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A bit of all white

As the cocktail cognoscenti rediscovers the classics of yesteryear, so gin sees a resurgence in interest, as do stablemates rum, vodka and Tequila.

The drinks industry – and cocktails in particular – are looking back in order to move forward with the ever-increasing trend of seeking inspiration from the classics before giving them a modern twist.

White spirits such as gin and vodka, which have formed the backbone of many classics from the Tom Collins through to the Cosmopolitan, are finding themselves back at the heart of every good bar menu the world over.

While this was a trend which has its origins in the UK and US markets, the rest of the world has caught up and retro-modern cocktails are now the order of the day. Bartenders are now encouraged to give their own unique twist to age-old recipes and the results have inspired a new generation of experimental cocktail making.

Tim Stones, brand ambassador for Beefeater, sees the rediscovery of classics as a fundamental factor in the renaissance of the gin category in recent years.

“With the major rediscovery of gin in recent years, bartenders have become more aware of this spirit and the various flavours that different gins offer,” he says. “As a result they are becoming far more adventurous when creating gin cocktails.

“Specific cocktail trends really differ depending on how ‘developed’ the region’s cocktail culture is. Those with sophisticated cocktail cultures – such as the UK, US and Australia – are currently looking back to the classic gin-led cocktails and injecting contemporary twists on original recipes such as the Martini.

“At the same time, consumers have been looking for a more flavourful spirit for use in mixed drinks and cocktails. With their more adventurous approach, cocktail culture in the home has taken off.

“In regions with developing cocktail cultures – including Asia and Eastern Europe – there is growing demand for alternatives to the gin and tonic serve. Increasingly, tonic is being replaced with fruit juices and other mixers that enhance the range of botanicals in gin.”

The fact that Stones credits Eastern Europe as harbouring an “emerging” cocktail culture might cause some consternation among bartenders in the region, seeing as it is the opinion of some that mainland Europe is close to overtaking the US and the UK as far as innovation in cocktails goes.

Indeed, some European bars have already caught up with the UK in terms of cocktail-making innovation, according to Alex Turner, head of training at Bacardi Brown Forman. Turner, who trains the UK’s leading bartenders to expand and perfect their cocktail-making repertoire, told the drinks business that European nations have caught up thanks to their drive to produce vintage cocktails with a modern twist.

“On the whole the UK was out in front until around a year to 18 months ago,” Turner claims.

“We have been caught up now by other European cities such as Berlin, Paris, Lyon, Vienna and Barcelona, which allhave a very distinct style, as well as the US.

“There is some really interesting stuff happening in Europe, all along the same lines of producing vintage cocktails with a modern twist.”

Turner stresses that this doesn’t simply mean the addition of a new ingredient to a classic cocktail.

“Anyone can make a Manhattan, stick some Chambord in it and call it a twisted classic,” he maintains. “ But if you look at some of these European bars they tend to make a very cool style of drink in cool vintage glassware.

“They also make them in the kind of basement bars which make you feel as though you are in an environment totally focused on producing great drinks. There is a really modern, scientific application of modern mixology meeting the drinks of the 1830s.”

This renewed focus on flavour and quality has, perhaps inevitably, led to the premium end of the white spirits section becoming ever-more popular among discerning bar staff and drinkers alike.

While the likes of Smirnoff might still dominate the global spirits category in terms of sales, the reputation and awareness of the top-end has grown massively over the past decade.

“Premium vodka is the fastest growing sector within vodka and is currently in +12% growth,” affirms Simon Green, marketing director at Global Brands. “Both value and volume are growing at a similar rate as consumption increases, and this premiumisation trend is driven by consumers, who are becoming more aspirational when it comes to their drinks and venue choices.

“The slight lift in distribution for premium vodka across circuit bars also suggests that it’s not only the style bars and nightclubs that are looking to premiumise their offering to meet today’s consumer’s needs.”

