The craft gin scene

You’d have to be living under a rock to not realize that gin is booming. Formerly the preserve of Georgian gutter drunks and your gran in the eighties, it’s now the darling spirit of both hipsters and normal's countrywide.
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You’d have to be living under a rock to not realise that gin is booming. Formerly the preserve of Georgian gutter drunks and your gran in the eighties, it’s now the darling spirit of both hipsters and normals countrywide. Where once there was Gordon’s, Tanqueray and, if you were lucky, Bombay Sapphire, there are now well over 100 gin brands in the UK, and, inevitably, the c-word (craft, obviously) has been attached to many. Whether the word has any meaning here is debated as much as in any drinks category, and it’s tempting to think it’s only used to make a product stand out in a very crowded market. We take a look at how gin became so popular, and whether all gins are created equal.

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When it comes to gin’s meteoric rise, “a multitude of factors formed the perfect storm,” says Olivier Ward, co-founder and editor of Gin Foundry, ‘an online compendium of factually correct and unbiased information about gin’. Groundwork was laid in the 1990s, with some shrewd economics that enabled big name gins to compete with vodka. Bombay Sapphire’s release in 1987 had set the scene for the premiumisation that followed. The cocktail culture of the noughties seized upon the versatile yet flavoursome spirit, and the slow food movement encouraged an interest in locality and authenticity. Barriers to distilling on smaller apparatus in the UK came down when in 2009 Sipsmith won a legal battle for a licence with the government, who had refused on the grounds that the quantities they were producing amounted to “moonshine”. In the five years that followed, 70 new distilleries sprang up and smaller, boutique brands permeated the market.

Another, perhaps surprising, reason for the current proliferation of gin brands is whisky. Nascent distilleries like Eden Mill, Strathearn and Arbikie in Scotland, and the Boatyard Distillery in Ireland, have turned to gin as a way to recoup start-up costs as soon as possible, a much quicker money-spinner since whisky cannot be sold until it is at least three years old. Some 70% of the gin sold in the UK is made in Scotland. Dornoch Distillery in the Scottish Highlands was born in 2016 with the goal of making single malt whisky using ‘old-style’ production techniques. With their first barrels maturing, founders Simon and Philip Thompson launched in December 2016 with an experimental series of ten different gins, made from their own 100% floor malted heritage barley, with a long fermentation using brewer’s yeast.

“It was a single malt gin, with lots of spirit character, more like a genever than a gin,” says Phil Thompson. “The idea behind the experimental series was to give our crowdfunders the option on how the final gin would taste, it was essentially a feedback process. The feedback was for a smooth gin with a very small spirit influence. The gin market is not ready for a genever type product - this is probably why genever has never become a globally consumed product.” Phil admits that the UK gin market is heavily saturated and is becoming confusing. “We are keen just to stick to our principles and have an honest conversation with the consumer.”

Honesty is a problem on the gin scene, agrees Olivier. “There’s a problem with transparency, as opposed to disinformation. I think a lot of people are glazing over key details.” Two issues frequently picked over by gin aficionados are that of neutral grain spirit and contract distilling. To recap the basics, gin is made from neutral grain spirit (NGS, distilled to over 95% abv) flavoured with herbs, spices, essences and sugar. For ‘London dry gin’ and ‘distilled gin’, flavouring must be done by re-distilling, or rectifying the NGS with the herbs and spices. If neither of these terms appear on a bottle’s label, it’s very likely filled with compound gin, made by simply infusing NGS with the flavourings. Whatever method, NGS can be simply bought in from industrial manufacturers. It soon becomes easy to question the authenticity of a “craft” product whose manufacture only requires the ability to buy ingredients and stir. Is this fair? “If you go grain-to-glass, you can’t be small scale, because it’s not economically feasible. It depends on if you see the role of the gin maker as a distiller or an artist or a flavour maker. You’d never begrudge a painter for not making their canvas,” muses Olivier.

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Contract distilling seems like an obvious target for derision, particularly when a brand based on ‘Cornish’ locality and personal heritage turns out to be rectified in London by someone unconnected to the founders, or a purportedly small batch brand is made on large-scale equipment that produces for many other brands but sold at twice the price. Olivier is much more forgiving. “There are loads of amazing contract brands, and actually the owner has had a lot of input, it’s been their recipe, it just happens to have been developed and distilled by someone else to get them over the line.”

Not all contract jobs are the same, he says. Where one brand might simply approach a contractor with an idea or theme and pay them to do everything else, others are much more involved. “Foxhole Gin is a contract job at Silent Pool distillery, but the guy has to go and source grapes from around the UK to ferment them and create a marc [a type of brandy], and then that is used as a liquid botanical. That’s an absolute headache! Yes, technically speaking Silent Pool do the contract, but he’s had to go and do some serious legwork.”

Charles Maxwell of Thames Distillery, which produces gin for 60 brands on two 500 litre stills, says, “The key point is that the brand owner should not deliberately mislead the consumer and suggest they do something which they do not actually do. After all, if you go to a famous chef’s restaurant it is quite possible he/she will not actually cook your meal or indeed even be in the kitchen at that time.”

Last June, Waitrose reported that gin sales had surpassed all other spirits, with spirits buyer John Vine telling The Drinks Business, “We’re starting to see a change in the way people enjoy their gin, with many sipping it before their meal as an aperitif. That’s why local craft suppliers, who tend to enhance their gin with unique flavours and aromas, really appeal to our customers,” he said. Gin is so well placed to do this, says Olivier, because of its many botanicals. “Gin can reflect so many things that people expect to see in a way that whisky or vodka can’t. When people say they want it local, actually what they want is to taste something that reminds them of that place. With a good gin, each and every time you get yourself a gin and tonic, you’re going to be transported there.”

Gin is now the most popular spirit in the UK (voted for by 29% of consumers asked by YouGov), rising from third in the previous year. Last year, we Brits bought 47 million bottles of gin last year, a record breaking amount. In 2016, gin was the UK’s seventh most valuable food and drink export, and British gin is now exported to a total of 139 countries. With over 100 brands on the UK market, there are no signs that gin’s star will do anything but continue to rise. Whether all these brands offer a unique experience is for you to decide, now armed with the discerning knowledge that while not all gins are created equal, there is no excuse for snobbery without discovering the story of the spirit first.

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