Gin-aissance

12 May, 2016

Gin is flying. Hardly a week passes without another launch. Christian Davis reports

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THESE ARE INTERESTING TIMES FOR GIN,” espouses veteran Beefeater master distiller Desmond Payne. Never has a truer word been spoken.

James Hayman, managing director of Haymans gin is equally succinct: “This whole gin movement is down to many people taking an interest in and supporting gin, including bartenders, shop owners, the press and bloggers. So many people are supporting gin in some very creative ways. It is wonderful to be part of it.”

Bulldog gin CEO Anshuman Vohra says: “The gin renaissance is going strong, led by southern Europe where their passion for serving gin in a large balloon glass with lots of ice and a vast array of garnishes shows no let up. This modern gin & tonic serve is taking hold in markets across northern Europe and even spreading to further flung places such as Dubai and South Africa.

“What’s happening is that northern European tourists are heading home wanting to recreate the G&T experience they had in Spain, Portugal, Greece etc. This is something that bars across the UK, Germany and Scandinavia are recognising and starting to create more theatre around their gin.”

Charles Maxwell is an 11th generation distiller/rectifier with his eighth great grandfather being apprenticed to a distiller in 1680.

Asked when he thought the renaissance of gin started he replies: “I can recall my daughter was at Leeds (university) 12 years ago and she said they were drinking gin. I thought: ‘What the hell’s going on?’ Up until then gin was all about twinsets and pearls.”

“I don’t think any of us at the time realised the train was leaving the station,” says Maxwell. “We started to feel the uplift and tried to get into the last carriage.”

Most agree that the launch of William Grant’s Hendrick’s in the mid 2000s was pivotal. Although Bombay Sapphire was around for a while before that, it is also seen as being at the forefront of the new generation of gins.

Payne celebrates 50 years in distilling next year. He sees the resurgence of interest in cocktails and the emergence of professional bartenders as key developments in what he calls the “global gin-aissance”.

He says: “There were always cocktails in the grand hotels, such as Dukes and the American Bar at the Savoy (in London) for the few who knew what they wanted – and the Americans.”

“There were cocktails in the 1970s but they were premixed. No, it was the increasing interest coupled with bartenders who saw the job as a career not just a summer job. They became innovative and educated and understood how to do things,” says Payne.

While there is undoubtedly a place for whisky, rum and brandy, gin rules the cocktail list as far as Payne is concerned. “Gin, with its botanical nature, has large potential for versatility, complexity and style,” he says.

In 2007/8 Pernod Ricard and Payne introduced the game-changing super-premium Beefeater 24, which included Chinese and Japanese teas among its botanicals. Diageo, also seeing which way the gin wind was blowing, came up with Tanqueray 10.

Payne admits that, up until Beefeater 24, he had never introduced a gin. Since B24 he has made about six new gins, the most recent being Burrough’s Reserve sipping gin rested in oak and Beefeater Crown Jewel – back by bartender demand.

Charlie Downing, Diageo’s global marketing manager for gin, is specifically responsible for Tanqueray. He says: “There’s a lot of excitement at the top end of premium gin. Gin is not like it used to be. We hear words such as ‘smoked, salted, vermouth casks’. Words you would not associate with gin.

“I think people have become jaded with the sweet flavours of 1990s vodkas. Gin has now become wild and interesting without breaking the rules of the category. We’re looking at spicy, bitter, herbal, savoury.

“Tanqueray is a classic but Tanqueray is always innovative going back to Charles Tanqueray. It is a case of ‘innovate or die’,” says Downing.

A forerunner to Diageo was the great International Distillers & Vintners, which invented the likes of Baileys and, of course, Bombay Sapphire. So Downing’s last remark begs the question: What comes next? He laughs and says: “I cannot elaborate as to the what and when.”

Payne predicts more new gins but maybe not as many as over the past five years. He sees the classic brands as necessary reference points but there is a “temptation to go too far”.

Payne perceives one of the more decent developments as being sipping gins aged in wood, such as his Burrough’s Reserve – anathema to most drinkers who would never drink gin on its own. But the archives tell us this is nothing new. If nothing else, gin used to be stored in barrels so could not help but be ‘rested’.

Maxwell also notes the interest in gins rested in oak and agrees they are nothing new. He says he experimented with old whisky barrels back in the 1990s. “The style was ‘gisky’. I was still producing a gin with vanilla notes. It was eight to 16 weeks depending on the time of year,” he says.

Maxwell perceives a move, as in wine, where the ‘terroir’ has become important. “If it is £40 a bottle, you have to give the punter a reason why he/she should pay £40,” he says.

