Is boutique gin the tonic for shrinking spirits market?
Gin has been lauded as the trendy tipple of 2012, thanks to marketing campaigns celebrating drinks of British provenance. But with the UK spirits market contracting, could craft gins be the saviour of the industry?
Vodka has long been the go-to party drink of younger generations, enjoyed for its mixibility and range of flavours.
But with a spirits market in decline, smaller distilleries are now trying to attract a younger market to classics such as white rum and gin.
After a hotly-tipped revival failed to get off the ground in the last few years, has boutique craft gin's moment finally arrived?
"People are certainly becoming more adventurous... particularly the younger generation," says Dr David Clutton, a drinks consultant and chemist who developed the formula for No.3 London Dry Gin.
Mix it up with gin
"Established brands do have a bit of a 'my mum and dad' association; so young people experiment more," he says.
Although the overall UK gin market has seen a £44m decline in sales between 2006 and 2011, sales of premium gins such as sloe gin are increasing, with one leading supermarket reporting sales up by 27% this year.
"Gin is not yet the saviour of the spirits market that some are saying, but it does have the potential to become an increasingly important part of it," says Chris Wisson, senior drinks analyst at Mintel.
The nostalgia for a by-gone age, captured in cult TV series such as Mad Men, has contributed to the resurgence of interest in classic gin drinks, and is reflected by the spread of "gin clubs", such as Bristol's Milk Thistle Gin Club, and the London Gin Club.
"If you go back to the Mad Men era of the 50s and 60s in New York, that's when gin became hip and trendy," says Andrew MacLeod Smith, distiller at the London Distillery Company.
Behind the botanicals
Juniper berries are the primary flavouring for gin. They possess a piney flavour similar to rosemary and provide classic perfumed notes.
Coriander is the second most important botanical in gin. The gingery, sage flavour of the seeds are used to add citrusy freshness and spice.
Orris root is taken from Iris flowers: Iris germanica, Iris florentina, and Iris pallida. It has a delicate violet, tea-like flavour and adds earthy and floral notes.
Lemon peel adds zesty citrus notes and and helps bind the other flavours.
"Then it sort of moved away from that and went back to its cheap working class routes... and in the 80s it lost a lot of ground to vodka."
Vodka still retains its stronghold as the UK's best-selling spirit, worth an estimated £2.2bn, while gin sales were put at £675m in 2011.
According to a recent Mintel report, gin is seen as a mellow, "anti-party" option by 18-24 year olds, so vodka is their party drink of choice.
The taste of neat gin can also be off-putting to some consumers, explains Mr MacLeod Smith, if they are not used to drinks like martinis.
"Legally gin has to be predominantly juniper-based, which creates a flavour that some people can be averse to.
"That's why experimenting with flavours and bringing some more unusual botanicals to the forefront is only going to open up the gin market."
The trend towards in-home drinking has also led to more interest in premium gins, as consumers are more willing to trade up to a higher quality product to compensate for going out less.
End Quote Dr David Clutton Drinks consultant
There is a race now to find 'unique' or quirky botanicals that no other gin uses; but I think this is often very confusing for the consumer”
"People are becoming more experimental with cocktails and mixing them at home, not just drinking them in bars," says Kate Evans, spirits buying manager at Tesco.
"Much like wine connoisseurs, people are enjoying trying new flavours of gin."
Jane Camellin of the Spencerfield Spirits Company in Scotland says that premium gins tend to appeal to more discerning drinkers, who appreciate the subtleties of the different botanical flavours.
"Drinkers love the unique flavour of the premium gins. We were keen to do a flavoured gin last year and tried many flavours before settling on the raspberry gin.
"Our recipe is similar to a sloe gin, but less on the sugar and more on the fruit. The flavour is tart and the raspberries shine through."
But there is concern in the industry that some of the newer boutique gins do not necessarily offer a better taste.
"Many craft gins are developed by people wanting to make a fast buck," says drinks consultant Dr Clutton.
