World Gin Masters – Asia: results and analysis

To say gin is undergoing a renaissance in Hong Kong is an understatement. The juniper-laced white spirit has not just seeped into Hong Kong, but has, as judges at our ‘World Gin Masters – Asia’ competition described it, “exploded” onto the market.

Five colorful gin tonic cocktails in wine glasses on bar counter in pup or restaurant.

The fast-track growth in Hong Kong mirrors gin’s growing popularity on the global drinks scene with exports from the UK, the main producer of gin by volume and value in the world, recording double-digit growth in recent years.

British gin exports hit a record number last year of £532.3 million, a 12% increase over 2016, according to the figures released by the UK’s Wine and Spirits Trade Association (WSTA). Exports to Hong Kong alone broke the £1 million mark last year for the first time, representing a remarkable 38% jump in value over the previous year, according to figures supplied by WSTA to dbHK.

“I remember when I first started bartending in 2010, there were barely more than 10 or so brands readily available to bartenders,” Alexander Ko, independent spirits judge and mixologist, recalled. “By that time, a number of craft gins had already appeared on the US and UK market but only a few like Sipsmith made it to our shores. Even the speciality gins from larger producers like Star of Bombay weren’t available here, as nobody thought Hong Kong would have a large enough market for it. Now, I count about 100 or so brands available within Hong Kong, not even counting bottles brought in by the odd travelling bartenders or friendly guests.”

London Dry Gin

The resurgence of gin is not accidental. With the waning popularity of vodka, gin, which used to go by the moniker ‘Mother’s Ruin’ is lauded today by inventive bartenders for its versatility, its flavour and varied character which is derived from a long process of precise and often complex blendings of botanicals such as juniper, a variety of herbs, spices, and fruits.

From its spiritual home in the UK the white spirit has sprung out across the globe to the US, Australia, Japan, South Africa and Southeast Asian in countries like Cambodia where distillers have not only replicated the traditional style of London dry gin but added more local herbs and botanicals to craft spirits of their own.

In this competition, Scotland’s Caorunn Small Batch Scottish Gin and Caorunn Gin Master’s Gin held the fort for gin’s traditional turf and earned high praises from the judges. They are sophisticated and full of charms that can easily handle a copious amount of tonic and lime, and each of them was awarded the highest accolade of Master. Lauding the Scottish gins, Betsy Hayes of Northeast Wine & Spirits praised them for having “good depth and complexity of flavour”. 

The judges

Ron Taylor, Independent Spirits Judge and WSET educator
Kit Chiu, Wine Educator at ASC Fine Wines
Betsy Hayes, Managing Director of Northeast Wine & Spirits
Alexander Ko, Independent Spirits Judge, Beverage Consultant and Mixologist

Chuck Low, Assistant Brand Manager, Diageo Reserve, MHD Hong Kong,

Jawbox Small Batch Gin distilled by Belfast-based Kirker Greer Brands in Northern Ireland harks back to a more classic London dry style while Berry Bros & Rudd’s No. 3 London Dry Gin was the standard bearer of a classic London dry with juniper at forefront, and was awarded a Master in the classic gin category.

“The flavour profile of London dry gin was more juniper-led, with a touch of citrus and spice on the finish. Most of the distilleries look to this formula as the benchmark for classic style of gin,” commented Kit Chiu, wine educator at Greater China’s leading importer ASC Fine Wines, commented. 

Ron Taylor, an independent spirits judge and educator, agreed, pinpointing the importance of the botanical as the backbone of gin. “Juniper, juniper and juniper – gin is flavoured alcohol with juniper as the key botanical. If you can’t smell the juniper it’s a flavoured vodka,” he explained. 

Taylor continued that the success of the style is also due to its more defined production rules. “It is the standard bearer because it is the most clearly defined in law. There are good compound and great distilled gins out there but because of the lack of clear rules and regulations anything seems to go in and is now called gin,” he opined.

