The last couple of years have seen the re-birth of gin, a spirit that many considered long dead. It has shaken off its historical ‘mother’s ruin’ image to capture the imagination of consumers like almost no other spirit category has before.
Shops and bars are awash with different gin brands and new products seem to pop up every week. Gin palaces, often dens of iniquity in the past, are re-opening. Gin is cool again and consumers are lapping it up.
But what has driven this boom and how long can it be sustained?
A recent study – Cocktails : The New Golden Era by Richard E. Ocejo, a Professor of Sociology, and spirits journalist Chantal Martineau – puts gin as the main driving force for an increased awareness and consumption of high-end cocktails. The re-birth and subsequent rise of the gin and cocktail cultures seem to go hand in hand.
The classic Gin and Tonic has led this revival and particularly the ‘Spanish style’ G&T, which is served in a large goldfish bowl-style glass with lots of ice, tonic and garnish. This has now escaped from Spain in to most established cocktail markets in the world and is extremely popular.
Now, one gin bar in London - Holborn Dining Room - even has 500 gins and 30 tonics with sommeliers to help with the 14,000 possible combinations. This was unthinkable a few years ago. Other classic gin-based cocktails, such as the Negroni, have also aided this growth and awareness, as has increased creativity and experimentation amongst bartenders.
Cocktails in general, and gin in particular, seem to have also benefitted from a modern trend in new consumers – this sees them drinking less, but of higher quality products, and often with local provenance.
This ties in with the emergence of the ‘foodie culture’ - people are considering subjects like sustainability and how and where their food and drinks are produced. The study by Ocejo and Martineau showed that gin is seen by foodies, especially millennials, as more authentic than other white spirits, such as vodka, due to the use of natural botanicals to create flavour.
This desire and demand from consumers has seen a boom in the number of craft distilleries producing gin. It now seems that almost every town and city is represented by its own gin brand. In London, make that every borough and postcode. Again, unthinkable a few years ago.
While many will point to the rise of craft distilling as providing the push for gin’s growth, others argue that it is actually the well-known big-selling brands that have underpinned everything. They have clearly benefitted from the boom but have also lead important innovation.
For example, Beefeater has increased their range with products such as Beefeater 24 at the request of bartenders - this is infused with Japanese Sencha and Chinese green teas and was developed by Desmond Payne, the legendary Master Distiller who has just celebrated his 50th anniversary in the industry.
It was also one of the first brands across any spirits category to launch a cocktail competition – MIXLDN, which started back in 2011 and now boasts 1,400 entrants from 33 countries.
“Looking back over my 50 years in the drinks industry, gin was often ridiculed when I began working,” says Payne. “Now, drinkers are seeking out the artisanal nature of gin and reveling in its wide range of botanical flavourings. Their focus on craft, on provenance and on taste has propelled gin back to its rightful place.”
Of course, the benefit of a brand like Beefeater is their large production volume, which can meet any rise in consumer demand while sticking to traditional methods. Many small craft distillers struggle with this once their product reaches a certain threshold and popularity.
So, how far can the gin category grow? Can all of these new products survive? It shows no signs of slowing down, but will the gin bubble burst at some point? Will consumers get bored of gin?
Some brands will naturally fall by wayside. Others will continue or jump on the bandwagon. Some will have longevity, some will not. Some will be purchased by large drinks companies, such as Sipsmith - one of the first craft distillers in the UK.
In a tough competitive market place, having a good liquid is not enough these days – you must have good marketing, packaging and shelf presence. Those that combine all (or at least most) are the successful ones.
Whatever the outcome, we now have a vibrant gin scene that offers a wider range of products and places to drink them than ever before. The combination of new craft gins and widened ranges from established brands has created more choice and flavour for consumers and bartenders to experiment with. Long may it continue …