How is gin made?
- The base spirit for gin is already distilled, from a variety of cereal grains such as wheat, rye, or barley. Botanicals are then added to flavour the gin.
- Distilled gin is made from re-distilling the neutral spirit of agricultural origin with juniper berries and other botanicals. It must have an alcoholic content of no less than 37.5%.
- Compound gin is made by flavouring the neutral spirit with flavourings ingredients called botanicals without re-distilling it.
Source: Gin and Vodka Association
"In my view some gins are over-elaborate. There might well be a long list of botanicals used, but there is often little evidence to demonstrate that they all affect the flavour of the final product.
"There is a race now to find 'unique' or quirky botanicals that no other gin uses, but I think this is often very confusing for the consumer."
Dave Arnold is a culinary expert and owner of cocktail bar Booker and Dax in New York. He says that the classic gins can be more reliable when it comes to making a good cocktail.
"I find that a lot of the time, newer gins don't necessarily play as nice with other ingredients in a cocktail... because a lot of people are trying to make a statement with the gin.
"It might be a really well-crafted spirit but it doesn't work the way that I'm used to a gin working."
Mr Arnold likes the versatility of gin, as it pairs not only with other spirits but also with food.
"Any food pairing with a gin cocktail depends on whether you're taking a cocktail that's more on the citrus side or more on the clean, crisp, martini side.
"For clean crisp martini cocktails, you're going want to go classic with the food pairing.
"So take cheddar with crackers and onions, though not classic, it works very well with a clean, spirit forward drink because you're dealing with very heavy pungent flavours."
Mr Arnold tends to pair classic gin cocktails with strong and salty foods such as caviar, which have a neutralising effect on the palate.
How did it get the name 'Mother's ruin'?
Gin was invented by the Dutch and became popular in England when William of Orange took the throne in 1688.
Between 1689 and 1697 England passed legislation banning imports of spirits and lifting restrictions on domestic spirit production.
It didn't take long for a gin craze to sweep across poverty-stricken 18th Century London, causing social unrest such as rising crime rates, prostitution, higher death rates and infertility.
In 1736 a Gin Act was passed which banned anyone from selling "Distilled spirituous liquor" without first taking out a licence costing £50.
Another five acts were passed until 1751 but it was the rising cost of grain that finally helped the gin craze peter out.
William Hogarth portrayed the horror of the situation in a print entitled 'Gin Lane' in 1751. It shows a drunken woman with ulcerated legs, taking snuff as her baby falls to its death.
"Most of the interactions that you aim for are neutral. Very few drinks are so complementary to the food that you really don't want to have one without the other."
Taking influence from fields such a molecular gastronomy, the science of flavour pairing is favoured by many smaller distillers in search of the perfect gin recipe.
Mr MacLeod Smith distilled thirty botanicals on a lab scale before working up to traditional copper stills.
"Because I knew that I wanted a traditional English gin base, I knew that I wanted juniper berries and coriander seed and angelica root," says Mr MacLeod Smith, who describes his recipe as a mix between a traditional London Dry style and a more experimental New Western Dry gin.
"I figured out what the optimal proportions for each botanical were, then I started supplementing them with additional botanicals such as earl grey tea, liquorish root, bilberry, lavender and lovage root."
The result was TESTBED-1, a new limited release of gins by the London Distillery Company, named after the ex-dairy warehouse in Battersea where it was distilled. The gin is sold in four sample-size 10cl bottles - each one having been distilled using different botanicals.
"We wanted to show the progression of the gin from how we conceived it on my lab work, to the larger scale distillation that we eventually tweaked to make our finished number four gin."
But the proof will surely be found in the drinking.
Mr MacLeod Smith says that consumers are invited to share their feedback with the company so that the recipe can continue to be crafted.
Although the newer craft gins may divide the purists from the more experimental producers, the resurgence of debate around gin is a positive step all round, says Dr Clutton.
"If these new brands persuade people to try gin, that's a good thing for the industry in general."