With the recent wave of lo- and no-abv ‘gins’, Neil Ridley wonders if the crystal-clear roots of the gin category are in danger of becoming a murky and confusing place for its true lovers
As heated Facebook debates go, I suppose this one was relatively tame. It involved a ‘lower calorie’ spirit, Ocean Storm Gin, which the makers describe as giving ‘consumers the choice of drinking better without compromising on flavour’.
Perusing the 40-odd, shall we say, ‘exchanges of opinion’, underneath the post, mostly between the brand owner and some of gin’s most noted writers, technical authorities and expert category commentators, all was not as it seemed.
As it turns out, the ‘gin’ in question was not legally a gin as we know it – despite masquerading under a waft of aromatic, botanical hyperbole. According to EU regulation 2019/787, effectively page one in the Dummies Handbook Of How-To-Make-Gin, ‘the minimum alcoholic strength by volume of gin shall be 37.5%’.
At 29% abv, this ‘gin’ falls way short of the mark, and, in my opinion, has unscrupulously intended to get around the regulations by writing ‘artisanal botanical spirit drink’ in a tiny font-size at the bottom of the label.
All said and done, the gin community is not impressed… and rightly so. However, this isn’t the first time the integrity of the category has been tested by those looking to make a fast buck, and it certainly won’t be the last if the current regulatory framework doesn’t all push forward in the same direction to stop offenders dead in their tracks.
There’s a huge opportunity for well-meaning, clearly labelled botanically-flavoured products
According to market insight and analysis company the IWSR, no- and low-abv brands account for 1.3% of the UK’s total beverage alcohol market, but given the trend towards more mindful drinking and a reaction to lockdown excesses, the category is growing swiftly and there are more brands than ever looking to tap into the existing thirst for gin, by offering lower-abv alternatives.
In fact, try Googling ‘non-alcoholic gin’. You may find the results frustrating: names such as Ginish, GinSin, Gin-Esque, Clean Gin, Gin Zero and Not Gin all appear. Hell, even Tesco has a gloriously inaccurate ‘Low & No Alcohol Gin’ section listed on its website.
It’s not the existence of these spirits that bothers me so much. As the stats suggest, there’s a huge opportunity out there for well-meaning, clearly labelled botanically-flavoured products, aimed at those not wanting to partake in drinking alcohol.
No, it’s their flagrant disregard for the actual gin category and blatant short-term bandwagoning that irks me greatly. They also make a total mockery of the genuinely great brand owners who have bothered to read and fully understand the regulations, so that their own innovations in this new no/low category can actually come from a point of conviction and authority: those such as Portobello Road’s recentlreleased Temperance, (a low-abv botanical spirit at 4.2% abv) and Hayman’s Small Gin – a superconcentrated gin, where only 5ml is needed for a full-flavoured drink, meaning it sits at one-fifth of the alcohol content of a regular gin and tonic.
Fortunately, the wheels are in motion to tighten up the regulations, remove the loopholes and make life difficult for those who want to play by their own set of rules. The Gin Guild’s constant pressure on both UK Trading Standards and the Office of Product Safety and Standards – as well as the government directly – has led to greater powers safeguarding the existing gin category. This, I believe, will ultimately help to carve out a clearer, less confusing and fairer approach to building the reputation of no/low drinks, too. I’ll certainly drink to that.
Neil Ridley is a writer, presenter and commentator on spirits and cocktails, and is one half of World’s Best Spirits with Joel Harrison. Their latest book is The World Atlas of Gin.
This article was first published in the autumn 2020 issue of Imbibe.