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Can Spain’s gin & tonic ritual be imitated elsewhere?

The Spanish might be gulping down gin by the bucketload, but is the gin and tonic phenomenon in this troubled country likely to take hold elsewhere? Becky Paskin reports.

Gin and tonic Spain style
Cocktail or salad? The gin and tonic as interpreted by bartender Andrew Nichols for Gin Mare

To say the Spanish love their gin is an understatement. Despite enduring a seemingly endless recession, the Spanish have ensured their country is the second largest gin market in the world. The reason for its success? The lavish gin and tonic topped with plenty of garnish.

Brands seeking to mimic success in Spain would do well to replicate the gin and tonic trend in other markets around the world, right? Not necessarily. Have you ever fancied a huge refreshing goblet of freezer cold gin topped with tonic and bucket-loads of ice on a November evening in Prague, New York or even gin’s home city of London? Shiver at the thought.

The refreshing nature of G&T works in the year-round warmth of Spain. It’s so popular that every premium and super premium gin out there is promoting its own drink ritual with extravagant garnishes that work in harmony with the botanicals in the gin, such as juniper berries, fresh coriander, ginger and cucumber (in the case of Hendrick’s).

Retired ritual?

Bartenders have been central to the development of the simple gin and tonic as a cocktail in its own right in Spain. The trend has remained strong for over five years, and while some other markets have done well to replicate the G&T ritual during their summer months, Paco Receuro, global brand director for gin at Chivas Brothers, believes all good things must come to an end eventually.

“We feel this trend of putting a lot of garnish in your glass has probably finished,” he says. “Consumers, and some bartenders, are getting carried away and putting a load of different garnishes into the glass, so the whole thing becomes a kind of salad and the flavour of the gin gets lost. We shouldn’t promote this serve as they are damaging the quality of the product. The trend moving forward will be for bartenders to concentrate on portraying the quality of the gin itself.”

Chivas may be shying away from pushing the Spanish G&T ritual for its Beefeater and Plymouth gins, but Bombay Sapphire is one brand keen to continue attempting to replicate it in other markets, with the roll-out of its bulb glass last summer, and the introduction of an educational programme in the UK this year.

Juan Carlos Maroto, marketing manager for Mediterranean brand Gin Mare, disagrees with Receuro, claiming the G&T phenomenon is only just beginning.

Gin and tonic serve
Beefeater’s Receuro champions the simple serve when it comes to G&T

Just the tonic

“It’s early days yet, but Spain has created a lot of buzz around the ritual,” Maroto argues. “It’s starting to take off in some markets such as the UK, Germany, Australia, Portugal, Italy and even the US. It’s not only very attractive to consumers, but also to the trade in terms of profit, because they can charge a similar price to a cocktail while creating a huge experience for the consumer through a variety of different gins, premium tonic waters and garnishes depending on their choice.”

Premium tonic water Fever Tree, which first entered the Spanish market via the three-Michelin-starred restaurant El Bulli, also believes the ritual is transferable abroad.

“There is a possibility of replicating the Spanish ritual in the UK,” says marketing manager Saskia Stoop. “No new skills are needed, just a classic made with care and a bit of theatre.”

While sales of gin in Spain are booming – despite the economic climate – the market plays second fiddle to the almighty US, where gin is drunk in an altogether different way. The resurgence of classic Prohibition-style cocktails has brought with it an interest in traditional (juniper-led) gin, albeit of a much higher quality than that produced in the bathtubs of old.

An over-saturated category?

“The cocktail capitals of London and New York are still the most exciting markets for super premium gin, followed by other innovative cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles and Edinburgh,” says Ibolya Bakos-Tonner, brand manager for Inter Bev-owned Caorunn, whose sales in the States grew 174% in 2012 compared to 2011.

However, Bakos-Tonner also sees potential in the US and UK off-trade, and in travel retail, where Caorunn is launching a one litre bottle format in British airports in the spring. “The on-trade is still our leading channel, but consumption is slowly skewing from out-of-home towards in-home. We are currently revising our strategy based on the current market dynamics,” she adds.

Sales in gin’s three leading markets of the US, Spain and the UK are steadily growing, although the global market for gin has seen little uplift as a whole, achieving a 9.1% increase in value between 2006 and 2011 (Source: Euromonitor). During that time, however, the category saw a 14.8% increase in volume, signalling a rise in the number of brands now on the market.

“There are a thousand new premium brands every year,” claims Receuro. “The category is over-saturated, and over the next three years only the strongest brands will survive.”

Caorunn gin
Caorunn Gin’s new one-litre bottle will launch in UK travel retail this spring

The craft gin puzzle

Receuro’s prediction is mirrored by forecast data from Euromonitor, which shows flat growth in terms of value (0.1%) and volume (1.6%) for the next five years. Those figures are expected to be driven by sales in the US, Western Europe and travel retail (think giant croquet installations and barbers’ chairs from Hendrick’s), although interest in gin is already starting to grow in areas like Australia, Scandinavia, Taiwan and Japan – where westernised bartending practices are popular. The uptake in the rest of Asia, much like other white spirits categories, remains slow.

James Hayman, sales and marketing director of Hayman’s Gin, believes the US market in particular has already become so oversaturated with new gin launches that attention is waning.

“The appetite for new gins in America is going,” he says. “There have been so many gin launches that there’s no more excitement. That’s the biggest danger facing the category: people will get bored. The category hasn’t grown that much to ensure every gin will survive.”

One reason for such a sudden influx of new products on the market is the trend for craft distilling in the US and UK in particular. Bartenders seeking history and provenance in a product have been falling over themselves to try the latest releases, but with so many craft gins now available, it’s become a case of survival of the fittest.

“The craft distilling movement of the 1800s has come back with education and quality at the absolute heart of it,” explains Sam Galsworthy, founder of London distillery – Sipsmith, which is now exporting its gin to 20 global markets. “It’s a challenging exercise to get all the pieces of the puzzle right in terms of quality, but those who have thought hard about how they will make it in the long term will survive. Consumers have a lot of products to choose from these days, and you need a credible point of difference.”

Innovation game

It’s that point of difference, and ability to produce liquid on a small scale, that has seen so much innovation in the gin category come from the craft movement.

Sacred Gin uses a unique vacuum glass still, while the newly operational London Distilling Company powers its still with steam.

Product-wise, the most notable innovation of the past year is undoubtedly a collaboration between online retailer and small-scale distiller Master of Malt, and London bar Worship Street Whistling Shop, whose Cream Gin features real cream distilled alongside a bespoke gin.

Expect to see further innovations from craft distillers in 2013 too, such as barrel-aged gins, higher-strength releases, more “small batch” editions and – whisper it – flavoured gin.

“Innovation will continue to come from the craft industry; the big guys are making quality stuff but they are not good at innovation because of their sheer scale,” argues Galsworthy. “But there’s a fine line between being innovative and being a performing monkey. If you constantly bring out new products you get consumer fatigue and interest wanes.”

That said, a handful of the “big guys” are finding ways to innovate by releasing limited editions. Beefeater’s Summer Edition – flavoured with elderflower, blackcurrant and hibiscus – and Winter Edition – flavoured with cinnamon, nutmeg and pine – were a big hit for the Kennington-based distillery during their 2010 launch, while Diageo’s spiced gin Tanqueray Malacca is making a limited comeback this spring thanks to “strong bartender demand”.

Obviously craft releases will add little directly to the category’s static volume figures over the next few years, but their presence will undoubtedly add value to consumers’ perception of gin in the future. At the very least, the mission of craft distilleries to constantly innovate while delivering quality and passion in small batches, will certainly keep the “big guys” on their toes for some time.

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