Gin has a colourful history and it has seen its fortunes rise and fall over the centuries, but the last golden age was probably in the 1950s and 1960s. With a post-war growth in the middle class and a re-established reverence for the cocktail hour, traditional gins reigned supreme.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, however, gin fell out of fashion with consumers, as vodka was on the rise. Classic cocktails, which were mostly gin-based, were replaced with drinks that were fruity, sweet and colourful. Around this time, there was also a series of mergers and acquisitions within gin brands, which eventually saw the loss of some of the once great gin houses such as Booth’s, Boord’s, Gilbey’s, Vickers, and Nicholson’s. Gin’s fortunes started to turnaround in 1987 with the release of Bombay Sapphire, which helped to lure fans that had been lost to vodka back to gin. It had a graceful character, eye-catching bottle, and a marketing campaign to match. Gin was starting to become cool again. The next ten years saw a tentative introduction of new gins to the market.
The gin distillery
In 1998, San Francisco-based Anchor Brewing and Distilling released Junipero Gin, perhaps the first modern gin that could be considered ‘craft’. In 2000, Bardenay Distillery in Boise, Idaho opened the US’s first restaurant-distillery. The UK saw a few false starts in gin at the turn of the century, but there were the seeds of great success with the likes of Martin Miller’s, Hendrick’s (1999), and Tanqueray No 10 (2000). At the same time, there was a growing interest in the art of making great mixed drinks. In particular, the quality of ingredients was becoming more important, an example being the use of freshly-squeezed juice alongside quality spirits. 2009 and the opening of Sipsmith Distillery in Hammersmith was a milestone; here was a London Dry Gin made in London and the public were encouraged to visit where it was made. Drinkers suddenly started to become interested in where their gin came from – a point that would have a huge impact in the industry. Before 2009, only Plymouth Gin Distillery was regularly open to the public. Now, a visitor centre is an essential part of most new distilleries’ business plans; the chance to sell tours, exclusives and souvenirs can have an impact on their turnover. Having bars or restaurants alongside a distillery can also help to make it a destination for visitors. Even the more established brands have reacted to this new concept of ‘Destination Distilling’, with major investment in a visitors’ centre at Beefeater and the opening of the Bombay Sapphire Experience at Laverstoke Mill.
Sam Carter, senior ambassador at the Bombay Sapphire Distillery at Laverstoke Mill says, “Laverstoke Mill gives us a platform to showcase our commitment to sustainability, by allowing guests to walk around our BREEAM awarded distillery. It also gives people an understanding of the unique vapour infusion process we use to create our gin, and it helps our drinkers understand their own flavour palates so they can discover how best to enjoy our gin for themselves.” Not all of the new gin distilleries that have opened are million-pound investments – some are much smaller affairs. There is now a prevalence of these smaller producers also known as ‘nano distilleries’. Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute explains, “What’s so important about nano distilleries, typically between 10-100 gallons (80-240 litres), is that it helps distillers to learn how to run a distillery without a huge initial capital outlay; the only way to learn is by actively running a still to understand the process, the equipment, the finance. It allows you to work at your time, rather than time work against you. The nano is a stepping-stone to greater things. Kings County in New York is a great example of this.”
As the industry starts to mature, a number of larger companies have made acquisitions to get a foot in the door of the craft gin market. 2016 was a bumper year for this, with some well-known brands being sold: Monkey 47 (bought by Pernod Ricard), Smooth Ambler (Pernod Ricard), Sipsmith (Beam Suntory), Liverpool Gin (Halewood International), and Edinburgh Gin (Ian Macleod). In February 2017, Bulldog Gin was sold to Gruppo Campari.
