Gin: Keeping it real

Gin has adopted many new incarnations in the course of its meteoric rise – but is it in danger of going too far? Christian Davis ponders over a great G&T


GIN USED TO BE LIKE A traditional department store. Familiar, safe, a bit staid but reliable – you got everything you wanted. In gin’s case: refreshing citrus notes underlined by juniper and mixed with tonic water, ice and lemon. There just isn’t a better thirst-quenching drink, particularly on a summer’s day.

Today, gin is like a souk. Chaotic, seemingly unregulated, exciting but slightly unnerving, easy to get lost in. You have little idea of what you are going to come out with – herbs, spices, a joint, a rug, or a fez.

The spirit has come a long way from what its stereotypical drinker might suggest: a middle-aged, middle-class woman in southern England (Tunbridge Wells), quaffing a Gordon’s or Beefeater with Schweppes tonic while she waits, lonely and depressed, for her husband to come home from work.

Gin is now as much about men with skinny trousers, long beards and crazy hats in pop-ups in London’s Shoreditch and Hoxton, Copenhagen’s meat packer district or Barcelona. There is also the fad, started in Spain, for pink, strawberry-flavoured gins. The very latest is gin liqueurs – lower alcohol, on trend, and packed with sugar.

According to statistics supplied by the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs and Diageo, gin has increased its growth rates, with yearly value sales growing by nearly a third and quarterly value sales by nearly 40%. Over the last quarter, gin value sales were worth only £10m less than blended scotch. Exports of British gin have broken the half a billion-pound mark for the first time.

UK gin exports reached £530m in 2017 – the highest ever for gin exports, totalling around 189m (70cl) bottles (up from around 177m bottles in 2016). The US remains the largest single importer of UK gin, with sales worth £184m, up almost £12m on 2016.

By region however, the EU is still by far the biggest destination for UK gin, with the European market seeing growth of 16% last year.

Within the EU, Spain is the largest market, with £100m of gin sales, meaning that the Spanish gin market is bigger than the next five markets (Germany, Italy, France, Greece and Belgium) combined.

The UK sends more gin around the world than it does beef, and increased 12% by value and 7% by volume in the last year – the largest exporter of gin in the world.

Nicholas Cook, director general of the Gin Guild, tells Drinks International: “Despite the headline figures bandied about as to the number of distilleries listed by HMRC and the claims that this growth in distillery numbers is all down to gin, we think the headlines cited by many are a little misleading.”

Cook points out:

  • Not all gin is distilled gin (the EU does allow compounded and non-distilled products to be labeled as ‘gin’), but the Gin Guild only recognises distilled gin, the higher production classification;
  • Not all licence holders actually use their licences;
  • Not all companies who describe themselves as ‘distillers’ or ‘distilleries’, actually distil themselves.



  • Tanqueray Flor De Sevilla
  • Bloom Gin Jasmine & Rose
  • Opihr Stubbies, a trio of TD G&Ts
  • Blackwater Irish
  • Portobello Road Navy Strength
  • Caorunn Gin Master’s Cut
  • Gibson’s So Jean
  • Hendrick’s Orbium
  • Mór Irish gin
  • Malfy Gin Rosa
  • Copperhouse
  • Jaisalmer Indian gin
  • Gin L’Arbre Mediterranean London Dry
  • Hernö Old Tom
  • O’ndina Italian
  • Hapusa Himalayan Dry
  • Berry Bros & Rudd London Dry
  • Not forgetting gin liqueurs now, such as Jawbox Pineapple & Ginger and Rhubarb & Ginger gin liqueurs


Cook, a former lawyer, says: “The crowded market means that brands both new and old are seeking new consumers and routes to market, often by deploying products of a style and profile not seen before, some while still maintaining linkage with the legal gin specifications, some, however, venturing to the edge, and some far beyond.”

Cook says some brands are taking fairly extreme positions, very much at the edge of the spectrum. This is leading to a position where consumers, who after all are not experts, need protection from rogue marketing and abuse of the name ‘gin’ as part of the labelling.

