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In focus: The latest trends in gin

With pink and savoury expressions taking root, and distillation methods still to be explored, there is still plenty of room for growth in the gin category. Phoebe French explores…

Like fashion, gin is fickle. In just 10 years, the spirit has been transformed from one made by a handful of large distillers to a category now represented by producers of all shapes and sizes. In key markets such as the UK, gin remains buoyant. According to the latest figures published by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, sales of gin in the UK rose by 28% in volume and by 33% in value to reach £1.5 billion in the year ending 31 March 2018. This means that gin sales have more than doubled in value in five years (from £696m in the year ending March 2013). While the volume of gin sold has increased, this does not necessarily mean that the products themselves are completely new.

Take the recent craze for coloured and savoury gins. Founded in 1740 and latterly owned by Diageo until production ceased in 2017, Booth’s gin was famously pale yellow in colour. Pre-Prohibition America was also responsible for a series of weird and wacky ‘medicinal gins’, including Buchu Gin (a herb used in perfume and medicine) made by the likes of The Bouvier Speciality Company and Friedenwald, or asparagus gin, by the Rothenburg Company and the Folsom Company.

Many modern gin producers take inspiration from what has been done before. Tanqueray, founded in 1732, used recipes from founder Charles Tanqueray from the 1830s and the 1860s respectively to influence its new Flor de Sevilla orange and limited-edition lovage gins. For its pink gin, Beefeater’s master distiller, Desmond Payne MBE, trawled through the inventions of the distillery’s pharmacist founder James Borrough, which included raspberry gin and cherry brandy, while Whitley Neill and J.J. Whitley both benefit from the records kept by the Whitley family distillers.

Over the past eight to 10 months, the gin category has seen high-profile big-brand launches, kicking off with Gordon’s Pink in September 2017. This was followed by Beefeater Pink in February 2018, Tanqueray’s Flor de Sevilla in April and its Lovage gin in May, basil-flavoured O’ndina gin from Campari in April and a sour cherry gin from Italian liqueur giant Luxardo, which is due to be released in the UK this summer.

With increasing numbers of established brands in the pink, coloured and savoury categories, including Pinkster, Edgerton and Warner Edwards, along with Boudier’s vermillion-hued Saffron Gin and Spain’s olive-and-rosemary infused Gin Mare, what has prompted the big players to follow suit?

The London launch of Tanqueray’s Lovage edition. Photography by CPG Photohgraphy Ltd

Nick Williamson, marketing director of Campari UK, points to the growth of the cocktail market and the growing appreciation for bitter, savoury serves, such as the Negroni. “The broader rise of savoury gins should be looked at within the context of the general consumer appetite for more bitter drinks, so it makes good business sense for gin distillers to capitalise on this trend. That savoury gins are enjoying a surge in popularity is certainly in part thanks to the increasing need for new gins entering the marketplace to stand out from the crowd, with a distinct USP,” he says.

Last year Pernod Ricard, the owner of Beefeater Gin, launched the Gin Hub, an independent arm tasked with developing and innovating within the company’s portfolio of strategic gin brands to drive further growth in the category. Eric Sampers, global brand director of the Gin Hub, believes that to attract newcomers to gin, brands must abide by three rules that now influence product development at Beefeater and have helped shape its new pink gin. These factors are essential in attracting what the company refers to as the ‘new generation of younger gin drinkers’, an area where previously, Sampers admits, “we weren’t performing as well as we would have liked”.

Pink trend

Beefeater’s London underground installation.

The three essential components are: being “super visual”, by creating eye-catching packaging, cocktails and garnishes; ensuring the brand remains “playful”; and using natural ingredients.

But why pink specifically? “While each company makes their own decisions, there is definitely a pink trend, which may have actually originated outside of the gin category,” says Sampers, such as in rosé wine and pink cocktails. The term ‘millennial pink’, however derided, does nevertheless explain the focus on colour and shelf appeal. Coloured and pink gins are particularly popular in Spain, where, according to Sampers, they are frequently priced higher than clear London Dry-style alternatives. Spanish brands like Puerto de Indias, Rives, Siderit and Beam Suntory’s Larios all produce popular pink variants.

“In Spain the pink gin trend accounts for 40% of all value growth within the total gin category,” says Sampers, who reveals that one of the two main reasons behind the launch of Beefeater Pink “was to take advantage of fast-growing opportunities in Spain”. The other was to increase the appeal of the traditional, established Beefeater brand to younger consumers.

Joanna Segesser, Tanqueray’s global marketing manager, says the brand’s new gins were designed to satisfy demand from bartenders and consumers alike.

She adds: “Interest in gin is continuing to grow, with bartenders and gin lovers increasingly looking for new innovative flavours to try – we wanted to create a gin that meets that demand. We are seeing consumers desiring new flavours while at the same time being more discerning in the gins they are choosing.”

