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Gin: Innovation / Sloe motion

Trading on their English eccentricity, flavoured gins such as sloe and damson are capitalising on the growing demand for boutique brands, writes Alice Lascelles

Jazzing up your gin is nothing new, as any Women’s Institute member will tell you. While the likes of lettuce wine and beetroot beer – both bona fide recipes in my grandmother’s WI cookbook – may have had their heyday, homemade damson and sloe gin retain a special place in the heart of many gin drinkers.

But when it comes to commercial production, the “flavoured” gin category (we’ll nail down this tricky term shortly) has, until recently, remained largely untapped. While vodka and rum have rampaged across the US – and increasingly the UK – on a wave of flavours, gin has resisted anything so new-fangled, partly thanks to a law which stipulates that juniper remains the dominant botanical.

Recently, however, a lacklustre gin market has forced distillers to innovate. Not that gin ever lacked flavour in the past. But your average consumer would probably be hard-pushed to identify any of the traditional botanicals, making it that much harder to distinguish any one particular brand from the crowd. As a result, a growing number of products like Hendrick’s, Gordon’s Distiller’s Cut and Seagram’s Lime Twisted are now marketing themselves on the back of one or two key flavours. Rose petals, lemongrass, cucumber and sloe berries are all being used to entice a new generation of white spirits drinkers into the gin category.

“I think with the resurgence of interest in gin we will definitely see the category do more exploring of flavours,” says Eileen Livingston, senior marketing manager for Plymouth. “But you have to be careful with flavours as their success can be quite short-lived,” she warns. “I used to do a lot of work on Absolut and learned that if you don’t use exactly the right ones you can really dilute your brand message.” For Plymouth, the “right ones” have been the traditional sloe and damson varieties. “Plymouth Damson is the only damson on the market, which is great to have as a unique point of difference,” says Livingston.

Broad appeal
Technically speaking, Plymouth Sloe and Plymouth Damson are liqueurs rather than gins, as they have an ABV of 26%, but Maxxium has opted to position them firmly within the gin portfolio. “We’re definitely marketing Damson and Sloe on the back of the parent brand. Our core target is people who already drink Plymouth – 40-plus ABC1 consumers, who are affluent and do a lot of drinking at home,” says Livingston.

“But, of course, it’s also increasingly important to target younger consumers in the growing cocktail market. So we’ve also been doing a lot of work devising cocktails for them, emphasising how the products can be used to top up other drinks like Champagne.”

While Damson and Sloe only currently account for around 2% of Plymouth sales in the UK, Maxxium is now putting more welly behind them. “At the moment they’re just available in the UK. But we’re planning to grow and the US will definitely be one of the main targets for Sloe,” says Livingston. The recently-updated Plymouth livery will also be extended to the brand’s flavoured varieties, she adds.

The other major sloe gin on the market, Gordon’s Sloe, was also given a revamp in 2004, and has since seen “double-digit growth” according to Diageo, with latest ACNielsen stats putting the figure at 15% (MAT to January 2006). Slightly cheaper than its rival, Gordon’s Sloe is going after a younger, less experienced consumer aged 25–35. Diageo claims that over 50% of Gordon’s Sloe gin drinkers are new to the category, and has encouraged cross-over from the core brand with marketing campaigns encompassing the full portfolio – Gordon’s, Gordon’s Sloe and Gordon’s Distiller’s Cut.

This summer – a key selling period for sloe gin – Diageo will be sinking half a million pounds into marketing Gordon’s Sloe, particularly in the on-trade. POS material will encourage consumers to try a sloe gin and tonic as a refreshing alternative to the traditional G&T.

A touch of the exotic
Gordon’s has also had a stab at the more premium end of the market with Distiller’s Cut. Launched in November 2004, this 40% ABV gin sells itself on its ginger and lemongrass characters, striking a more exotic note than is usual for this very “English” category. While the product has attracted praise from gin fans, Diageo remains cautious, despite growth of 111% “from a small base”. Distribution currently remains limited to the UK.

If success was measured by word of mouth, then Hendrick’s (41.1% ABV), the rose petal and cucumber-infused gin from William Grant, would be the out-and-out winner. Four years after the UK launch, it’s almost impossible to have a conversation about gin without someone singing Hendrick’s praises.

“I think Hendrick’s has really opened the door to doing something new with the category,” says Maxxium mixologist Wayne Collins (who admits that Plymouth may well be looking into a few new ideas of its own in the gin department).

At around twice the price of a standard gin, Hendrick’s is, as it proudly states on the label, “not for everyone”. But thanks to a growing demand for boutique brands in spirits as a whole, it’s been clocking up “around 30% growth year-on-year”, according to global brand director, Nick Williamson. Distribution has also been expanding in key cities in the UK, the US and Spain.