“Elsewhere in the white spirits category, white rum has experienced a slight decline of 0.6% in the on-trade, yet continues to grow at +5% in the off-trade. However, the size of the white rum market in the off-trade is three times the size of that in the on-trade.”

“A select number of gin brands are leading the way and experiencing up to +12% growth in the on-trade. These are the brands that are actively differentiating their offering and providing unique ways of serving, as this appeals to today’s consumers, who always want to be seen trying something new or different.”

Spirit of adventure

Trying something new seems to be the mission of many consumers in today’s spirits scene and tired clichés and preconceptions are giving way to a much more adventurous nature.

Bartenders have loved gin for years – old cocktail books are testament to that – but for a while its star faded as younger consumers grew up with negative stereotypes and misinformation.

Andy Dawson, director at Broker’s Gin, used to despair. “For a long time I heard the refrain, ‘Young people don’t drink gin because that is what their parents drank’,” he laments. “But with the passage of time, it is no longer young people’s parents who drank gin, but their grandparents. And doing what your grandparents did might even be cool.”

Dawson maintains that one only needs to look at the burgeoning global production of gin to realise the transformation in the category’s fortunes.

“Apart from the hard numbers which show significant growth in the sales of premium and super-premium gins in most markets, there is empirical evidence too. Look at how many new brands of gin are being created.

“There are perhaps as many as 50 new craft distillers in America making gin. Craft brewing using to be all the rage. Now it is craft distilling. There is a corresponding raft of new gins from England, Scotland, Spain, France, Holland, even from parts of Germany more normally associated with making beer. On my last trip to Australia, I discovered gins being made in the Margaret River wine country. Wherever next?”

So is vodka’s position at the top of the spirits tree under threat? Maybe not, as its neutrality will ensure it remains the single most mixable and widely consumed spirit across the globe. However, there has certainly been an uprising among its competitors.

“Vodka is still showing dynamic growth in many markets around the world so the outlook for the category is very positive,” agrees Duncan Hayter, international sales director at Gin Mare. “The premiumisation trend of recent years has slowed, however, with the global recession. It also faces new competition from other super-premium white spirits, especially gins and Tequilas that have been slower to develop super-premium variants but are now making up for lost time.

“Both the gin and the Tequila categories are starting to show the sort of innovation and creativity in terms of liquid, design, packaging and marketing that helped fuel the growth of premium vodka over the last decade.”

Ekaterina Egorova, of Soyuzprodexport, shares the belief that vodka will continue to flourish, but admits brands will have to up their game to remain ahead of the competition from other drinks.

“In Russia particularly, even though the consumption of gin and rum is growing, especially among the young, those spirits will never go above vodka,” she opines. “However, the vodka producers should put more effort into modern branding and design in order to keep the young audience, clubbers and the growing ‘white-collar’ class.”

Andrey Skurikhin, partner at SPI Group, which owns Stolichnaya, agrees that the need to keep on its toes can only be of benefit to the vodka category. “Although we don’t believe that gin and white rum are the main competitors for Stolichnaya or the vodka category, we do believe that they add excitement and variety to the white spirits category,” he says.

“However, any new entries will motivate and challenge us to keep Stolichnaya top of consumers’ minds by remaining true to our innovative reputation.”

Tequila time

For all the gin, vodka and white rum that is being consumed in bars across the world right now, another category is quietly establishing itself as a real challenger on the white spirits scene: Tequila.

The much-maligned spirit of choice for pre-loading students and stag night forfeits is undergoing a reinvention thanks to its increasing use in cocktails the world over.

Henry Besant, spokesperson for The Tahona Society, says: “It’s common to see two or three Tequila drinks on cocktail menus around the world today and that wasn’t the case a few years ago. In northern and central parts of America, crafted agave Tequila cocktails made with locally produced fruits and herbs are seen on almost all menus in premium bars.