He says the established industry needs steps to be taken to preserve the prestige and particular style of the legally specified gin definitions laid down by EU regulations.

The likes of the Gin Guild and WSTA have the whole gin arena under review and there is already a groundswell of industry opinion that action needs to be taken to ensure that the flexible regulations that have allowed so much innovation and development are not abused.

Cook expresses his concern: “At the moment a lack of co-ordinated enforcement action, alongside what has been extraordinary expansion in gin and of gin-based/influenced products, has meant there are some products which fail to meet the legal specifications which are nonetheless being sold and misrepresented to consumers as gin.

“Hopefully, if there are one or two enforcement actions and clarification and a formal restatement approved by key and established industry players of what is required in a product to ensure compliance, there will be a settling down within the market and brands will work towards either rolling back products so as to ensure compliance or will effectively relabel and redescribe products so that they do not inadvertently fall within what is a tightly defined set of regulations,” states Cook.

Out in England’s south west, Somerset’s Newton House director Jane Cannon rejoins: “We are seeing more people and small wine shops using contract distillers to create their ‘own-brand’ gins. The label should clearly state where the product has been produced. So many gins are produced by large contract distillers which are then bottled and labelled to imply small batch production. This is misleading to the public and demonstrates how the once-competitive advantage of being an artisan, genuine producer, can be eroded by false labelling and provenance.”

Diageo’s head of Gordon’s Europe, Annalisa Tedeschi adds: “When it comes to gin, people across the industry have started talking about the over-complication of the industry and calling for classification. We do believe there is a role to play to educate people that juniper is the key ingredient of gin, giving it that refreshing, crisp taste. Alongside juniper, Gordon’s liquid has just three other botanicals – angelica root, coriander and liquorice.”

William Grant & Sons’ Hendrick’s claims to be the first ‘super-premium’ gin brand to reach the one million case mark. Hendrick’s global marketing manager Lisa Fitzsimons says: “This is a golden age for gin and it shows no sign of slowing down, with an abundance of new gins coming to the market all the time, many playing on local provenance, with interesting stories to tell.”

Malfy is claimed to be the bestselling gin in Italy, as well as the fastest-growing premium gin in the US. Founder and owner of Biggar & Leith, owner of Malfy, Elwyn Gladstone, says: “The category has obviously boomed in Europe, but is still to take off in the US, Canada, Africa and Asia. In the US, the category is growing very fast in the super-premium sector ($25 per 75cl and above), driven by Hendrick’s, Bombay Sapphire and a sea of ‘craft gins’. The US is quite a long way behind on the G&T craze that has driven the category around the world – eg there is no significant on-premise premium tonic distribution. Fever-Tree and Q are leading the charge, but there is a long way to go, and there is no ‘ritual’ of using the copa glasses like we see in Spain and the UK. There’s definitely a lot of runway, and we think it will start to happen over the next 18-24 months. In Asia, we are seeing a growing interest in gin but still on a very small base,” says Gladstone.

Gonzalez Byass owns the London No.1 and Mom brands. Global marketing director Eugeni Brotons says: “The gin sector is still being driven by premiumisation. According to the latest IWSR stats, over the next five years growth will slow globally but the key markets for increased consumption will be the US, UK, Spain and Germany. However, markets such as Mexico, Brazil, Austria and South Africa have had significant growth in the past year.

“The Philippines is the most important global consumer market for the gin category, (17.5m 9-litre cases) together with the US (10m 9-litre cases). The US remains the largest gin importer for the UK with sales worth £184m (US$255m), an increase of almost £12m (US $ 16.6m) from 2016.”

Quintessential Brands’ international marketing director for Greenall’s gin, Rob Curteis, says: “Gin is in rude health and, while there is inevitably some talk of the gin craze slowing eventually, it is clear to us at Quintessential that some markets are only just getting going.”

He says: “Such innovation is exciting and needed to maintain the category’s relevance, but brand marketers need to make sure that they don’t go down the same route as vodka did in the past with flavours and that they stay true to their brands and the essence of gin.