So how did the magic formula come about? The story goes that the cucumber/rose idea was inspired by happy summers spent sipping G&Ts in auntie’s rose garden. Whether it’s true or not, the concept has been a gift for the marketing department, and Hendrick’s has gone all-out to milk its English eccentricity with a swathe of delightfully hair-brained promotions. It could be said that if these flavours hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent them.

Taste the difference
“There has been massive diversification in drinks across the board,” explains Williamson. “You can also see flavours becoming more popular in non-alcoholic categories like water. We find a lot of people turning to Hendrick’s are those who have been forking out for fancy vodkas but finding there isn’t enough of a taste difference and are looking for something more.”

By positioning itself as the choice of those with a discerning palate, Hendrick’s has also tapped into valuable marketing opportunities among the foodie crowd. “There is a lot more scope in restaurants, especially with the aperitif opportunity,” says Williamson. “We already had a big success in a collaboration with the Conran chain of restaurants. When people booked for a set meal online they got a free Hendrick’s and tonic, which for a drink that may cost £5 or more is a great sampling opportunity. And that kind of gourmet audience is also more receptive to new flavours.”

Let’s twist again
Over at Pernod Ricard it’s all change on the flavoured gin front with Seagram’s Lime Twisted making its debut in the UK, and pear-flavoured Beefeater WET looking distinctly like it’s up for the chop. “Beefeater WET was an Allied project in the US, and it’s now under review,” explains Beefeater’s new global brand manager Nick Blacknell. “I see the market going in two directions; upwards with super-premiums such as Hendrick’s, Miller’s, Tanqueray No.Ten and  Blackwoods, and across with Distiller’s Cut, sloe gins and Seagram’s flavours. So at Beefeater we’re currently asking: where do we want to go?”

Clearly not where WET went, which involved using pear flavourings to smooth over the more “difficult” characteristics of gin for a 20-something vodka-drinking market. But if a gin is trying to taste like a vodka, in order to get vodka drinkers who don’t like gin, to drink gin – well, then is it really a gin? At this point it all starts to feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland and Blacknell agrees that perhaps it’s time the brand looked at some more traditional ideas again.

“Flavoured gin can be a bit of a confusing proposition as, in a sense, gin is already a flavoured vodka. So it makes sense to work with flavours that have a natural logic and affinity – sloe, damson, rose petals, lime – and that is the way the market is developing,” says Blacknell.

Seagram’s Lime Twisted, was recently launched in the UK alongside the core brand Seagram’s. Already the biggest-selling gin brand in the US, Seagram’s has been producing flavoured gins for a decade. Lime Twisted appeared first in 1996, followed by Orange Twisted in 2004. Together they represent 6% of Seagram’s sales.

But what will the UK gin consumer make of Lime Twisted? Unlike gins such as Hendrick’s and Distiller’s Cut which gain their flavours from ingredients added during distillation, Lime Twisted involves the addition of “lime flavour” at the end of the process – a technique that’s frowned upon by some of the distilling fraternity.

“I’m not really in favour of flavouring gin after it’s been produced,” says Collins. “Sloe and damson are fine as they are just macerations, but otherwise it needs to be part of the distillation process.”

Myles Davies, manager of award-winning London bar Green and Red agrees: “It should be about pulling out flavours that are already an element in the gin, rather than masking them. After all,” he adds, “in the old days people used to flavour gins purely because they were so unpalatable. Seagram’s is a great gin, but with something like Lime Twisted it’s always going to be in the back of people’s minds – what are you trying to hide?”

According to Seagram’s global brand director Wayne Hartunian, Seagram’s flavours are “primarily consumed off-premise [in the US]”. But in the UK, distributor Marblehead is targeting Lime Twisted at the on-trade: “We’re at a very early stage with Seagram in the UK, but we’re focusing on top-end bars and restaurants. We’re aiming to make it an on-trade brand, unlike something like Distiller’s Cut which is much more of an off-trade brand,” says Marblehead’s Scott Mackenzie.

Whether bartenders can be won round by the Seagram method of flavouring remains to be seen. For now it seems the smaller the brand, the better.

“At the moment my favourite flavoured gin is actually a sloe gin produced by a tiny company in Devon called Bramley and Gage,” says Davies. “Their products are all handmade and they’re amazing, so that’s what I stock.” Could be time to blow the dust off that Women’s Institute cookbook after all …

Saffron gin launch
The French might not be famous for their gin, but that hasn’t stopped Dijon distiller Gabriel Boudier entering the fray with a super-premium saffron-infused offering. The bright copper-coloured, 40% ABV gin is batch distilled with seven botanicals, including juniper, iris, fennel, orange, lemon and angelica, before being infused for one day
with saffron.
“Saffron gin used to be
very common in India,” says Andrew Streeter of Emporia Brands, which helped develop the gin and is now distributing it in the UK. “And it wasn’t until the English came along that clear gin emerged as
we know it today.”
Saffron Gin, which was launched at this year’s Bar Show, is currently being seeded in top-end on-trade venues around the UK.

© db July 2006

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