Patience Gould on flavoured gins

Former Drinks International editor Patience Gould ponders Diageo’s approach to gin as it follows the flavoured route

The UK’s leading gin – that’s Gordon’s by the way – “is launching its biggest ever innovation with the introduction of a new collection of flavoured gins”. So reads the press release. The “innovation” refers to Gordon’s Crisp Cucumber, which is “blended with natural cucumber flavouring” and designed to be mixed with tonic, and two pre-mix variants in cans – Gordon’s & Tonic “with a hint of cucumber” and Gordon’s & Tonic “with a dash of elderflower”. 

This flavoursome initiative will be supported by a £1m through-the-line marketing campaign, and is “designed to offer outlets the opportunity to capitalise on the growing consumer trends towards both gin and flavoured spirits”. 

So what has spurred this sudden bout of altruism? Well, no doubt it’s the fact that gin is experiencing strong growth according to Nielsen – up 12% in the on-trade and 5% in the off-trade, while the cans segment is up a whopping 23% (respective MATs week ending January 5 2013). 

This is the first happening in the Gordon’s camp for almost 10 years, when the company launched Distiller’s Cut which, at 40% abv and with its distinctive lemongrass and ginger botanicals, was definitely a “cut” above the Gordon’s norm, but inexplicably it was withdrawn in 2009. However, unlike Distiller’s Cut Gordon’s Crisp Cucumber, like its parent brand, weighs in at a disappointing 37.5% abv. 

I don’t know what it is about Diageo and gin, but the multinational always seems to miss the boat – particularly when it comes to Gordon’s. Indeed, Gordon’s fall from grace – it’s no longer considered a strategic brand by Diageo – would have been unimaginable back in the old DCL days when it was produced at the distillery in London’s Goswell Road and when it was the hallmark of quality gin.

Now, thanks to the accountant’s blue pencil, the gin is produced up in Scotland and over the years its quality credentials have been undermined, but of course the worst blow of all was under the United Distillers regime, back in the 90s, when its strength was reduced to 37.5% abv.

It should be pointed out that, at that time, although it’s hard to imagine now, gin per se was teetering on the brink of becoming a commodity spirit. Internationally it had been routed by vodka and white rums – well, Bacardi to be precise – and this state of play was attributed to the fact that these spirits were allowed to be sold at 37.5% abv in the EU, ergo they could sell at a cheaper price than gin, which still had to be 40% abv. 

So the rules and regs were altered to allow gin to compete on a level playing field in EU countries, and continue its downward path into the commodity graveyard. But, tellingly, a few brands – notably Beefeater – steered clear of the option as the fact is that alcohol carries flavour, so what is the point of adding all these botanicals if at the end of the day the flavours do not carry through. 

This latest “flavoured” initiative does beg the question: when is a botanical a flavour or, indeed, a flavour a botanical? The easy answer is that the botanicals are distilled into the gin, and it is the botanical mix, which must include Juniper, that gives the different brands of gin their USP or particular DNA, while the flavour, as is the case with Crisp Cucumber, is added after distilling. 

When it comes to cucumber and gin Hendrick’s is, of course, the forerunner and is famed for its infusions of rose petals as well as cucumber and it comes in at a very respectable 41.4% abv. It’s extremely unlikely that Hendrick’s growth path will be halted by the launch of Gordon’s Crisp Cucumber, but one thing is for sure – Diageo has noted that Gordon’s downward spiral has been halted, and that the multinational has spied a gap for a flavour which is not “a mimic of flavoured vodkas”. Oh really! 

Furthermore, Diageo is certain that Gordon’s Crisp Cucumber will make the perfect and refreshing start to an evening – that is if you live in the UK where its debut is already underway, or Greece, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands where it is currently being rolled out. So what does it taste like? Suffice it to say I am not a fan – but then I love cucumber and, when its 40% abv or above, Gordon’s too.