the evening began to talk about Barr Hill, cocktails, and gin in general. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Hi Alex, thanks for taking the time. What’s the story with Barr Hill?
Our company was founded 5 years ago by a gentleman by the name of Todd Hardie, who spent pretty much his entire life in agriculture producing raw honey, keeping bees, making value-added products with and from raw honey. About seven, eight years ago, he sold the honey company and put that money into a distillery: another sort of step in the process of adding value to raw material — in this case, raw honey.
So New Caledonia Spirits is the parent company?
It’s not New Caledonia, but a lot of people think that because there’s a town … somewhere called New Caledonia, but we’re just called Caledonia Spirits and the reason for that is we’re in Caledonia County, Vermont. Caledonia County is the start of what’s called The Northeast Kingdom … the three northeaster counties in Vermont. It’s a somewhat remote, heavily agricultural region, absolutely beautiful, very low population.
So kind of an idyllic, pastoral, Old-American wonderland?
Um … yes, but like many of those “Old-American wonderlands,” they’ve had their time. Particularly our area is pretty economically depressed. There was a granite industry there that was pretty strong and collapsed, and there was a dairy industry that was, I would say, fairly strong and collapsed. So the area is — has a feeling of being pretty poor. It is full of, right now, an incredible resurgence in agriculture, and we always say that what makes our area so much stronger now is things like spirits, beer, cheese, all the things that take raw materials, whether it’s grain, whether it’s milk, whether it’s raw honey, in our case, and add value to that, find a market for that. Yeah. And it’s still absolutely, stunningly beautiful and remote-feeling.
So you have with you today a couple different kinds of gin?
Yup, we make two types of gin, our flagship Barr Hill Gin and Tom Cat, which is barrel-aged gin.
Okay Tom Cat is the barrel-aged, is that in an Old-Tom style?
Um … it is …
Or — tough to own that term?
It’s tough to own that term, it’s not a defined term the way that Burgundy means Pinot Noir if it’s a red wine or what have you, but —
Right, okay, so I sort of set up this moment a little bit because let’s talk about categorization.
So I think that, in the American mindset, gin is still this kind of monolithic category of — well, what I wrote down here is “pine-tree-flavored grandpa-juice,” but I think the cocktail revolution is helping people be a little more aware of different types of gins and gin’s usefulness in general, particularly in cocktails. But let’s break down some general categories and then where Barr Hill fits into this. Your big producers like Tanqueray, Beefeater, what are these guys doing and then what are you doing, and what else is there in the “Gin Landscape,” if you will?
The Gin-scape. Yeah. I labelled this “The Gin-terview,” so …
I did notice that. Well I’m Gin-spired. Um …
All day. All day.
Well, you’ve got the major — gin has had an amazing evolution over three to four hundred years. The main brands that everybody knows are made in what’s called the London Dry Style. And that is a flavor profile, but it’s really more of a process. One of the definitions is: all those flavors are added during distillation not after distillation. Barr Hill gin, it doesn’t really fit that style because we’re using raw honey as part of the proofing process — so we have a little bit higher sugar content than a London Dry Style. I think it kind of dances the line between a London Dry Style and what’s called “Old Tom,” which has no real definition except that it’s been commonly associated with gins that were made in the mid-18th century that had sugar added to them.
That doesn’t do Barr Hill Gin justice because raw honey is not cane sugar. Raw honey, in our case, adds an almost botanical note to it that pairs really well with the juniper. I liken it to the spirit is a canvass to the blend of juniper and raw honey. As a bartender will tell you, BH Gin is kind of like a canvass too — it’s super versatile for making cocktails. But what stands out, above and beyond, in BH Gin and all of our spirits is that they are just wonderful sipping neat or on the rocks. And no gins really — that’s not a typical thing.
Yeah. So gin is viewed almost exclusively as a cocktail ingredient — and I think it’s a damn shame — “farm gins,” local producers are making all these interesting, lovely, darling little gins and we really view it as pigeon-holed in The Cocktail. So let’s talk about tasting gin. Best practices for tasting a new gin — say I hand you a bottle you’ve never seen before, you open it up, what happens next? Where’s your head at?
I might be kind of standard in this — I pop the cork, have a good long smell, right from the bottle — can certainly tell a lot, just from that. I’ll pour a good finger or two in a glass, take a sip, get the aroma, usually let that sit on my palate for a second and then usually I’ll spit that first sip out —
Why is that?
I don’t know, it’s just something I’ve always done.
Does that come from wine-tasting?
No. I don’t know it’s maybe because I, I um—there’s just a lot of alcohol in my life so it’s good to … spit? Every once in a while?
Sure. Sure. Let the alcohol know who’s boss.
There you go. And then I’ll — I keep my mouth open while I smell and then take another sip, again kind of let it sit on my tongue. I don’t know, I taste and I don’t really look for anything I just try to see what these guys are doing.
A quick perusal of your website turns up the phrase “Landmade.”
