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Gin It To Win It: Renewed Interest in Gin Styles Both Old and New Invigorate the Category

Posted on  | May 2, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Bombay Sapphire East Cucumber Cocktail with Almond

Perhaps more than any spirit, gin has enjoyed newfound attention as a result of the classic cocktail and craft distiller resurgence. Why? Gin has a colorful history worth retelling—from being coined “Mother’s Ruin” back in 18th century London to the bathtub version popular during Prohibition. Gin can adapt to many consumer tastes (via a smorgasbord of botanicals), and it’s generally quick and easy to produce. And most important, it’s not vodka, giving suppliers and bartenders a pass to go big and go bold.

Innovations within the category over the past several years have slowly moved the needle, especially at the bar. Greg Buttera from The Barrelhouse Flat in Chicago notes, “I don’t believe that vodka’s place in the market will be threatened anytime soon, but among cocktail aficionados vodka drinks are seen as passé. Craft bartenders have galvanized a movement in support of flavor—if an ingredient doesn’t taste like anything, why put it in a drink?”

By numbers, the gin category overall is down 1.9% according to the Beverage Information Group. Growth exists in the super-premium category amongst brands like Hendrick’s, Bombay Sapphire and Plymouth and across smaller craft brands just obtaining distribution across the country. Except for New Amsterdam, the value-priced category is on decline. That hasn’t stopped a bevy of headlines over recent years collectively hoping for a turnaround: “Gin Cocktails Make a Splashy Comeback,” “New Advances in the World of Gin” and “Gin: Time to Shine?” The media wants it, suppliers want it, bartenders and retailers want it—will consumers catch on?
New Gin Styles

“I see the gin category evolving to a space closer to how people see single malts, with greater understanding that gin can be spicy or light, floral or citrus,” says Giles Woodyer, VP and brand managing director for House of Bombay and Oxley gins. Gin drinkers are generally loyal to their brands, most commonly in the London Dry style, and suppliers have been tinkering with botanicals for years. Brand dynasties like Tanqueray (1830), Seagram’s (1857), Bombay (1761), Gordon’s (1769) and Beefeater (1820) collectively lead sales in the category, but that hasn’t stopped suppliers from attempting to convert more vodka drinkers over to gin by experimenting with the flavor profile. Called New American or New Western, these emerging styles tend to be lighter on the juniper with more dominant fruit, citrus and floral botanicals. Most of these brands fall in to the premium or super-premium category, represented by Nolet’s, Aviation, Bluecoat, Junipero, Leopold’s, Ethereal, Dry Fly and more.

Hendrick’s is largely credited with leading the shift toward softening the juniper in gin while letting other, more mixable botanicals shine through. Launched way back in 1999, Hendrick’s presented cucumber and rose petal notes that had never been seen in a gin. The brand focused on connecting with bartenders via unusual events harkening back to the Victorian days. This element of nostalgia was perfectly timed with the reemergence of classic drinks, and Hendrick’s successfully rode the wave.

Joanne Birkitt, Hendrick’s Gin senior brand manager, points out that the emergence of gin styles with more fruit and floral botanicals “has helped educate and invigorate consumers’ opinion of the entire category. We often find that consumers have a preconceived notion of what gin tastes like—and unfortunately most of the time that notion is negative.” With a very high trial to conversion rate, Hendrick’s has a strong foothold in the category and a consistent brand identity that appeals to both the trade and consumers. Birkitt confirms a growing trend in spirits in general: “There exists an increased sophistication about the modern consumer, whom we have witnessed seeking out spirits with greater provenance and complexity.”

However it’s Portland-based Aviation Gin, which debuted in 2005, that coined the now-widespread term “New Western Dry Gin” for gins that don’t adhere to the definition of London Dry. Co-founder Ryan Magarian says, “I believe we’ve been an extremely important catalyst for change.” He sees Aviation bridging the gap between gin and other spirits by appealing to a broad range of drinkers.

Like Magarian, brand ambassadors Charlotte Voisey of Hendrick’s, Angus Winchester of Tanqueray and Simon Ford of Plymouth have been passionately appealing to their peers as well as consumers looking to expand their tastes. James Menite, director of bartender relations for the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG) in New York, sees “more educational opportunities for people to discover the difference and nuances of each gin” as an impetus for change in consumers’ tastes.

The big names in gin aren’t resting on their botanicals either. In recent years, they’ve evolved with line extensions like Tanqueray No. TEN, Beefeater 24 and Bombay Sapphire East, or come up with tweaks on London Dry styles like Oxley. “The old school thought that gin is more generic or one-dimensional is being washed away. Each gin can add a unique profile to a given cocktail, much as with our new Bombay Sapphire East, which has lemongrass and black peppercorns,” explains Woodyer.

The Pernod Ricard gin portfolio, which consists of Plymouth, Beefeater and Seagram’s, offers a gin at every price point within the category, notes Maria Pribble, senior brand manager. “Consumers are seeking different gin brands for a variety of occasions, from relaxing at home to delicious cocktails while out at bar,” she adds.

And renewed interest in classic cocktails have dusted off forgotten gin styles like Old Tom and Genever. Ever-popular Plymouth (a style unto its own) has recently introduced a new bottle, drawing on an antique version complete with a copper cap to highlight the single copper pot still that has been used in production since 1793.

Even the Nolet family, makers of Ketel One and a line of gins/genevers in Holland, recently debuted Nolet’s Silver Dry Gin in six U.S. markets. With rose, peach and raspberry elements dominant, the unique profile and high price point was developed to appeal to “a new, more modern audience who likes to be surprised and discover new flavors,” according to Bill Eldien, president and chief executive officer of Nolet Spirits USA.

