There’s no denying that we are in the midst of an unprecedented surge in the gin industry, with ever more distilleries responding to customer demand for trends such as seasonal gins and locally foraged botanicals. Now, I am not going to suggest that either the gin market or I am reaching saturation point, but you don’t have to look too hard to spot the same botanicals popping up time and time again. It is increasingly difficult to find something that genuinely intrigues and excites; something that is truly unique. But I believe I may have found it at The Spirit Show in the form of Caledonia Spirits.
Caledonia Spirits are based in Vermont, New England – the second-least populous of the US states, and a region best known for its beautiful, largely forested, landscapes and its dairy-farming and maple syrup industries. It is these working landscapes that provide the inspiration for Barr Hill Gin, Barr Hill Vodka and Tom Cat Gin, a trio of products created by distilling local ingredients, with the ambition of adding value to both the crops involved and the environs.
“The land spurs our creativity and serves as a guide on our quest to produce flawless Landcrafted spirits.”
The distinguishing local material in Caledonia’s ‘landcrafted’ spirits, the one that makes it so intruiging, is raw honey. Raw honey, as opposed to regular honey, is the original sweet liquid that honeybees produce from the concentrated nectar of flowers; it is unheated, unpasteurised and unprocessed honey. It is also said to have exceptional nutritional value.
It was in 2011, following 48 years of keeping bees and selling honey, that Todd Hardie founded Caledonia Spirits and decided to bring raw honey into distillation. Todd hired local brewer, Ryan Christiansen, to operate the stills and make their craft spirits. They achieved almost instantaneous success, selling 235 cases of Barr Hill Gin and Barr Hill Vodka in their first year of business and when they, finally, released Tom Cat Gin (after months of wrestling with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau on labelling concerns) a year of stockpiled production sold out in just three weeks. All three spirits are also multi-award-winning products with, most recently, Tom Cat Gin earning the Masters title, and Barr Hill Gin the Gold, at the Gin Masters Awards in December 2016.
Barr Hill Gin
Unusually, in a market crowded with gins packing yet more and more exotic botanicals into their spirits, Barr Hill Gin is a single-botanical juniper-forward gin with only raw honey added after distillation. The attractive bottle is also, ingeniously, sealed with raw beeswax, so that your senses are assaulted by that stunning aroma the moment you pick up the bottle. Crack it open and the gin carries the scent of beeswax alongside a sweet, floral aroma but with a dryness that cuts through the honeyed notes.
At 45% ABV, this is a hefty gin to drink neat and brings to mind mead (aka honey-wine), albeit a considerably more refined version. Tasting it 50/50 mixed with water, the subtlety and balance of the gin becomes more obvious. There is a distinctive honey flavour to this gin but it is not overpoweringly sugary. There are sweet notes but they balance perfectly with the dry juniper which provides the bee with its sting. It really is different, distinctive and delicious! The honey carries notes of unknown wildflowers and distant lands, as if the bees themselves had selected the botanicals in secret. I can categorically say I’ve never tasted a gin like it.
Barr Hill makes an excellent, unusually aromatic, gin and tonic but I couldn’t resist trying a prohibition-era The Bee’s Knees, using Caledonia Spirits’ Raw Honey, and I can’t pretend otherwise; this bee’s knees really was the business. Sweet, sharp and succinct, it was just the tonic for my sore throat! It’s also a ridiculously easy cocktail to knock up at home so, frankly, there’s no excuse not to.
The Bee’s Knees
- 40ml Barr Hill Gin
- 20ml Lemon Juice
- 15ml Honey Simple Syrup
First, you’ll need to make a honey syrup by mixing equal parts of honey and water over heat and leaving it to cool. Next, fill a shaker with ice, add gin, lemon juice, honey simple syrup, and shake vigorously. Pour into a chilled cocktail glass. Add a lemon garnish.
Tom Cat Gin
To create their Tom Cat Gin, the spirit is aged in new American oak barrels for four to six months, lending the gin a distinct, robust character and colour. On the nose, this gin retains the beeswax but is distinctly less floral, with more vanilla and woody pine/oak to the fore. It is very much intended to be consumed neat and it is, to me, so much closer to a brown spirit than a gin, so that does make sense.
“When the world called for whiskey, we answered resolutely with gin.”
Tom Cat Gin is rich and warming with hints of vanilla and ginger. As a gin girl, it’s not really my thing when served neat, but my rum and whisky-loving husband adored it. When this gin comes into its own, for me, is when it graces a cocktail. Thanks to Felix at Every Cloud Bar, I have recently discovered how much I love brown-spirit cocktails. I have my suspicions that that is largely because Felix himself prefers brown spirits but, nevertheless, my eyes have been opened.
Now, as I may have neglected to fully explain, I was fortunate enough to leave The Spirit Show in London with a fine selection of complimentary gins, including these two. I also left it slightly sozzled and went directly to Every Cloud to get slightly more sozzled. Whereupon I presented Felix with my new gins and challenged him to make me something splendid with them. I had no doubt he would succeed, and succeed he did, by creating a marvellous Martinez with the Tom Cat Gin (which I can highly recommend, if not entirely recall!) More recently, I attempted Caledonia Spirits’ Stormy Cat cocktail; an adaptation of a Dark ‘n Stormy, replacing rum with Tom Cat Gin. For my tastes, I had to add some lime juice (rather than just the wedge to garnish) to provide the balance to the cocktail but, boy, was it good. Frankly, I can’t wait to experiment more with this one!
Felix’s Tom Cat Martinez (AKA Cats like Felix like Felix!)
- 40ml Tom Cat Gin
- 15ml sweet vermouth
- 5ml maraschino
- Dash of orange bitters
Add all of the ingredients to a cocktail shaker, filled halfway with ice. Stir. Strain into a chilled Martini glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
- 40ml Tom Cat Gin
- 20ml Ginger Beer
- 10ml Ginger Simple Syrup
- Lime juice/wedge
To make your ginger syrup, check out Gin Festival‘s great guide to making your own syrup. When ready, add Tom Cat and ginger syrup to a shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously. Pour into a glass filled with ice, top with ginger beer. Add lime juice to taste and a wedge to garnish.
So, Caledonia Spirits made a buzzing gin. And a gin that answered the world’s call for whiskey. However, that is not the end of the story with these busy bees. In 2015, Todd sold Caledonia Spirits to Head Distiller Ryan so that he could pursue a dream of farming in the neighboring town of Greensboro. However, the two agreed to continue a partnership whereby Todd would be the farmer and steward of growing grains and sourcing local ingredients, and Ryan would distill these ingredients into craft spirits. In 2016, they began to distill smoky rye whiskey using winter rye from Todd’s Thornhill Farm and malted barley from the, equally local, Meyer family’s North Hardwick Dairy. This batch of Thornhill Whiskey is now resting in Vermont white oak barrels made by Master Copper, Bob Hockert, with anticipation growing by the year.
“The spirit of our team and the land of Vermont will be expressed in this smoky rye whiskey. My uncles started distilling in Scotland in 1888. This is how we have made the farm work for generations.”
Be sure to keep an eye on Caledonia Spirits, not just for their whiskey launch, but also for their Tom Cat Gin special releases, aged exclusively in Vermont White Oak Barrels; they promise to be sweet as honey.
Barr Hill Gin (£39.95 for 75cl) and Tom Cat Gin (£49.95 for 75cl) can be purchased from Master of Malt.
With thanks to Caledonia Spirits for two sample bottles of Barr Hill Gin and Tom Cat Gin.