“The gin category is becoming increasingly fragmented, with a lot of new sub-categories emerging, the biggest of which is pink gin, which has driven 27% of total gin growth. A similar trend can be seen within gin liqueurs, and these sub categories have a strong appeal to people who are new to gin and find the sweeter profile of these gin liqueurs more accessible, and for those looking for something different as they explore the category,” says Curteis.

Halewood Wines & Spirits managing director, global travel retail, Simon Roffe, says: “Clearly, the UK market is one of the most dynamic for gin but the category performance is reflected across many international markets. The pace at which the consumer taste buds in various countries are switching to the juniper craze definitely varies – as does the development of the different elements of the gin category.”


Hayman’s has a new London distillery in Balham, the company thus returning to London where famous forebear James Burroughs, of Beefeater, started nearby. A traditional, medium-sized producer, James Hayman is concerned that the current popularity of gin with the blurring of the boundaries and exotic flavours may damage the category in the longer term.

At the recent Imbibe bartender show, Hayman had placards stating: “Call time on fake gin.” He tells DI: “The renaissance of gin could damage the category. It does not need gimmickry. The renaissance has to be true to the style. The ‘new wave’ gins can cause great confusion. It is dangerous if we confuse people.”

Hayman’s sister, Miranda, is in charge of marketing, merchandising and PR. Her concern for the company is the challenge of marrying up the heritage and history of the company with being perceived as also modern and contemporary, to appeal to the new generation of gin drinkers.

Gladstone says: “It’s a very, very crowded market – so many gins – barrier to entry is low…..and the huge number of whisk(e)y distilleries that have started are using gin brands as a way to generate cash flow and demonstrate to investors that they have something to sell, while waiting to fundraise or for their whisky to mature.”

Award-winning spirits educator and regular DI contributor, Philip Duff, gives an independent perspective from the US. He says: “Gin in the US hasn’t even begun as far as I’m concerned. Overall category sales are dropping, but super-premium sales aren’t increasing as rapidly as in some EU countries with legitimate gin crazes.

“The kind of consumer-led mania for premium gin brands that we’ve seen in Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK hasn’t yet begun Stateside but when it does – and I believe it will – the sheer size of the US will make it a seismic change for the whole industry,” he predicts.

Newton House’s Cannon says: “More countries where gin has not previously been produced are now starting the production of weird and wonderful flavoured gins. Although quirky, flavoured gins, which are enjoying good sales now, don’t share the same qualities of a genuine small batch gin and may well become a casualty in the future as the marketplace becomes more saturated.”


Gordon’s Tedeschi adds: “When it comes to flavoured gins, this specific sector is nothing new for us. We unveiled our first sloe gin, Gordon’s fruitier little sister, in 1906. More recently, 2017 saw the launch of Gordon’s premium pink distilled gin.”

The popularity of Gordon’s pink has been driving the gin growth in the UK. Diageo also owns bartenders’ favourite gin, Tanqueray.

“Bars and mixologists are already firmly behind gin,” says Duff. “Liquor stores everywhere now understand they must stock at least half a dozen brands, and the US has hundreds of new distilleries, the vast majority making at least one gin that enjoys success in the local market.

“The next step is when this groundswell tips over into consumers en masse demanding ever-more esoteric serves, attending gin festivals and supporting the kind of following Instagram gin culture accounts for in Europe,” says Duff. #gin has 4.3m posts.


“There is no such thing as a craft gin. Small producers of gin are artisans,” states Cannon. “They produce in small stills, usually no more than 250 litres but often much smaller, and when they say small-batch they mean it. One producer claims to be both a craft and small-batch gin and on its label the bottle number is ‘1,104’ – which begs the question, when is small-batch small? The challenge for the small producer is consistency of flavour from one batch to another. This is where the skill lies, the excitement and the enjoyment.”

Gladstone says: “The craft movement has been amazing for the alcohol category – it has turned it on its head and made the big companies realise they have to do more than just churn out big ad campaigns. The challenge for the craft gins in the US, and perhaps around the world, is that the local nature of them often limits them to their immediate locale.”