Landcrafted, sorry. If I’m correct in my interpretation of what you mean there then the French have another word for it: terroir. Do you think that applies to Barr Hill Gin and to spirits in general? Do you think that it is more sensible to approach gin from a terroir perspective like you were tasting a Bordeaux or a Burgundy and trying to pick out a little about the landscape, do you think gin is a better canvas [than other spirits] for that because of it’s botanical nature?
It’s a really interesting question. I think, in our case there’s a very direct connection to “handcrafted,” to terroir, and that’s raw honey. Like grapes for wine, raw honey is expressing the flowers of that particular region, the flowers are expressing the land of that particular region. What are the bees getting nectar from? You look at honey from Italy or honey from California or from the Southwest, they’re all gonna taste different and so “Landcrafted” for us really is that. It’s a spirit of place. We say right on the bottle “Spirit of Vermont.” I mean, you can’t make this spirit anywhere else. And I think a lot of winemakers would say something similar.
So what process results in this particular gin? You said honey is used during the “proofing process?”
The gin is made from 100% corn, neutral-base spirit, distilled through our botanical extraction still. After distillation we add water and raw honey to bring it down to proof.
What is a botanical extraction still?
It’s a still that has a way of extracting the botanicals through the vapor. There’s a big cone, all those alcohol vapors are heated, get pulled through the juniper, it condenses, comes off the still at 90 proof and we go from there.
So the vapors are contacting the botanicals as opposed to the liquid?
Which, in a London Dry you’d be throwing these botanicals straight into the liquid, boiling it, and condensing that vapor. Yours is 100% flavored while in vapor form. Does that tend to give it a different kind of flavoring? Is it sharper, is it more vibrant, is it somehow different?
I think we get a lot out of the juniper that way, and we get more nuance in the juniper. The secret to our gin is we only use raw honey and juniper. Those are the only two things.
Oh, wow. A modernist gin, maybe? Haha …
Maybe. Certainly a straightforward gin that allows the spirit to actually speak to the raw honey and the juniper. But you get a lot of complexity out of those two fairly straightforward things.
All right. Well, I’ve never had this before — in my life — and I want to try it.
Let’s do it.
The top of the bottle has wax — is that beeswax?
Beeswax. We hand-dip every bottle in beeswax. It smells really good. Our distillery has this incredible smell of honey, beeswax, juniper. Cheers.
… So it’s definitely got that nice, I describe it as a round smell that you get when you do the vapor-infusion, almost like a, a “blue” smell that you get from the whole juniper berry.
Blue smell, I like that.
So I used to — when I was walking around in the mountains of New Mexico, it’s very dry there, and there were lot of juniper trees. When I was hiking I would take little handfuls of juniper berries and chew them to keep my mouth moist. And so the taste of whole juniper berries always resonates a lot for me. I think that’s one of the big differences in soaking the botanicals versus hitting them with the vapor is that you get this very round, whole juniper berry flavor.
Do you get the honey on the nose at all?
You know, I don’t know that I can really separate it from the rest of the smells … okay, so I feel like there’s a spike from the juniper that starts to happen that is then mellowed out by, um, it’s not sweetness from the honey so much but that sensation of … what it feels like to have honey in your mouth.
For me, I sip it, I get that juniper in the beginning, that juniper gets completely softened and then it’s just this mellow, round texture. And I definitely taste a little sweetness.
Now we’re trying the Tom Cat.
And what’s different about the Tom Cat is it spends six months in brand new, charred, oak casks. You get this very, very different gin — well, I’ll let you try it first.
Oh, wow, okay. And I really couldn’t tell you why, but when I taste something I go to my imagination before I go to my sensibilities and I let images form. And this takes me to a place, maybe springtime in childhood, walking around in the top of, like, an old barn. Not one that smells like hay or anything, but being surrounded by old beams, that sort of stillness and warm air bringing out a little bit of the aromas of the old wood. Yeah. There’s an incredible sense of place, I think, in that smell. I imagine it will be different for everybody, but that, that is undeniable.
For me, it’s like a thawing forest after the winter, like during [maple] sugar season.
I think I pick up more of the honey-sweetness in this. Is there more honey in it, or is this the same gin, just aged?
The same gin just aged. However there is sweetness from the oak, and that’s part of what’s special about new oak. Because the barrels are charred and toasted you get that sort of, that “toasty sweetness.” You’ll wanna drink this —
I wanna make an Old-Fashioned out of this. This tastes to me like it would fit right into a lot of really old “classic cocktail” recipes, even ones that don’t call for aged gin —
There aren’t a ton that call for an aged gin and so we’ve had to be very creative, and honestly, it works in whisky cocktails.
Yeah. I bet it does. That’s delicious. Okay, let me see if I’ve got anything else on my question list here … Oh, right. And since you are a small producer from Vermont I have to ask you the obligatory question: When you get approached by Ben & Jerry’s — and we both know that you will — what’s gonna be Barr Hill’s ice cream flavor?
Nobody has ever asked that before. Um, golly. It’d have to be something gin-flavored, right? Honey and … salt and honey?
Honey and Happiness?
Haha, yeah, I don’t know, martini-flavored … ? No, I’ve got it. Negroni Sorbet.
I would buy that. Thank you for the gin and for the time. Everyone else: Drink well.