With a seemingly endless stream of gin flooding UK shops and bars the fight to standout has given way to an escalating war on botanicals, flavours and marketing stories. But has gin completely lost the plot?
The thing about gin – a crucial don’t-forget-this fact – is that it’s meant to taste of juniper berries. You can argue for or against ageing it, sweetening it, having two botanicals or 47 or charging £10 a bottle or £10 per 25ml serve. But it still has to taste of juniper.
Gin does have legal definitions, both here in the EU and in the States, which are intended to protect the category and stop any old bottle of booze calling itself gin.
There are rules on permitted alcohols and the addition or not of water. But without getting bogged down in the details, the key point is that, both over here and in the US the spirit has to derive its main flavour from juniper.
Candy-cotton pink gin
So much for the theory.
We’ve somehow landed in a dystopian future of candy-cotton pink bottles of jasmine, rose, peach and strawberry ‘gins’. There is lurid yellow pineapple, bright green apple, parma violet, scarlet rhubarb and azure blueberry.
There’s a multitude of gin liqueurs that smack of raspberry, ginger and elderflower.
Any flavour, in fact, except for juniper.
And not only are they emphatically not gin, despite what’s on the label. Way too many of them are shockingly poor.
At a tasting at Imbibe HQ, our editor Chris Losh described one particularly noxious creation as ‘probably the worst thing I’ve tasted in 11 years editing Imbibe.’ Let’s just say that the competition for that particular unwanted crown is pretty intense…
If your idea of a gin drink is a finely crafted Martini, you might be unaware of just how much total dross is out there. So were we until we called in a random selection of these flavoured versions for what became a Flight of Misery.
Dear readers, things are really bad out there.
Is it just flavoured vodka?
The flagrant misuse of the word gin is easy to understand. Gin is popular. Gin sells. It’s a bandwagon to hitch a brand to. Flavoured vodka doesn’t quite have the same marketing ring to it.
‘Gin is on trend at the moment and people want to be part of the category,’ says James Hayman, fifth-generation owner of Hayman’s Gin. ‘It’s a competitive market where brands want their own unique twist on gin and that is pushing people away from what gin falls under.’
I’m not against innovation, but some of them are not gins – the juniper is not there
In April this year, Hayman and his company launched their Call Time On Fake Gin campaign.
‘Recently we have started to see some producers marketing gins that have little or no evident connection to juniper,’ Hayman’s wrote on its campaign website.
Now a debate has been scheduled for 6 September to discuss the rise of gins with only trace notes of juniper – or none at all – entitled ‘what is gin – and how can we protect it?’
‘Gin has gone through a huge change, which we are very pleased to see, gin is a wonderful spirit and I still think you can make gin the right way. You can have less traditional flavours. I think it’s absolutely right that new distillers can be more creative. I know a lot of distillers will use something local to their distillery but it comes down to the skill to blend those flavours in with the juniper,’ says Hayman.
WALK OF SHAME
We don’t normally call out bad products on Imbibe. But some of our flavoured gins/gin liqueurs were so bad that we feel we owe you a duty of care.
Here are the three worst offenders from our ad hoc tasting last week. If you see them, don’t approach. Just call the police.
Stanley’s Rose, Peach and Raspberry Gin
Made by Barcelona Spirits our tasters felt this bright red concoction tasted, variously, of shampoo, bubble bath and ‘cheap perfume for young girls’. Syrupy, sickly, and as unbalanced as a Donald Trump tweet.
J.J Whitley’s Violet Gin
Things violet belongs in: food flavourings, parma violets. Er, flowers. Things violet does not belong in: gin. This was like being attacked and left for dead by a blue-rinsed octogenarian. Palates were suffocated by cloying clouds of granny scent, then abandoned with a pointlessly empty finish. While we like a lot of J.J Whitley's other gins, this was not one of them.
Greenall's Green Apple & Hibiscus Gin Liqueur
Greenall’s Blood Orange, Fig & Ginger Gin Liqueur was at the more drinkable end of our tasting. But its apple and hibiscus sibling was a shocker. A ‘stay away’ nuclear green colour, it tasted almost unbearably artificial. Like crushing apple sours sweets into vodka. Balance, class and juniper all conspicuous by their absence.
And how to do it well... Beefeater Pink Gin
Made using the original Beefeater London Dry Gin recipe, the strawberry flavour for this is added post-distillation meaning beneath the initial smack of fruit there is a noticeable juniper flavour. Perhaps not for every die-hard gin lover but certainly one which manages to balance a bold, sweeter flavour with the traditional gin notes.
He also makes the excellent point that the campaign is not against flavoured gins. ‘Gin is a flavoured spirit. Flavoured gin has been around for ages, new ones come out, and are done really well. They help drive gin forward and there’s no debate about that,’ he says.
One brand that has always gone flavour beyond the usual citrus peel and juniper with panache each year is Portobello Road Gin. Their Director’s Cut is a series of gins the brand makes, one a year, using botanicals harvested by a company director. The initial asparagus release was made as a London Dry. This year’s - the Directors Cut No.03 Pechuga Gin – will not be as it involved some processes outside of the legal remit.
Created by Jake Burger, it takes the Mexican tradition of redistilling fruits, grains and spices into the spirit, in this case a finished batch of Portobello Road Gin, and suspending a turkey breast in the still, which is slowly cooked by the vapours and is said to add subtle flavours to the spirit. The new product will still taste predominately of Juniper, says Burger, one of Portobello Road Gin’s company directors.
‘Whatever we do we always want them to be noticeably juniper predominant,’ says Burger. ‘I’m not against sugar-driven gin per se - it was a sweeter product a lot longer than a dry product. Technology was such back then that gin needed sugar, so sweet gin is not an innovation or a terrible thing. Likewise people introducing strawberry or rhubarb, which are not traditionally in gin, I’ve no problem with. I’m not against innovation – you can’t resist market forces, and clearly there is a market for these things.
‘Some of them, however, I would say are not gins, the juniper is not just ‘not forward’, it’s not there. They’re fruit liqueurs or fruit vodkas – and I think they work for the type of consumer who wants the coolness of the gin category but who don’t like the flavour of gin,’ he concludes.
The problem with this, of course, is the confused messaging for the consumer who goes to buy their first bottle of gin and ends up with something that tastes of apple and hibiscus.
‘Perhaps we need to create another category,’ muses Burger, ‘a fruit-forward, sugar-loaded category. We used to call them cordial gins but no one uses that term anymore. If we did relook at gin regulations, and find a way to include these new styles we’d have to make it clear they are something very different to usual gins.’
Explain don’t shame…
Despite launching Call Time On Fake Gin, Hayman’s is reluctant to call out offenders. Rather, they are seeking a proper explanation of what is and is not permitted.
‘One thing we’ve seen since the launch of campaign is a lot of people getting in touch hoping to find that clarity,’ says Hayman. ‘It’s not a lost cause. There’s lots of ideas being thrown around.’
Certainly, should the regulations be tightened up, a lot of ‘gin’ brands could find themselves excluded from the category.
‘For me I wonder about the longevity of it,’ said Burger, ‘for a while there American whiskey went through a flavoured spell where brands created apple or cinnamon varieties and it dipped away. It tainted some brand’s heritage for a passing trend.’
Either way, at the moment, someone somewhere is approving the labels on these products. The question is whether they should be.