So how have these recent big-brand launches helped shape the gin market, and what do they mean for producers already occupying the field? Large gin brands such as Diageo-owned Gordon’s and Tanqueray, and Pernod Ricard’s Beefeater benefit from a bigger budget, a better route to market and larger production facilities.

This year, Gordon’s launched a TV advert dedicated to its pink gin, while Beefeater, in partnership with design agency Impero, installed strawberry-scented posters in Oxford Circus Underground Station in London to launch its pink-hued expression. Tanqueray launched its Flor de Sevilla in Spain in partnership with pop duo Los Del Rio (of Macarena fame), while in the UK it installed an ‘orange grove’ in Spanish chef José Pizarro’s eponymous restaurant in Bermondsey in central London.

Nicholas Cook of the Gin Guild stresses that despite market growth, the big brands have retained their pulling power.

“The market has grown but the ratio of larger distillers’ products to smaller distillers’ in the gin category is probably still in the 80:20 bracket. The cake is bigger but some of the slices taste distinctively different,” he said.

There are, however, advantages to being small. Tom Warner of Warner Edwards, which produces a pink rhubarb gin and has a limited-edition botanical garden range, says the size of his operation allows for a certain degree of flexibility that the larger distillers don’t have.

“We do what it takes the big guys between 10 and 20 years to develop,” he says. “In some ways what they do is dictated by what mad idiots like us are doing. We have a lot more flexibility in that we can test something out by throwing it at the wall to see if it sticks.

“That said, we don’t have the distribution relationships that they have, meaning we have to fight tooth and nail and be inventive in terms of flavour and botanicals to stand out and earn our place on the shelf.”

José Pizarro with Tanqueray’s Flor de Sevilla.

Despite the distribution disadvantage, response to the big-brand launches has been overwhelmingly positive from the brands contacted by db.

Will Holt, co-founder of Pinkster Gin, which launched in 2013, believes that pink gin has gained prominence and legitimacy from the recent launches.

“Thanks to the marketing muscle of Gordon’s and Beefeater, pink gin is a sub-category in its own right now – and one that’s rocketing along very nicely indeed. For sure, this is benefitting us at Pinkster, with demand rising month by month as more outlets look for a premium option.”

New consumers, as Cook and Warner state, are being brought into the category via more fruit-driven variants and often move on to explore drier styles. “If you’re bringing new consumers to the category, it can only be a good thing,” adds Warner.

Mixer brands have also used the trends for colour and savoury styles to their advantage. Fever-Tree produces both a pink angostura-bark variant and a Mediterranean tonic flavoured with rosemary, while Fentimans also makes a pink grapefruit tonic water.

For Jen Draper, head of marketing at Franklin & Sons, the coloured and savoury trends have motivated the company “to keep innovating and looking into big, bold flavours that will complement a range of gins and brands.”

She adds: “Epicurean consumers are demanding more interesting flavours that bring out the natural botanicals of the gin.” The brand has launched a new range of four tonics including a Rosemary and Black Olive tonic; and a pink-hued Rhubarb and Hibiscus expression.

However, with all this innovation going on, James Shelbourne, founder and director of Silent Pool, stresses the need for quality to be maintained.

“There are some great products being launched, and it’s really important that the big guys continue to keep innovating. However, if we start getting really sweet, sticky, coloured stuff it will devalue the category. We saw it a bit in vodka – it destroys the market,” he says.

Cook of the Gin Guild believes there are already a number of producers whose products are undeserving of the name of gin, who are cashing in on the term “because it sells”.

“You’ll start to identify the brands that are all about sexy marketing but have little substance behind them,” he says. “I’ve even seen companies that don’t distil but cold compound. There’s nothing you can do as it’s still technically gin, but it is not made in the same way as those who do it properly.”

With so many newcomers joining an already saturated market, it is inevitable that some brands will cut corners to save money. Many producers in the industry are calling for more regulations and a clear set of guidelines that govern the production of the spirit.

James Wright, managing director of north Wales-based Aber Falls, believes more should be done to tackle the “growing grey area as to what actually constitutes gin. There’s a need for clear stipulations, and perhaps that’s a trend we’ll see coming through.”

In the absence of strict regulations and with larger brands encroaching on craft, how are distillers making themselves heard? One solution is to put provenance at the forefront of proceedings.

Aber Falls, according to Wright, aims to be one of the “keystones for promoting Wales and its produce”. The gin and soon-to-be whisky producer sources all of its malted barley from Wales and uses the water from the eponymous waterfall nearby in the production process. It is also working with fellow companies from north Wales such as successful salt producer Halen Môn, the source of the seasoning in its salted-toffee gin liqueur.

Local ingredients

David Wilkinson of Edinburgh Gin (left) and botanist Dr Greg Kenice. Image: Stewart Attwood Photography 2018.

Old Curiosity, which produces “colour-changing” gins, likewise relies on its locality. Based in the Secret Herb Garden, a specialist herb nursery on the outskirts of Edinburgh, it grows its own botanicals, with production and bottling also taking place on site.