“The Tommy’s Margarita is arguably the only classic cocktail that has really taken hold globally. You can go almost anywhere in the world and find that drink. We are seeing an increase of better crafted Margaritas made with fresh lime juice and quality agave syrups.”

It’s a category that is showing growth where few people expected. Whereas gin and white rum have seen their recent good fortunes take root in more established markets, Tequila seems to have found its place in niche markets where drinkers are still very much at the experimental stage when it comes to white spirits and cocktail culture.

Jason Nussbaum, director of international marketing at Patrón Spirits, says: “The Tequila category is growing in markets across the world, and in places where you might not traditionally expect Tequila to be popular – such as Hong Kong, South Korea and India. Other major growth markets include Russia, Greece, Brazil and South Africa.

“A high-quality, 100% agave Tequila is extremely versatile and mixable in most any cocktail. Just about anything you can make with vodka can also be created using Tequila instead. So what we’re starting to see around the world is that people are drinking Tequila not just in Margaritas or other traditional Tequila cocktails, but in a wide range of innovative drinks.

Educated mixologists understand the potential of ultra-premium Tequila, and they’re increasingly using it in cocktail recipes.”

Raffaele Berardi, CEO at Tequila Corralejo, agrees that China and the rest of Asia “will see the most growth over the next five years” for the Tequila category, but insists that education is still key to drive sales of more premium styles.

“A lot of people still do not understand the quality differences at the top end of the Tequila category,” he says.

“Promotional activities and tasting events are a must in all markets, regardless of their size. The premium Tequila category itself is only around 20 years old so there is still much work to be done.”

This is a view shared by the whole Tequila industry. Like it or not, the drink carries an unwanted stigma. Salt and lemon-accompanied “slammers” will unfortunately be a part of the drink’s image for the foreseeable future, but the growth of the premium sector has provided a real opportunity for long-lasting change.

Bill Oddy, managing director of The Drinks Company, says: “In order to achieve its potential, Tequila needs to focus on quality and mixability. This relentless attention to quality is part of a broader strategy to move Tequila perceptions from niche to mainstream.

“Cheap Tequilas and inferior cheap mixed products calling themselves Margaritas, but which are in fact wine based and don’t even contain Tequila, do not help. Simply offering two bottles on promotion for £21.00 or “reduced to a tenner” does nothing to build the image of the category.

Bar heroes

Crucial to the white spirit’s revolution in cocktail culture has, naturally, been the bartender. It is they who put together cocktail lists, they who experiment with new flavours and styles, and ultimately they who can encourage consumers to trade up or branch out within their drinking repertoire.

As BBFB’s Turner explains: “They are the guardians of spirits, so it is their job to educate their guests.

“Every bartender should be looking to increase their consumers’ repertoire of what they would drink. Flavour differences need to be explained. Move your customers on to a light gin drink, then maybe you can ease them into Tequila.

“When we do our training sessions we find there is a big divide between what the bartenders drink when they go out and what their friends drink. Their friends drink vodka, they drink rum. This is an ideal chance for them to have an influence on their friends’ drinks consumption.”

Broker’s Dawson agrees that the bartender is key in introducing new drinkers to the category. “One group of people who almost universally love gin is bartenders,” he states. “Many of them enjoy playing with customers who say they don’t like gin by making them a gin-based cocktail without telling them what’s in it. Nine times out of 10 the customer is shocked and surprised by how much they like the cocktail.

“Personally, whenever I meet someone who likes that most cosmopolitan of cocktails, the Cosmopolitan, I encourage them to try one made with gin instead of vodka. I have lost count of how many of those people have made a permanent switch from vodka to gin.”

There is little doubt that the current growth across the white spirits board is a direct result of the ever-expanding breadth of the cocktail scene around the globe. As more markets mature and become fully versed in both the classic cocktails and experimentation, white spirits will continue to enjoy a sustained period of growth.

The onus now falls on the industry and the bartenders to ensure that the current wave of cocktail evolution doesn’t pass the upcoming generation of drinkers by.

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