NEW GINS

Joanne Moore is celebrating her 10th anniversary as master distiller at Quintessential Brands’ G&J Distillers. Moore was the world’s first female master gin distiller and has come up with four new gins: Greenall’s Bloom (floral), Ophir (spiced), Berkeley Square (herbaceous) and the recently added Thomas Dakin (savoury).

Moore says: “New gins are being created all the time, mainly at a local level. Figures show more distilleries opening up year on year. The category as a whole is both excited and crowded.”

Poetic License distiller Luke Smith agrees: “When we first set up, we were surprised to find that, despite being a relatively crowded market, the gin community is hugely friendly and helpful. I think it stems from the love of gin each of us has – each distiller brings something new to the table and we have been welcomed into the gin community with open arms. The discerning consumer is now asking ‘where was it made?’, ‘by who?’, ‘in what size batches?’ and ‘with what methods?’,” he says.

CRAFT

So with all the noise about craft, what does one of the big players say? Diageo’s Downing says: “Craft is a hackneyed word. It has lost its meaning. For me it is about a sense of care. We may produce two million cases a year but there is always a sense of care among our distillers – and not just the liquid. There is also the packaging and how it turns up at every touch point, be it in duty free or on the cocktail menu at The Savoy.”

Maxwell can claim to be a craftsman gin distiller/rectifier and a small batch producer as Thames Distillers boasts two 500-litre stills. Maxwell estimates he has about 85 recipes and produces approximately 60 brands of gin, the most notable being Portobello Road, Ford’s, 50 Pounds, Mombasa Club, Juniper Green Organic and Oxley.

Smith says: “Craft gin and artisan producers are all about doing something different and pushing the boundaries to try something new. If we all produced gin that was the same it would be incredibly boring. We love classic gin, but perhaps there does need to be another category to house the more contemporary, less juniper-forward gins.”

Beveland Distillers’ marketing manager Jordi Xifra Keysper says: “What we observe now is the very small trend of craft gins. But, as I said, a very small trend, very local.”

Kyrö Distillery Company’s CEO and one of the founders, Miika Lipiäinen, says: “Gin is going hyper-local, just like craft beer. From the choice of botanicals to the selection of sales channels, producers have to assume that, from now on, outside a 50-mile radius around your distillery there will always be a gin that is more ‘local’ than yours.”

INTERNATIONALLY

Maxwell makes gins for Japan, Scandinavia, Italy and Germany. He says even Greece is showing interest. Further afield, South Africa, India and the Far East figure. Spain is still very important but he has not had any recent enquiries, which he feels is significant (see below and Gin in Spain, p20-22).

The Tasmania Distillery makes Hobart No.4. Sales and marketing assistant Nathan Campbell says: “Australian gin is still evolving and while that push continues I can’t really see it slowing down any time soon. There is currently a lot of experimentation with botanicals which means, as with whisky, there is a gin out there for every palate. The fun is finding out what suits you and, most importantly, discussing it,” he says.

Hobart No.4 (44% abv) is made with four native Australian botanicals – lemon myrtle, anise myrtle, lanceolata and wattleseed.

Kyrö’s Lipiäinen says: “Finnish, rye-based gin seems to occupy a nice, unique space among all the gins coming into the market. We run a programme called Kyrö Academy where we train six to 10 bartenders over the course of a year and employ one of them as our brand ambassador in the end. Part of the programme is a botanical workshop in Lapland near the Arctic Circle, where we create a small batch gin with the bartenders. It’s only sold by Kyrö Academy bartenders in their bars.”

He warns, though: “With this many entrants to the category, the limits are always going to be stretched. The category can certainly be expanded and the interpretation of ‘predomination of juniper’ will vary a lot.”

Bulldog’s Vohra says: “We are present in 80 countries and looking to continue expanding to more than 100 in 2016. We have made a global distribution deal with Gruppo Campari, as well as ramping up our marketing investment to showcase what makes Bulldog stand out from the crowd of gin.”

SPAIN

Spain is a huge traditional market for gin but all appears not to be too well. Beefeater’s Desmond Payne remarks: “Spain seems to have slowed down but it is still vibrant.”

Williams & Humbert makes Botanic and its international marketing manager, Gonzalo Medina, says: “We used to have a handful of gin brands until 1995 – nowadays there are a few hundred on the market.” 

Beveland marketing manager Jordi Xifra Keysper says: “The trend during the past year was the boom of flavoured gins such as Puerto de Indias from Seville, a strawberry gin. It’s a complete boom, taking into account that it’s a niche, but it’s catching the women target,” he says.

BOTANICALS

Gin is the ultimate flavoured vodka, according to Beefeater’s Payne. The revival of Beefeater Crown Jewel – its 50% abv gin with its pronounced grapefruit peel note in an amethyst-coloured 1-litre bottle – was due to bartender demand, according to Payne. “They love it,” he says. So from the man who made tea popular in gin, what does he think about botanicals?

