It is the quintessentially British drink once derided by William Hogarth as the scourge of 18 century society. Until recently, few people could name anyone other than senior members of the Royal Family as fans of gin but all that is changing.
A surge in the juniper-based spirit’s popularity has seen a dramatic rise in the number of craft gin makers setting up business. Just five micro-distilleries opened in the UK between 2008 and 2011: the same number opened in 2012, 11 started production last year and a projected 15 distilleries will be up and running by the end of 2014, all producing varieties of the three gin classifications – standard, premium and London Dry.
At a ‘Ginposium’ in Covent Garden this week master distillers mingled with young entrepreneurs looking to gain a foothold in a booming industry. Pub landlord John O’Dowd revealed how a night at a bourbon tasting event, where the host spoke of how he was able to run his recipe through an already established distillery, planted the seed of an idea. Teaming up with a friend who runs Liverpool Organic Brewery, Mr O’Dowd established Liverpool Gin in 2012 and commercial sales began last year.
“You need deep pockets if you want to sell whisky and I could have made vodka or rum, but gin is English and I wanted to produce a top-end product,” said Mr O’Dowd who says his organic gin makes it stand out in a crowded marketplace. He has just employed an international sales manager and Harvey Nicholls will start selling his drink next week.
“A lot more people are looking for organic products today. People are more aware about the provenance of drinks, like tea or coffee, and want to support locally made products.”
It is not just those with plenty of industry experience capitalising on gin’s rising popularity. Edinburgh University graduate Sam Trett was keen to learn from the experts during the Ginposium’s seminar day. The 25-year-old will launch his “botanical infused spirit”, Minus 33, later this month with backing from a former executive of Scottish whisky makers Whyte and Mackay.
“We can’t call it gin as despite juniper berries being one of nine botanicals we are using we’re opting for an ABV of 33 per cent, below the 37.5 per cent minimum requirement,” he said. “But we are looking to target the same demographics, especially younger women. Listening to the experts has given me an insight into how I should run my own business and the gin market is growing. It’s a bit of a leap into the unknown for me but I’m quite confident our brand will do well given the size of the industry now.”
Rebecca Palmer is perhaps exactly who industry newcomers such as Mr Trett have in mind. At 24, she describes herself as coming through university “at the tail-end of the vodka drinking generation” and now works for independent premium gin firm Martin Miller’s.
“When I was at university we all drank vodka,” she said. “I think that’s because that is what everyone had been doing for years and my parents and grandparents were gin drinkers so I didn’t want to drink what they were drinking. Now we are a little older I think most of my friends are choosing gin over vodka. I think it’s the 20 and 30-somethings that are really getting into gin now, and obviously the classic gin drinkers of the older generations are still drinking it too, so it is spanning a range of ages which is great.”
Further reasons for the industry to cheer arrived this week when almost half of bartenders surveyed at London’s “renowned bars” said premium gin was the important spirit on their shelves. Only 28 per cent of staff said vodka was their most significant spirit compared to 44 per cent who said gin was the number one, according to the study by trade consultants CGA Strategy.
Charles Maxwell, director and Master Distiller at Thames Distillers, has been in the industry for 40 years and puts the burgeoning popularity of gin down to several factors.
“Each craft gin that emerges on the scene has its own distinct flavour and there’s always a fascinating story behind each one too. A lot of people have realised that there isn’t a great deal of difference in tastes between lots of different types of vodka but with gin you get huge variations.
“Once the botanical boys have got involved with craft gin makers then, hey presto, you have all sorts of different flavours.”
The gins being sampled at the Ginposium, organised by The Gin Guild and Heriot-Wyatt University’s International Centre of Brewing and Distilling, certainly typified the variety now available to the discerning drinker. International award winner Warner Edwards Harrington Dry Gin, produced in a Northamptonshire barn by two friends who met at agricultural school, has been described as “a product of love and passion, trial and error”.
Newcomers held their own against old-timers. Berkeley Square London Dry Gin, whose makers in Mayfair state that 250 years of expertise and craftsmanship goes into the product, contains a blend of botanicals including basil, kaffir and lime leaves combining for a smooth finish. Packing an altogether different punch was the spice-infused Opihr Oriental Spiced London Dry Gin whose cubeb peppers almost overwhelm the botanicals. And the peppers have the added effect of warding off demons, say the makers.
Shortcross Gin has been produced since March this year at Northern Ireland’s first craft gin distillery near Downpatrick. Makers Rademon Estate believes their “small batch philosophy” ensures that every batch produced means their vision of what a true craft distilled gin should be.
“Walk into any bar now and they will have at least 5-6 gins to choose from,” said Mr Maxwell. “Some will have more than 100. The difference between gins is enormous, as you can taste here. Sales in certain countries such as India may be going down, but global sales are up about four per cent year on year. Supermarkets are stocking more brands and consumers are much more interested than in simply buying the cheapest gin available. The future for the industry is looking very good.”