The gin drinker
The boom has also led to a rise in the number of specialist gin bars the world over, with various locations now offering a wide selection of gin, tonic and mixed drinks. One such bar is the London Gin Club in Soho and co-owner, Vicky Fisher, says, “The Spanish Copa serve has really lit up our gin lightbulb – it’s a great way to showcase the range of gins available across an unrivalled breadth of styles. Consumers are far more knowledgeable than ever before, but a curated list helps them to choose. Our job is as much about education and communication as it is about mixing quality drinks. Customer service is key.” Another specialist bar is Whitechapel in San Francisco. “As bartenders we witnessed consumers’ desire to dive into the whiskey craze; they wanted rare, exotic and left-of-centre flavours. I’m finding guests are excited to know why we carry as many gins as we do, what makes the best Martini, Gin & Tonic, or – better yet – what would you make with ‘Gin X’? It is the excitement to experience new things that has put gin back into the spotlight, where it rightfully belongs,” reveals Keli Rivers, gin tsar at Whitechaple Bar, San Francisco.
Modern gin drinkers have also changed – they are willing to pay more for a bottle, with most gins averaging around £30-35, and consumers now having an upper limit of around £40. They are more likely to have five to six different gins on hand rather than to be loyal to a single brand. According to research conducted for the Gin Foundry’s Ginfographic, this is a continuing trend.
A world of gin
UK: Since 2008, the number of gin producers in the UK has risen from 10 to 128 by March 2017. The World Gin Awards have seen an increase year on year with entries doubling across all categories and countries. Chair of the awards, Felicity Murray says, “It is fantastic to see such a wide range of products, not only in taste, but also in the design categories, as our awards continue to grow and evolve.” As mentioned Sipsmith was one of the first new distilleries in the UK, founder and master distiller, Jared Brown, shared his thoughts on the gin boom, “I absolutely love the renaissance of gin; to
me, if I walked into a bar and they said, ‘We are a Beefeater, or Bombay, or Sipsmith bar’ it’s like a chef saying, ‘I only use basil, never oregano’. The new gins are unique, wonderful nuances of a great spirit (gin) and all have their place.”
Europe: In the traditional Genever-making countries of Belgium and the Netherlands, the focus has turned to dry gin in the face of declining sales of more traditional Genevers. Nordic countries have been releasing a host of critically-acclaimed gins, not least Hernö of Sweden. More distilleries are opening In Germany, Sweden, and Austria, and there is an emerging style of Alpine gin. One of the most important markets in the world, Spain, has continued its love affair with gin, much of which is imported from the UK, but quality domestic distillers are now beginning to function.
North America: Both Canada and the US have an expanding gin industry, although other spirits such as whisky and vodka remain the primary focus for many consumers. Of over 1,000 DSPs in the US, approximately 400-500 are making gin.
Australia: Australia has quickly become a major part of the global gin distilling renaissance, with over 35 distilleries in Australia and six on the island of Tasmania alone. Australia has a prolific collection of endemic native botanicals that are commonly used in gin: Tasmania Pepperberry, Wattle Seed, and Lemon Myrtle are three favourites.
South Africa: South Africa has seen the birth of a new distilling movement in the last few years, with over 12 new gin distilleries. Like Australia, there is a great focus on local flavours and botanicals.
The Rest of the World: Gin distilleries are also opening up across the world in
regions without a previously strong history of gin distilling: in South America, there is Príncipe De Los Apóstoles in Argentina; Arapuru in Brazil; Gin La República in Boliva; and, in Peru, London to Lime is making gin from Pisco. There are at least three gin distilleries in Mexico using agave as a base spirit. New Zealand, buoyed by liberal regulation on home distilling, is home to a selection of globally recognised gins. In Asia, new distilleries making quality gin have opened in Goa, Israel, and Japan.
The future is always tricky to predict, but according to Julia Forte, owner and manager
of The London Gin Club, “The category will continue to grow, but will become
more refined – you can’t make an average gin anymore.”
More acquisitions of small distilleries by larger firms is a near certainty, and there is a possibility of further polarisation between nano distilleries and larger companies. The good news, though, is that there’s still plenty to look forward to in gin.