Think gin

Hamish Smith gathers some of the trade’s thoughts on where gin is at and where it’s going


THE SECOND ANNUAL THINK GIN EVENT took place in London in March, playing host to some of the best new craft gin brands and famous personalities in the industry. Alongside tastings, Hamish Smith, editor of World’s 50 Best Bars chaired a discussion on gin in the high-end bar. The panel comprised: Tristan Stephenson, bartender and author of The Curious Bartender’s Gin Palace; Peter Dorelli, former head bartender, American Bar at the Savoy, London; Alessandro Palazzi, head bartender, Dukes Bar, London; Christina Schneider, formerly Happiness Forgets, now Som Saa, London; Tom Warner, founder Warner Edwards gin; and Andy Walsh, Indie Brands, which looks after Brockman’s.

How do gin ranges differ from a more high-end bar to a more mainstream bar?

Stephenson: At a high-end bar with a focus on cocktails and mixing drinks it becomes more important to have a range of gins that represents the breadth of the category. In the mainstream environment, profit and loss tends to be scrutinised more, as it tends to be larger groups that operate those bars. They don’t want too much holding stock, they want to turn it round quickly, they want to negotiate cheaper prices for products, and so the selection tends to be more refined.

Schneider: Happiness Forgets doesn’t have much space so we could only stock about 12 gins. You have to pick wisely. We have the classic brands in the rail – Beefeater, Tanqueray, Plymouth and a selection of others [smaller brands].

Happiness does not charge a high price [for its cocktails] so it can’t stock gins that cost £40 a bottle. Every bottle we have we have to be able to make drinks with. Quality for price is very important.

Palazzi: We are not just a gin bar so we cannot stock 40 gins. We are a hotel bar with an international clientele so we have customers who focus on certain brands, so whether I like other [smaller or local] brands, is besides the point.

We have classic gins but I try to introduce customers to other brands. Some of the gins are in my list for one or two years then I change to give the consumer different ideas.

How do new brands find space in the market?

Warner: The big boys have huge marketing budgets. We’re up against pedigree and years of consumer perception about a product, so for us upstarts coming on to the market it’s difficult to differentiate. We do it through quality, through provenance and flavour. Flavour differentiation is what bars want. Where we are gaining significant traction is with our flavours – elderflower-infused gin and our rhubarb gin is going off the Richter Scale at the moment. As a brand you have to think about why your brand is different and what it’s going to add to their repertoire. Another dry gin or a different mix of botanicals is not going to cut it anymore.

Walsh: Bartenders need a brand for every style of drink. You have a lot of diversity out there. Consumers are starting to understand that it’s more about what you mix with your gin and how you garnish it to bring out the botanicals. The way you see the gin category now is the way scotch is [with its regions].

A bar needs a London Dry, Old Tom, a new style gin and a geneva, so that’s where niche gins are starting to be picked up.

Dorelli: In my day we [bartenders] killed gin. Gin did not belong to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, but I’m glad to say it is back. I always worked with London gin because all the distilleries were in London.

Now it is a different world. Now gin is in the forefront – it is the most active and energised spirit in the New World. I have a problem with wood and gin but the flavours and distilling methods are all plusses.

If bartenders have a gin on the shelf, they need to know what they are serving. If the customer asks about a gin, a bartender needs to have done his homework and excite customers.

Tanqueray and Beefeater were found to be the most poured brands in the World’s 50 Best Bars Annual Report. How do you convince bartenders to pour more craft gin?

Stephenson: Big brands pay big money to get their products in speed rails. There’s no getting away from it. But it doesn’t just come down to that. These brands have been around for a long time and are very good, very consistent, they have heritage and a story. Looking at Tanqueray and Beefeater, they are two of the most versatile London Drys out there.

Then, of course, it’s not just about marketing budget for getting it on the speed rail, there’s price point in general. Beefeater, Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire are competitively priced – it’s not easy to get a craft gin down to those price points when you are offering on a relatively small scale.

Most of the brands here today are up against it, which is why they are doing such a good job of diversifying – bringing in new production elements and botanicals.

Palazzi: Money sometimes talks, unfortunately, but I have Beefeater on speed rail because I love the product. Dukes does about 200 Martinis a night. It doesn’t matter whether you have Beefeater or a craft gin, the price will be the same. What I’m trying to do is to get them to try different spirits.

The dark side of craft gin is people opening a distillery when they do not know anything about gin. This is what craft gin has to be careful of. But trying to promote good craft gins is the bartender’s job. Some people just ask for the gin they know the name of, but about 50% you can persuade to try something different.

Warner: Craft is normally justified by the fact it’s made in small batches by a small team. It’s not a contract distilled product like a lot of gins out there. We are never going to compete with something on a speed rail. The mechanics of the craft business dictate that it’s always going to be more expensive. Craft is about provenance and a story which hopefully translates to an upsell in the bar. We are never going to give the gross margin of a mass-produced product. If craft is competing [with big brands] it’s not craft.

Dorelli: Bartenders should go against the groove. What we do is up to us. You need the standard colours, but to create fantastic pictures you need all the colours available. To me craft gins are my favourite – I know they cost more but we are salesmen, we can sell anything to our customers.

What are the new gin cocktail trends across the world?

Schneider: London is very different from anywhere else in the world. Here gin is mostly still used in classics. In Germany everyone is super-crazy about gin & tonic – it has a different status to here. Bars will stock seven or eight tonics with all kinds of garnishes. In France, cocktail culture only started five years ago so there is not a lot of consumer knowledge about classics. Everything is new, original drinks, and it’s very exciting to work there.

Stephenson: The craft cocktail renaissance has gone hand in hand with the resurgence of craft distilling. More than half of the cocktails in the Savoy cocktail book were gin. That tells us a lot [about the relationship]. A greater range of gins makes it more fun.

Palazzi: A few years ago only Italians drunk Negronis, now it’s one of the most popular at Dukes. But you can take classics and twist them. Young people are more interested in cocktails than when I started – they are ready.