The Best Old Fashioned I Ever Had Was Made With Gin

If you don't think gin can be sippable, think again.

Gin Old Fashioned
Gin Old Fashioned. Photo:

Mpak ART studio / Ilarion Ananiev / Getty Images

Last month during my first trip to Philly, I stopped by Philadelphia Distilling, a bar and distillery housed in a converted factory. With floor-to-ceiling windows that allow you to see the distillery’s copper pot stills, historical elements from the original factory, and the brand’s signature “Bluecoat” name on all the spirits, it feels like a quintessentially all-American spot. 

When I was served the bar’s signature Old-Fashioned, and was told that it was made with gin instead of bourbon (America’s only native spirit) I was surprised. I love gin, but it’s not normally something you want to sip straight over ice, which is what you’re practically doing when you drink an Old-Fashioned. This surprise turned out to be an excellent one, however, and after the first sip of my Gin Old-Fashioned, I was hooked on the herbaceous, subtly sweet, strong cocktail — I’ve even already started making them at home.

The secret to nailing this untraditional drink lies in the choice of gin; it isn’t something you should use a typical bottle of Bombay Sapphire for. Philadelphia Distilling uses their own barrel-finished gin, a spirit that’s aged in oak barrels just like bourbon. Aging in oak imparts the gin with both a darker color — it almost even looks like a whiskey — and the vanilla and caramel notes that you expect from bourbon. It also mellows out the overall flavor of the gin; you can still taste the classic notes of juniper, but the spirit feels less abrasive as you sip it.

As a result of this adventure, I learned that the idea that gins are always clear is a fairly new one. Like many other spirits, gin used to be stored and transported in wooden barrels or casks, which would ultimately convey some color and flavor onto their contents. But in more recent years, some brands have started intentionally using barrels to create new and unexpected variations on gin. While most of the barrel-finished gins I researched were aged in oak barrels, some bottles — like D. George Benham’s Barrel Finished Gin — took on more fruity and spiced notes from wine barrels. 

Curious about how another oak barrel-aged gin would taste when compared with Philadelphia Distilling, I decided to try the Barr Hill Tom Cat Barrel Aged Gin too — I tasted it both straight and in an Old Fashioned. At first glance, this gin is obviously darker, and this is reflected in the flavor as well; Tom Cat feels rich in your mouth, and has hints of honey. one of the brand’s signature ingredients in their gins. Surprisingly, this spirit comes even closer in flavor to bourbon than the Bluecoat Barrel Finished Gin. If you want to drink a gin straight up, Tom Cat would be my recommendation, but with the added sweetness from the simple syrup in an Old-Fashioned, I ultimately prefer the lighter liquor from Philadelphia Distilling. Swapping bourbon for gin in one of my favorite classic cocktails turned out to be a pleasant surprise — so the next time you make an Old Fashioned, I recommend trying it without the whiskey.

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