As someone who’s in the business of contract distilling, Charles Maxwell, founder of Thames Distillers, is more than aware of how much the gin sector has grown in recent years…and he believes that the sector may finally be starting to peak.
‘If we don’t get an enquiry for the creation of a new gin every day, it’s a quiet day,’ he explains to Imbibe in the office of his Clapham-based distillery. ‘I can’t see it going on at this level, it can’t do it, really. I think we’re beginning to see the crest of the wave because some of the enquiries now are very distinct, what I call gimmick.
‘They want a gin that changes colour. They want a gin that’s got gold leaf in it. This is people thinking, “I’ve got to get in on this because it’s growing”. Of course it has, it’s grown hugely. It’s not just national, it’s international. I do see – perhaps not with a huge enthusiasm – the gimmick gins are going to become a presence in the next few years. They will soar to the sky and then they’ll drop back.’
Maxwell has worked in the drinks industry for over 40 years, founding Thames Distillers in 1996, and has since created over 130 gin recipes for clients, including 86 Co’s Fords Gin, Portobello Road gin and Chapel Down’s spirits.
Despite the gimmicky requests coming in, he does believe that there is still potential for the gin sector, pointing at emerging markets such as China, Mexico and South America. ‘People say to me, “There are so many gin brands”. I say, there are still fewer gin brands on the market than there are vodka brands.’
Customers are becoming increasingly educated when it comes to gin, Maxwell believes. ‘These days we get asked where does this spirit come from, what’s the spirit made from, and certainly people are getting more and more interested in botanicals. That’s going to become an increasing part of it.’
Despite the gimmicky requests, does he think that this is the golden age of gin? ‘Going back to the early part of the 18th century, yes there was huge volume [for gin], but I’m not certain it was the golden age of gin. Gin was the cheapest way to get drunk, it was cheaper than beer in those days. It was golden in some respect but not really in other ways.
‘In the early part of the 19th century gin had a bit of a golden age, it was a cocktail market. But in some respect, I do think now is the golden age because a, it’s more international, and b, while the quality of what’s in the bottle is an essential part, the packaging is also absolutely vital. So, yes, I think this is probably the golden age to date.’
In the blood
Being the latest in a long line of ancestors distilling gin in London – his eighth great-grandfather was apprenticed to the industry in the late 17th century – Maxwell has been immersed in the drinks industry from a very young age… although it’s surprising considering his first experience at a distillery.
‘My first memory of gin, I was about eight or nine, and I was taken up to the distillery [Finsbury Distillery Company, his family’s old company] by my father,’ he recalls. ‘At the end of [the distillery tour]the distillery director said, ”You’re the son of a distiller, boy. You should have a glass of feints to understand what gin is all about.” I was given this glass of feints.
‘I’m quite sure my father had set this up. He didn’t want me in the gin at home. I’ll tell you what, I think I was 21 before I even went near a bottle of gin again.’
Thank goodness he decided to return to the spirit after all.