Co-founder Steve Ross says: “As much as our gins appear unique with their colours and colour-changing abilities, we do not perceive ourselves to be niche. The ingredients we use are all natural, and the knowledge we have as gardeners is our main claim behind the recipes we create. We use certain plants and botanicals that only we grow or reproduce, so it gives us that unique factor that would be very difficult to replicate.”

Fellow Scottish distiller Edinburgh Gin has joined a growing band of producers releasing limited-edition gins; a concept that allows them to experiment with different botanicals and charge a premium for it.

Like Kew Organic Gin, produced by Dodd’s, and The Oxford Artisan Distillery’s Physic Gin, Edinburgh has created a savoury garden-themed gin, this time with the aid of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Using 13 botanicals, including sweet cicely, mace and mountain pepper, Edinburgh’s 1670 adheres to current trends while also appealing to those who are looking for provenance. The desire for provenance can also be seen in the growing field-to-glass movement, pioneered by the likes of Chase Gin in 2008. Since then, a raft of producers have been making their own base spirit, including Adnams, Arbikie and Copper Rivet.

The growth of the English wine industry can also be credited with bringing such products to market. Some companies are now using leftover wine, known as the rebêche or third press, to produce gin. This is mostly done by adding the grape distillate, distilled to below 96% ABV to preserve the more volatile aromas and flavours, to the base neutral grain spirit at a ratio of roughly 30:70.

James Oag-Cooper, managing director of Foxhole Spirits, which works closely with Bolney Wine Estate, says: “We’ve set a bit of a trend with the creation of Foxhole Gin, inspiring wineries to look at using their by-products with a now growing market of grape-based gins. For us, it’s the perfect foundation to create a truly premium and unique gin, and thanks to this we expect the market to get more interesting, competitive and continue to grow.”

Indeed, both Rathfinny, which released its first sparkling wines this year, and established wine producer Chapel Down are producing gins.

Rathfinny, which partnered with Silent Pool to produce its Seven Sisters gin, described the decision to make gin as a “lightbulb moment”.

Co-founder Mark Driver adds: “We will always look to use it as a tactical brand to first and foremost offer to those customers who are working with our sparkling wine.”

Chapel Down, however, has big plans for its Bacchus Gin. Having won the Design and Packaging Award at the Drinks Business Awards 2018 for its bottle, managing director Mark Harvey says what’s inside is going down well too.

Foxhole Gin.

“The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and, if truth be told, in the early months we struggled to keep up with demand,” he says.

“Exports is a clear opportunity, and we are having early conversations, which will be another source of growth from the end of 2018. Gin is an astonishing growth category and grape skin-based gins are currently in vogue because they bring a new angle of interest and provenance.”

While not all gin producers have the budget for a TV commercial, it is possible to make an impact with less cash. Warner Edwards and Silent Pool both shelled out for sponsorship of a garden at Chelsea Flower Show this year, which generated national press coverage for both brands.

Shelbourne of Silent Pool says: “It was the first big piece of sponsorship that we’ve done. We’re already talking about doing it again next year and it will be highly likely that we take part again. The garden really captured the local environment in which the gin is made without flogging the point.”

With worldwide gin consumption up by almost 5% in 2017, with all but two of the top 15 gin-consuming nations exhibiting growth, it’s clear there’s still growth potential for the spirit.

A new generation of promiscuous gin drinkers is helping to shape the market. Increasingly curious and willing to try new things, these consumers are no longer loyal to just one brand.

Musing on both the progress and future of gin, Warner says: “Back in 2013, I’d spend 30 minutes telling suppliers about craft gin, convincing them that it was legal, that it tasted good and that it was safe and wasn’t going to kill anyone. It was all so alien back then. Now I have much simpler conversations as everyone just gets craft gin.

Chapel Down’s Bacchus Gin.

“I think we’ll see more focus on natural flavours and botanicals but also different types of distillation and styles. Is London Dry really the best method to extract flavour? As craft distillers it’s our responsibility to produce the best possible liquid through the best means. There’s still a lot of growth in the category, and the premium end will start cannibalising the lower end. I really hope we’ve reached peak ‘cake-flavoured glitter gins’, as I feel those kinds of products can be bad for the category.”

Plenty of growth

James Stocker, marketing director of Halewood Wine and Spirits, which owns gin brands including Whitley Neill, J.J. Whitley, Liverpool Gin, The City of London Distillery and Aber Falls, agrees there’s still headroom in gin: “Eight or nine years ago there was little innovation in the gin category and this has completely changed.

“This serves to excite consumers and increase interest in gin. There’s plenty of growth still to be had in the category – gin is a very versatile product.”

While gin has cemented its place in the hearts and minds of the UK consumers, the rate of growth in the country is ultimately unsustainable. Emerging markets, however, such as South Africa, Australia, Mexico, Brazil and the rest of Latin America, which are exhibiting fast growth, will ensure that the category remains energised for years to come.

This feature first appeared in the July issue of the drinks business magazine. 

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