Twenty years ago, gin was the tumbleweed drinks category. Producers weren’t investing in it and hardly anyone was drinking it. It was about as fashionable as a velour tracksuit.
It’s hard to pin down exactly when things started to change, but the launch of Hendricks and Tanqueray No 10 within a year of each other around the millennium feels like a gear-shift moment. It’s probably right, too, to mention Fever-Tree, which upped the ante on the classic G&T when it started in 2004.
‘Twenty years ago, people thought gin was never going to recover. It was in a pretty dire position,’ says James Hayman of Hayman’s Gin. ‘What’s happened has caught people by surprise. No one anticipated how many distilleries would have opened up in the last 10 years.’
This, by any standard, is a good thing. There’s more energy, excitement and buzz around the category than there’s ever been. Thus far, it’s been the spirit of the 21st century. So far, so ‘everyone’s a winner’.
But a growing number of people are concerned that that success could be coming at a price. As St Mark kind of said after sampling a loaves-and-fishes-flavoured gin in a bar in Galilee, 'What shall it profit a drink if it gain the whole world but lose its soul?'
Line extending to death
The trouble is that as more and more gins have entered the market, so the quest for USPs has become ever more left-field. There’s no shortage now of products that don’t taste – or even look – like what purists would consider gin should look or taste like.
We ran a stack of them under the microscope over the summer – and, with a few exceptions, a thoroughly dispiriting bunch they were, too.
But that’s not even the worst of it. There are gin-and-tonic-flavoured crisps, gin-and-tonic bath products and even gin-and-tonic sausages. Every week, it seems, there’s a new candidate for Emma Stokes (aka @GinMonkeyUK) to rail against with her #stopfuckingwithgin hashtag.
When a product that used to be clear and juniper-dominant becomes something that can be bright yellow/fruit-flavoured/fried up for breakfast, then it’s clear that something needs to be done.
Or does it?
After all, free-marketeers would argue that these developments are simply the inevitable result of a category that’s massively in fashion and is attracting disproportionate amounts of creative energy as a result.
What seems to be the problem?
Shortly after our palate-battering coloured gin tasting, Hayman’s Gin held a conference for industry movers and shakers – writers, producers, bloggers and bartenders.
They wanted to discuss where the category was going, what the ramifications might be, and if there were problems, what could be done to address them.
Let’s deal with the easiest issue first. In the last issue of Imbibe, we featured two zero-alcohol products called respectively Not Gin and Alt-Gin. They tap very much into two things that twenty-somethings like: drinking gin and (paradoxically) not drinking alcohol. As such, they’ll probably sell very well.
But the question is whether they should be made at all. Or, more accurately, whether they should be allowed to use the word ‘gin’ on the label – even if the producers are disingenuously doing so in a ‘this isn’t gin’ context.
The Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) is taking a close look at these products and may decide that they’re guilty of ‘passing off’. Other members of the gin community who Imbibe spoke to for this article, however, were unequivocal: the word ‘gin’ should be nowhere near them.
‘Gin has to be a minimum of 37.5% abv. If it’s less than that you can’t call it gin,’ said James Hayman.
Geraldine Coates, journalist and long-time gin guru, described the launches as ‘cynical’. So much for the zero-abv stuff, but what about gin proper, which, after all, is what most of us are interested in?
Here things get murky. The last decade has seen hundreds of new bottles appear on the scene to the extent that it now seems that a small town is more likely to have a local gin distillery than it is a post office.
And not everyone is playing by the same rules – or, perhaps, is even aware what the rules might be.
London Dry might have its production methods carefully delineated – botanicals all distilled together, no sugar or colour added. However, the final part of the definition – that it must be ‘juniper dominant’ – is subjective and, in the absence of official tasting panels to police it, so open to interpretation as to be all-but meaningless.
In a category lacking unambiguous definitions, producers are stretching the boundaries of what gin might be, throwing all manner of weird and wonderful botanicals into the mix, from foraged local plants to berries flown in from the Far East. Even if juniper is part of the recipe, it’s often barely noticeable.