With these in mind, it perhaps explains why most Gold medals came out of the London dry gin category such as Berry Bros & Rudd London Dry Gin, The East India Company Gin, Firkin Try Me…Naked Gin! Rockland Distilleries’ Colombo No.7 Gin, Scapegrace Classic Premium Dry Gin, An Dulaman Irish Maritime Gin and Tiger Gin.

Moving up to the premium, super premium categories, The Muff Liquor Company Muff Gin, Dublin City Gin – Dublin Cut, The London No.1 Gin by Gonzalez Byass, Nouaison Gin and Scapegrace Classic Premium Dry Gin were awarded a Gold each. On the other end of the price spectrum, Gleann Mor Spirits Glasgow Gin, a contemporary style gin, and Aldi Stores’ Darley’s Traditional Dry Gin are great value for money, both costing less than HK$300 a bottle, with the latter less than HK$200.

Gin with Local Terroir

More recently, the trend in crafting gin is to incorporate locally sourced botanicals – giving the finished product a sense of place, as Ko observed. “There are of course of a lot of traditional London drys, and then there are gins that fall into a similar favour profile but opt for more delicate expression. Others focus on emphasising a particular group of flavours like spice, floral or fruit but I think a big rend is from some gin producers to express some form of terroir,” he explained.

Hayes agreed, saying “I think there will be more modern/contemporary gins appearing in the market with distinctive flavours and native botanicals coming through, I would like to see more South African gins coming to market as they have thousands of native fynbos in the country. Table Mountain alone has more species than the whole of Europe.”

Outside of the UK, Japan in particular, known for its meticulous craftsmanship from its delicate cuisine to sake, is putting a stamp on craft gin as well. The country’s top artisanal gins such as Roku Gin from Suntory or Kyoto Distillery’s ‘Ki No Bi’ dry gin have found their success among discerning cocktail fans. The latter distilled using yellow yuzu, hinoki wood chips (Japanese cypress), bamboo, gyokuro tea from the Uji region and green sanshō (Japanese peppercorn) berries won the judges over to earn a Gold medal.

Chiu from ASC Fine Wines, added, with more visibility for gin in Hong Kong’s bars and restaurants, the style has been broadened beyond classic London dry gins, to include more citrus-driven and floral styles. “Competition is certainly ramping up in the category, different styles of gin from other countries such as Australia and Japan are booming in the global market and keep exceeding expectations in terms of consumption,” Chiu explained.

Four Pillars gin in Australia is another example of how craft gin with local botanicals took off beyond its local scene. The distillery, based in Yarra Valley, took home two Masters for its Navy Strength gin and its spiced Negroni gin. The former, referring to gin with alcohol proof of or higher than 57% abv,  according to Chiu, is gaining steam in today’s spirits-heavy market. Another Gold medal winning Navy Strength gin also comes from an Australian distillery, The Tailor Made Spirits Company’s The West Winds Gin ‘The Broadside’. 

Fellow Aussie contenders such as The Melbourne Gin Company’s Single Shot and Dry Gin again proved the country’s gin prowess. Black Fox Farm and Distillery Oaked Gin is a fine representative of Canada’ booming gin scene, while Seeker’s Mekong Dry Gin from Cambodia’s Phnom Penh is a tropical surprise that costs less than HK300 a bottle. 

Most of the gins consumed today are meant to be mixed for cocktails such as G&T, Negroni, Plymouth, Aviation and other Highball variations, and the overall growth of gin consumption has spawned demand for tonic waters and garnishes as well, Chiu noted. “[I think] especially premium and super premium gin trend will continue to thrive…The rise of premium tonic waters with the vast range of flavours, botanical combinations, mixers and garnishes will increase as well. It shows that gin consumers are willing to spend more money on premium gin,” he analysed.

Though the majority of gins produced are destined for mixing, some of the well-crafted gins can be enjoyed on their own, neat, which according to the judges is another underexplored corner for potential growth. “Gin is still a growing market, and gin bars are looking to have as many labels as possible on their shelves. About 99.9% of consumers drink gin in G&Ts and other cocktails such as Negronis. I am one of the few who see gin, potentially, as a beautiful thing which can stand on its own and be judged,” Taylor added.

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