Independently-owned Bulldog Gin came to the market in 2006, and wrapped up 2011 with 60% growth over 2010. “Like many successful brands, we’ve spent a significant amount of time hand-selling. Brands don’t have immediate badge value just by their mere existence—they have to be built and built right,” says Josh Hayes, VP and global director of marketing for Bulldog. Hayes cites vodka fatigue as a driver for innovative gins like Bulldog, which uses Dragon Eye (a Chinese botanical akin to lychee) as one of their proprietary taste differences.

Not surprisingly, being a botanically driven spirit, new gins are fitting easily into our current era of green and local consciousness. The Botanist, for example, includes 22 botanicals “hand-picked by a foraging team from the windswept hills, peat bogs and Atlantic shores of Islay,” according to producer Bruichladdich’s website. Farmer’s Organic Gin is distilled using sustainably farmed grain and a selection of organic botanicals including juniper, elderflower, lemongrass, coriander and angelica root.

Gin innovation shows no sign of slowing down; in fact, it can be seen moving in both directions—toward the conventional and very unconventional. Mombasa Club, for example, is small-batch gin distilled in London; the idea was to create the best “classical” juniper-forward gin. At the other end of the spectrum, Slim Spirit Gin features 14 botanicals, emphasizing citrus and juniper, but with a reduced proof (60) and calorie-count as its prime points of distinction.

The Bartender Factor

In his 1939 The Gentleman’s Companion, bon vivant Charles H. Baker wrote: “No bar can be without dry gin and be called a bar.” It used to be impossible to find a gin cocktail on a menu a few years ago—now, it outnumbers vodka at most craft cocktail bars. There are even establishments purely dedicated to bringing gin to the forefront; examples in New York City alone include Vandaag, the Gin Mill, Madame Geneva, Bathtub Gin and Whitehall.

These gin meccas seek to better educate with better drinks. Magarian calls it essential for the industry to “rewrite the book on how gin is delivered, introducing gin cocktails that include classics such as the Southside, the Aviation and the French 75, along with modern creations such as Audrey Saunders’ Gin Gin Mule that are relevant to the modern palate.”

The head mixologist at the Bowery Hotel in New York City, Walter Easterbrook, agrees, saying, “The complexity of the spirit pairs with different flavors to create delicious and unique cocktails. It is no longer pigeonholed as just the spirit for a martini or gin and tonic.” Continued awareness of the versatility of gin is what many bartenders say is driving the category.

“I like a lot of what is coming out with the New American styles. I love the creativity and the fact people are pushing the envelope on this style,” says Bryan Dayton, proprietor of OAK at 14th restaurant in Boulder, CO. Conversely, The Barrelhouse Flat’s Buttera recognizes: “With classic cocktails becoming relevant again after decades of neglect, bartenders are developing a greater appreciation for traditional, juniper-forward London dry gins, like Beefeater and Tanqueray. For all the exciting innovations being introduced by avant-garde producers, the old standards still mix as well as anything.”

Appealing to the on-premise gatekeepers has become an important hallmark to many gin brands that rely on bartender craftsmanship and affinity to win over gin-averse patrons. Hendrick’s has had resounding success with a Bartender Croquet tournament series and the Delightfully Peculiar Trade Academy. Bombay Sapphire and GQ magazine have run the “Nation’s Most Inspired Bartender” competition since 2007. This year, Tanqueray Global Brand Ambassador Angus Winchester and the USBG kicked off the  “Modern Professional Bartender Challenge,” focusing on five key skills: speed, pouring accuracy, memory and numeracy, bartending technique and drinks presentation.

What Sells at Retail

As with most spirits marketing, suppliers and distributors focus on the on-premise to foster growth at retail. Drinkable, approachable cocktails are often replicated at home by consumers, and it’s not unlikely for many to wander in to a liquor store, recipe in hand. “We’re lucky in that many San Francisco bartenders are steadily on the lookout for products from artisanal distillers with which to make unique cocktails. Offering these cocktails shakes the customers out of their habitual choice, which, in turn, sends them to our doors,” says Aaron LaFleur, a sales clerk at D&M Wines and Liquors in San Francisco. He also notes that greater commercial exposure does drive sales on brands like Hendrick’s and backyard producers like No. 209 and Junipero.

Gin sales at Georgetown Wine and Spirits in Washington, DC, have increased dramatically, up 20% since last year, says manager Manual Michalowski. His two best-selling gins are Bombay Sapphire and Plymouth, but he sees people much more interested in artisanal and super-premium spirits, especially from domestic micro-distillers: “I think gin has arrived with a vengeance, and is not going away anytime soon. It’s the foundation for a number of classic cocktails, and makes a terrifically refreshing beverage. What’s not to love?”

But outside of the East and West Coast mixology centers, is gin even on the radar? Yes, according to Laurie Wolford, owner of Spirit World in Omaha. “While gin is still one of our smaller spirits categories, both in selection and sales, we have seen it grow over the past few years. People are showing more interest in boutique and specialty brands. It’s not just Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire that sell anymore.” She also says Hendrick’s is their best-selling gin, along with gins people have in craft cocktails at area bars and restaurants.

The Future of Gin

Imagine gin as a train, chugging along varied terrain with peaks and valleys. Depending on where you are, who you are and what you’re drinking, you’ll likely have a different view. “Gin is going somewhere, just not along a definite path,” says LaFleur.

Overall, the past decade or so has seen more entrants in the gin category than ever before. Acceptance of this “love it or hate it” spirit has ventured in to a pleasant gray area, with the juniper lines blurred just enough to make a cocktail appealing. With New Western and artisanal brands driving growth and consumers’ gin horizons expanding, consumption both on-premise and at retail is gaining momentum. And as the old saying goes, “It’s not always about the destination, but the journey too.”


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