These products may not be in direct contravention of any category regulations, but do they flout the essence of what gin ought to be about? Do they, in other words, adhere broadly to the letter of the law, but (intentionally or otherwise) miss its spirit?
Classicists say ‘yes’. Though even a staunch defender of gin’s soul like Emma '@GinMonkeyUK' Stokes accepts that it’s a complex issue.
‘With the arrival of products like Hendricks and Gin Mare, I’m not sure whether the new drinking community places as much kudos on London Dry as it used to,’ she muses. ‘It’s just the way that gin’s evolved.’
But for her many of these products are performing something of a confidence trick. By calling themselves gin, but not actually tasting of gin, they allow consumers who don’t really like classical juniper-led products to buy into the dream and order something cool.
Some of these products are very good but I’d just question whether they should be labelled as gin
The trouble is that, even if the products themselves are good taken in isolation, their very existence comes at a cost to the integrity of what has classically been understood as ‘gin’.
‘If juniper becomes less and less evident, eventually gin will just become a flavoured spirit, which it isn’t,’ says Stokes. ‘Some of these products are very good, but I’d just question whether they should be labelled as gin.’
Traditionalists, in other words, argue that the wider the spectrum of flavours in the gin category, the more diluted and under threat becomes the essence of what gin has always been about.
Gin guru Geraldine Coates, for one, believes that the time may have come for producers to submit bottles to a tasting panel, with classical juniper-dominant brands awarded some kind of kite mark, equivalent to the red tractor symbol on food produce. It’s not unlike the ‘typicity’ tastings that appellation wines need to go through in Europe.
Such a tasting would need to be overseen by an independent, industry-wide body such as the WSTA, but the subjective nature of a flavour-based definition means that they have misgivings.
Who, for instance, would make up the tasting panel to arbitrate on the ‘juniperiness’ or otherwise of submitted products? Would decisions need to be unanimous or would a simple majority be sufficient?
Coates, however, is more sanguine. ‘There’s enough people in the industry to be able to say “no it doesn’t taste of juniper”,’ she says impatiently. ‘I think a trade tasting panel would be a very good idea. It would stop people stretching the boundaries to the point where they are meaningless.’
Waiter, there's a strawberry in my gin
This ‘meaninglessness’ is probably at its most obvious in flavoured gins. There’s been an explosion of these over the last few years, from rhubarb and chocolate to strawberry and clotted cream with all colours and flavours in between. There’s no flavour, it seems, that can’t be stuck in a bottle and labelled ‘gin’.
Purists, understandably, are horrified at some of the more camp concoctions traducing their beloved category. But the WSTA seems confident that here, at least, it will be able to find a way of defining this fruit-nami of new products in a way that differentiates them from ‘proper gin’.
The trouble is that, for those reared on Gordons, Tanqueray et al, creating a ‘flavoured gin’ category misses the point.
‘All categories evolve, and evolution is a good thing,’ says Emma Stokes. ‘But there is a whole other category you can use to label your [flavoured] product – it’s called vodka. It’s not like there’s no other alternative. People are sticking gin on the label because it’s selling.’
And that, in a sense, is the heart of the matter. Gin’s failure down the years to create an unambiguous category classification, plus its inability to police the less-than-rigorous definition that it does have, have left it vulnerable.
For most of the last 100 years, it hasn’t mattered, because the drink hasn’t been especially fashionable. But the whiff of money has attracted a lot of newcomers to the game, not all of whom are respectful of the category’s heritage. For every Portobello Road or Manchester Gin, there’s a ‘gin’ flavoured with bubblegum or lemon drizzle cake.
And once the glitz wears off and the consumers move on to a different drink category, there are those who worry that what is left will be irreparably damaged in the eyes of the next generation.
‘We’ve got to think longer term,’ says James Hayman. ‘Gin will calm down at some point. It would be a real shame if it returned to what it was 20 years ago because [stylistically] it got pushed too far. We want to protect the integrity of it, the identity of it.’
Certainly, it would be a tragedy if the clamour and excitement of the last decade were replaced by the sound of tumbleweed rubbing on velour once again.