New flavours, Mad Men and micro-producers bring a renaissance for the old-school spirit
Gin has not enjoyed the best of reputations since it was brought to the UK by William of Orange in 1689. By the middle of the 18th century, “mother’s ruin” was blamed for leaving many of London’s poorest denizens in a state of catatonic inebriation; its devastating effects on the population lampooned by Hogarth and chronicled by Dickens.
More recently, sales of mainstream brands of gin have declined as younger consumers shun membership of the supposedly superannuated G&T brigade and switch to cleverly marketed vodkas. But something is changing in the clear spirits market.
“Our gin sales outsell vodka by five to one,” said Will Barber of the Tasting Room in Bath, an upmarket wineseller. “We sell gin that’s unusual. Our clients are looking for something different from smaller boutiques that they don’t see elsewhere. It’s partly a reaction against the power of the supermarkets – people want something that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Several whisky distilleries have now caught on to the trend and have started distilling their own, unique gins.
The Penderyn Distillery in Wales produces a hand-crafted gin using 10 botanical ingredients – including juniper berries from Macedonia, orange peel from Spain and liquorice root from Sri Lanka.
Blackwoods, in the Shetland Isles, produces a Scottish gin that uses flowers from the local clifftops. The Botanist Islay Gin is made with 22 indigenous botanicals while Edinburgh Gin from Fife combines elderflowers and raspberries.
“The economic downturn has seen a polarisation in the spirits category in the UK off-trade [drinks sold to be consumed away from the premises],” said Olly Wehring, managing editor of Just-drinks.com. “While trading down has certainly had an effect, the more premium offerings have benefited from the ethos of ‘drink less, but drink better’. At the same time, a rise in the number of premium gin offerings has coincided with this polarisation.”
According to a report by market analysts at International Wine & Spirit Research, premium gin sales in the UK rose by 11.6% last year to 304,750 cases – each containing 12 bottles or 9 litres of the spirit. Premium gin now represents 7.9% of the UK gin sector which has seen overall sales fall from 54.6m cases in 2001 to 46.6m cases in 2010.
“For me, the reason for this growth is that gin brands have stopped trying to copy the marketing techniques applied to the big vodka brands and have started concentrating on what makes gin great – the taste, the history and the process,” said Chris Giddings, marketing manager with branding agency Rufus Leonard.
“Brands such as Hendrick’s and Sipsmith have both helped reposition the spirit as produced in an artisan way and not something you can only drink with tonic water. Hendrick’s messaging is all about its Scottish history and a new way of drinking it – with cucumber. Sipsmith focuses on the ‘handmade’ approach, pulling new, younger consumers in with flavoured gin. It’s no longer just a spirit for your granny to knock back on a Sunday.”
Geraldine Coates founded the website Gintime.com seven years ago. “You can’t believe the difference between then and now,” Coates said. “We’ve gone from having just two dusty old brands in the UK to a huge range of super-premium brands, many handcrafted. If you asked for a martini five years ago, you would have been given a vodka martini, but no longer.”
Coates traces gin’s comeback to the rise of Bacardi-owned Bombay Sapphire, which she suggested had been designed to appeal to vodka consumers and had helped reinvent the spirit’s appeal. “Bartenders have really fallen in love with gin again,” she said. “Unlike vodka it has flavour – all the great cocktails like negroni, martini, white lad – have complex flavours. With gin there is a lot more to play with.”
The demographics of gin drinkers are changing, too, Coates suggests. “Traditionally, women have drunk gin, but more and more men are drinking it. It’s down to an increase in the general interest in cocktails – just look at Mad Men. And there’s so many fantastic cocktail bars opening all the time.”
The UK has some way to go, however, before it catches up with the US where there are now hundreds of micro distilleries producing gins.
“The big unanswered question is provenance,” said Ian Hart, a former corporate headhunter who founded the widely regarded Sacred Gin microdistillery in Highgate, north London, and is now exporting to the US and Japan. “Ask yourself: is the gin actually being made by a real distiller or a large company churning out the stuff under contract to someone who puts their own label on it and sells it in a pretty bottle. Do your homework. A real distiller will be proud of their still. Others will gloss over it.”