Gin: Too big to fail?


Archie McDiarmid, manager of Luvians Bottle Shop in St Andrews, says: “Locality and provenance are real driving forces, particularly in Scotland. Perhaps because of our single-malt heritage, we really value knowing where a spirit was made.”

Gin has pushed the boundaries of a white spirit, redefining itself and, in the process, borrowing cues from whisky and craft beer. It is now not simply a cocktail ingredient or a faithful partner to tonic water, but a product of the land. To succeed and survive, companies must take this into account.

Tina and Tom Warner of Warner Edwards

Nicholas Cook, director general of The Gin Guild, an international gin industry body led by brand owners, adds: “Customers are like train-spotters but without the anoraks, actively interested in how their gin is made, where, and who by.”

Hepple Gin’s co-creator and TV chef Valentine Warner certainly understands the importance of the ‘trainspotter gin’. Based on the Hepple estate in Northumberland National Park, Warner said the team “wanted to translate our wild surroundings into the bottle”. At the same time, they were interested in the process. Hepple uses a triple technique involving the traditional copper pot still but also CO2 extraction and a glass vacuum still.

“We were nervous of technology in an otherwise romantic world of copper, but it has been essential in staking out our camp,” adds Warner.

It ultimately all boils down to the taste, but how do brands stand out in the battle of the botanicals? Ivan Dixon, spirits buyer at Harvey Nichols, believes brand success often results from “distinctly different flavour profiles”.

“Brockman’s is an example,” he says. “It uses an unusually low amount of juniper, meaning it can be treated in a different way to most gins. Whether this is a good or bad approach will inevitably split opinion, but it is proving to be popular among our consumers.”

In the Gin Foundry’s Gin Annual, co-founder Olivier Ward predicted that 2017 would see numerous limited editions, a trend he believes will continue for a while longer. Limited releases such as the new “quininated” gin from Hendrick’s, Warner Edwards’ Botanical Garden range, Bloom Gin’s Strawberry Cup and the various offerings from Sipsmith’s Sipping Society all have one thing in common: they retain customer interest and sell out before that interest wains.

That said, restraint and knowing what botanicals not to include is equally important, according to Joanne Moore, master distiller at G&J Distillers, part of the Quintessential Brands group, which is responsible for Bloom Gin, Berkeley Square, Opihr and Thomas Dakin, as well as Greenall’s.

She says producers “should be mindful that the choice of your botanicals first complements juniper for the legal aspect – gin must be made up of ‘predominantly juniper’ – and more importantly the recognition of being a gin, and second, that your choice and number of botanicals used are credible to allow the trade to easily identify and explain your gin to a consumer”.

Moore’s views are shared, albeit in a more extreme form, by Brian Ellison of Wisconsin-based Death’s Door: “We are known for our restrained three-botanical gin, but we are constantly being asked if we are going to come up with another gin or barrel-age a gin. We’ve managed to resist so far,” he says, stressing that as far as he is concerned, less is more.

Gin also has a reciprocal relationship with the mixer and tonic water market, with both categories benefitting from the other’s success. Introducing natural tonics, free from artificial, metallic-tasting sweeteners, brands such as Fever-Tree have created mixers that allow the flavour of the gin to shine through.

Commenting on the current market, Victoria Adams, brand marketing manager for Fever-Tree said: “Customers are now so aware of what they are drinking so it is important to showcase the ingredients in a product well, particularly if they are unusual.”

“At Fever-Tree, we go to the ends of the earth to source the finest natural ingredients to ensure we can carefully craft the best mixers that enhance the taste of spirits rather than mask them”.

3 Responses to “Gin: Too big to fail?”

  1. martin says:

    Interesting thoughts, and by and large mostly agreeable, but there are different gin strategies out there, three of which spring to mind; regional and/or local botanically-based or biased gins, craft/artisan gins using the best available botanical ingredients regardless of origin, and then there are those gin brands that are merely that – not even distilled by the owners, but simply a farmed-out recipe gin that relies on marketing and PR, a brand exercise capitalising on the resurgence of the category! Whilst writing another strategy has occurred to me – the big brand owners/distillers, also cashing in on the popularity of the category with pseudo-craft gins and even with the cynical use of labelling terms such as ‘handcrafted’ which the big brands are most certainly not! But the question about longevity is a valid one. My opinion is that quality will last, as it does with most things, not just gin. The regional products may hit a ceiling before others, as more regional products appear then a customer’s loyalty is more narrowly defined if you ask me, and customers only have so much cupboard space for gin, not to mention the cash to pay for it. Hopefully the band-waggoning brands will get bored at some point and move on to something else, as I don’t think they contribute very much of value to the category, just muddy the pond! And I have just thought about another entrant to the market – the hobbyist! These guys are at least distilling their own gin in the main part, not commissioning a big player to do it foe them, and for that they deserve respect, but actually they risk the most in my mind as they generally have no previous history in drinks, let alone spirits, and are very often following other professions or careers. These guys seem the most likely to fall first, but time will tell.

  2. R says:

    As with anything, quality is King\Queen. Some of the bigger brands will always be there, they have the might and capital reserves to ride out a small drop in market share, not to mention the lower distribution costs vs smaller craft distributors. In my view a key hurdle to growing the brand is the removal of the effort barrier to obtain one of these products. Nearly all supermarkets carry Gordons gin, easy to access, drop it in with the shopping, chug it with some Schweppes tonic, its acceptable as a beverage, its also obtainable to most of the +18 population. But take a small hand crafted gin that contains unicorn hooves and phoenix feathers, chances are it will be only sold in a small shed on the road to Shegra.
    In order for the smaller producers to get their product to market there needs to be greater cooperation between the producers and the giants of commerce. If the supermarkets cant sell very limited qtys of specialist spirits, perhaps its time that Amazon took the mantle and made it easier for folks to receive beverages by post, I never had an issue getting my monthly crate of wine left a the back door, Amazon force you to be in at time of delivery and anyone that has had the hell of using Yodel will attest to, its just not worth it. Existing suppliers are just way too expensive, ~£50 for 450ml of gin delivered, its Gin, not the elixir of life we are talking about….they may be one in the same, but at that price, it wont be me.

  3. Jack Keenan says:

    Bombay Sapphire was created with a very low level of juniper as USA drinkers do not care for the juniper flavour…one reason why Gin consumption per capita is much lower than the UK or Spain!

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