“It is like being like a family. You introduced something such as grapefruit as a new member of the family and it has to be accepted by the rest of the family.

“You get squabbles, blood on the carpet, as with relatives. If compatible, it still changes the relationships with others.” He cites citrus botanicals as having “sharp elbows” when it comes to a countdown of flavourings, but juniper must predominate. “Predominance is a hard task master,” he says.

G&J’s Moore does not see any particular new trends in botanicals emerging but she says: “We are still seeing local foraged botanicals being used but, for me, sustainability is the key to sourcing botanicals to ensure consistency.”

W&H’s Gonzalo Medina says: “We have the buddha’s hand, a variety of citrus sourced locally. This fruit is fragmented in sections that look like fingers. It has a thick skin and only a small quantity, if any, of acidic pulp and it has no juice or seeds. It is very fragrant and not as bitter as other citruses with a certain roundedness to it that is incomparable to any other fruit.”

“We believe, by changing the rules, great things can happen,” says Poetic’s Smith. “In the UK, juniper has to be the predominant flavour in a gin in order to be classed as such but one of the reasons gin has become so popular recently is because it is such a broad category. There are so many great gins now, and while the juniper is clearly present, it’s the addition of exciting new botanicals that gives them that added je ne sais quoi.

“The use of botanicals found locally to a distillery is huge right now. This re-emphasises the provenance of the gin and the heritage of the area from which it stems. An example of this is the wild clover in Shortcross gin. I love to pick up a bottle and learn a little about the culture of those who make the gin and taste the great new flavours.”

Jamie Fleming, head of copy at specialist alcohol branding and packaging design agency Purple Creative, gives a different perspective. The agency worked with William Grant on Hendrick’s, the ‘original’ super premium gin.

He says: “I’ve noticed a trend in gins having a single provenance botanical – one outlandish flavour that sets the liquid apart for its originality and exoticness. Think seaweed, olives, baobab, shamrock, Icelandic cress. Whatever catches the eye and allows the marketer a ‘hook’.”

“At Bulldog our focus is on the blend of our 12 botanicals,” says Vohra. “So, while we do use some distinctive botanicals including dragon eye and white poppy, we’re not choosing them because they’re exotic but rather for what each of the 12 adds to the overall flavour.”

Kyrö’s Lipiäinen says: “Another trend in botanicals seems to be non-botanicals, where gin is flavoured with insects, or even meat.”

ALCOHOL

On the subject of alcohol levels, Moore says: “There is a general perception that gins with a higher abv warrant a more premium status. In my opinion the abv should be driven by the creative process of the gin itself.

“The quality of your alcohol should be such that it allows the flavours from the botanicals to be exposed. This will then ultimately lead to a natural alcohol level that exhibits the distiller’s choice of botanicals. For example, Bloom uses subtle floral flavours so the natural abv level for a gin such as this would be 40%.”

Poetic’s Smith says: “The higher the abv of the alcohol, the more oils it can carry and the more flavour we can cram into the gin. But with the higher level of alcohol comes a stronger alcohol burn and the risk of masking the delicate notes of the gin.

“We always look to balance our gins without the excessive burn of alcohol,” he says.

Keyser says: “I think the main point is to ask who is the target and how you will prepare it/use it. If the target is women, I think that they don’t want too much of an alcoholic drink. So they want more sweetness or botanic flavour. If you prepare a gin & tonic it doesn’t matter too much what the alcohol percentage is, because you will put 5-6cl and then a lot of ice and tonic.”

IN CONCLUSION

Purple Creative’s Fleming sums up: “I’ve long heard that gin is just vodka for grown-ups these days. I think sophisticated drinkers are turning away from purity messages such as triple distilled/extra clear etc, for more intriguing taste messages.

“And yes, in their quest for ever-different flavours, some may have lost their juniper-ness – but only the 150-year-old purists should be complaining.”

Kyrö’s Lipiäinen warns: “Unfortunately, gin seems to be heading the way of flavoured vodkas, with a proliferation of different gins eventually eating away at consumer interest in the whole category.”

But he concludes: “Gin is a wonderful spirit with a bright future ahead. The frenzy we are currently seeing might very well fade in Europe over the next three to five years, but I predict Asia and the US will keep on growing fast a bit longer.

“Gin is the craft beer of spirits – it’s here to stay and there’s no going back to an Old World dominated by a few big players. After the boom the producers with interesting stories, great quality, unique flavour profiles and sensible pricing will remain and still do well. Long live gin.”

And so say all of us.

 





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Christian Davis

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