Beyond juniper

Gin is thriving, but as more and more producers enter the market, there’s confusion as to what it should and can be. So where is the category heading? Dominic Roskrow reports


IT’S THE INAUGURAL Craft Distillers’ Alliance gin competition, and the looks on the faces of the judges say it all – a mix of confusion, incredulity and bemusement.

In front of them are nigh-on 50 gin samples – or so they have been told. But not all of them are convinced. And, roughly speaking, the spirits on offer can be divided in to two distinct camps.

In the blue corner are the gin equivalents of the dinner jacket and black tie brigade – clean, crisp, classical, sharp and sassy, the ice and a slice troupe with juniper to the fore.

In the red corner are a motley crew of cartoon characters – bright and colourful concoctions ranging from relatively well produced Disney style gins to the more outlandish representatives which are the spirits equivalent of garish Japanese animé. They’re all gin, the judges are told, but not necessarily as you know it.

“You’re having a laugh,” mutters one judge under his breath. And right there is the dilemma facing gin. It’s 2014 and the good news for gin is that it’s making waves. It’s innovative, exciting, experimental and just a little bit out of control.

The bad news for gin is that it’s making waves. It’s innovative, exciting, experimental and just a little bit out of control.

Fast forward to the spring of 2016, and the issue of when is a gin not a gin is as potent as ever, except more so. Gin distilleries are springing up on a weekly basis, made by a slew of new distilleries right across the world. And they’re bringing a range of styles and flavours that is seemingly endless, all of which is potentially good for the category.

But there is a caveat. Some producers are playing footloose and fancy free with the rules and are giving cause for concern as they produce spirits drinks that have been dismissed as flavoured vodkas and spirit infusions – not gin.

Patrick van Zuidam, who produces a premium gin among a huge array of other spirit and liqueur products and is a judge on various international awards panels, is clearly fed up.

“It’s getting ridiculous,” he says. “Judging in international gin competitions is becoming a difficult task. Some producers go overboard in their creativity or in looking for their niche and they create drinks that have little relevance to gins. A lot of gins lack balance, harmony and the taste of juniper.

“An award-winning gin is about balance, harmony, crisp distillation, clean stills and actually learning how to distil before bottling products. Sorry about my tone, but it’s due to frustration from judging impossible and badly made products marketed as gins.”


So how did this chasm between classical gin and modern gin come about? The main reasons are from the loose definitions of gin within the European Union, and from the different rules governing gin production in different territories.