Halewood’s Roffe adds: “There is no sign of this trend abating and the business is being bombarded by new brand offers. Ultimately, many will never hit the commercial heights of the category’s pioneers, but if the motive is to remain small scale, with local production of unique products and brand experiences, then surely there can be space – and market access – for all.”

Curteis retorts: “The craft movement has been much talked about in recent years, but it isn’t anything new, per se. Greenall’s is the original London Dry gin and has been handcrafted the same way since 1761. We still source the best possible botanicals and measure them out by hand. We load the stills by hand and have a team of skilled distillers overseeing every batch we create.”


Gladstone says: “It is a good segment to be in. There’s a lot intrinsic to the category that is very much on-trend with consumer desires. For example, there’s a perception that it is a very ‘natural’ product – which it is – versus, perhaps, the perception of flavoured vodkas which are seen as much more ‘chemically made’. Also, perhaps there is a perception that it is a no/low sugar product, versus flavoured vodka/rum.”

Tedeschi says: “The gin industry is certainly booming, a new gin pops up almost daily and 42 new gin distilleries opened in the UK in 2017 alone.” Cannon adds: “Currently there is a danger that too many brands will dilute the performance of longer-term survivors. However, such is life in a competitive market.

“Looking forward, the survivors will be those with healthy balance sheets, winners of awards and those who have good channels of distribution.”

“The ritual of preparation is key now,” says Brotons. “Attention to detail is essential as people are really into how they make their G&T – what the garnish is, the tonic etc.

“This preparation ritual started in Spain and has spread around the world gradually as the consumer looks to recreate the on-premise experienced at home.”

David Hume, creator and director of Quintessential’s Thomas Dakin brand, comments: “Authenticity, provenance and a compelling, genuine story will continue to win through with consumers in the year ahead, but for us at Quintessential Brands, quality comes above all else as, without that, consumers will fast lose interest.

“To have been awarded Gin Distiller of the Year by the ISC again this year – the third time in four years – reinforces that it is this unwavering focus on quality that is helping us to achieve the global success we are now achieving in markets worldwide.”

Roffe states: “Clearly, the category is competing for space in retail stores, on menus and in back bars. Not all producers have the commercial capability to ensure long-term success.

“The evolution of flavoured gins remains a massive opportunity. We must not confuse the consumer by marketing gin liqueurs in the category. ‘Gin’ by definition must be distilled for sale at a minimum abv.”

Hendrick’s Fitzsimons says: “We see the gin category continuing to go from strength to strength, fuelled by experimentalism, innovation, a demand for something a little more daring and adventurous, authenticity and provenance – all the elements that play to the strengths of Hendrick’s.”


I leave it to legendary gin maker Desmond Payne, who used to make Plymouth and is now in charge of gin behemoth, Beefeater, to sum up:

“The thing is, gin is designed to be a versatile spirit. That is its role. It is a large part of why gin has become such a dynamic international spirit – it gives this new generation of creative and knowledgeable bartenders something to work with to supply the needs of the new millennial drinkers.

“This provides huge opportunities for both bartenders and the ever-increasing stable of gin producers. It encourages creativity and out-of-the-box thinking like never before. This provides fun, excitement and some surprises too.

“But there are dangers. The plethora of flavoured gins, barrel-aged gins – and I have produced both these styles for Beefeater – and gin liqueurs, none of which is covered by legal definition, is where a lot of this excitement lies. The fact is that definitions cannot keep up with the speed of change. Twenty years ago I was on a trade committee looking to develop a definition for London gin – it took 10 years to enshrine it in European law. Gin is moving faster than that.

“There are just two things that define all styles of gin – the presence of juniper on the taste, and the minimum strength of 37.5 abv. Within these boundaries, I am happy to see a magnificent and challenging array of products. If you want to stray beyond these limits, then you may have produced a great product – but perhaps you should think of a different name for it?” Cheers Desmond.