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Have strange botanicals taken gin too far?

Are gin producers risking distorting the perception customers have of the spirit by adding more and more extravagant botanicals? Becky Paskin investigates

Gin-botanicals
A tray of botanicals is loaded into a still to create Ferdinand’s Saar Dry Gin, but is the addition of German Riesling a step too far?

“The strangest botanical I’ve seen listed on a bottle of gin is the ‘half smiles of a cat’. I can’t for a second believe there is actual cat in there, but it’s an example of brands trying to be so different, they’re often pale.”

So says Desmond Payne, master distiller at Beefeater. Cat gin may be a step too far for him, but the lengths gin producers are going to to ensure their product stands out from the crowd is escalating. “The rise in the amount of different flavours available is because we’re in a gin craze right now,” explains Payne. “It’s an attractive route into what’s a pretty crowded market.”

At the last count there were some 150 gins on the market, with everything from traditional London dry styles, to gins made using unfiltered Icelandic water and exotic botanicals, such as coconut, eucalyptus, baobab, pomegranate and arbequina olives. German brand Saars even blends Riesling with its gin in a cross-category hybrid.

Spain’s extravagant gin and tonic culture is the first place to point the blame. “The Spanish consumer doesn’t generally go for cocktails but longer mixed drinks, so gin and tonics have become more sophisticated, creating demand,” explains Ellie Baker, creator and founder at Ish Gin and owner of Bristol Bar in Madrid. “It was a category that hadn’t previously been exploited.”

A subjective definition

While the gin boom in Spain exploded around three years ago, markets including the US, Western Europe and Australia are only now beginning to see an influx of new brand launches on home soil, each flaunting a unique flavour or style. These new additions to the gin market helped boost global volumes up 1.7% in 2012 to 62.3 million cases, according to Euromonitor, but while the longevity of these extravagantly flavoured gins is in doubt, their long-term effect on the market is still debatable.

According to EU and US legislation, gin, distilled gin and London dry gin must be “predominantly juniper tasting”, but if taste is the only means of measuring juniper content, it is completely subjective. “It is extremely difficult to measure a gin’s juniper level,” Payne explains. “The trouble is a lot of brands are secretive over their ingredients and I don’t think anybody’s disclosed the quantity of each, even if they do say what’s in it. You can measure oil content, but once it’s distilled, it’s quite hard to do.”

Without a definitive way to test a gin’s juniper content, and with so many feisty-flavoured botanicals now in use, how far is too far when it comes to adding untraditional flavours and botanicals to gin? For most, it’s simply a question of balance and moderation.

“There’s no limit to what distillers can choose to incorporate, but too far is when juniper is no longer the predominant flavour,” says Martin Dawson, co-founder of Broker’s Gin, while Payne adds: “As long as there’s juniper there, which makes it gin, the thing that really matters is the balance. If the flavours work together and they’re balanced, you can use any botanical, so long as it’s decent, honest and legal.”

 

Juniper-Berries disease
According to regulations, juniper should be the dominant flavour, but its measurement is totally subjective

Juniper dominance

Cat gin may be back on the table, but how much demand is there for unusual flavours? The vast majority of flavoured gin sales are confined to the on-trade, where creative bartenders are keen to experiment with new products. Last year, Diageo reintroduced its citrus-forward, spiced Tanqueray Malacca as a 16,000-case on-trade exclusive, following high demand from bartenders.

It hadn’t been available since 2001, but Diageo spotted an opportunity to use a super-premium, spiced expression to regenerate interest in the core brand. The expression was welcomed by the on-trade, although gin critics berated the absence of juniper on the palate. The trade is undoubtedly aware that gin must be juniper-forward, but consumers are not so savvy.

Supermarket shelves and online shopping sites are now teeming with various products calling themselves gin, but with juniper as a background flavour or – in some extreme cases – with a hefty dose of sugar added. While die-hard gin defenders will argue that these products are not technically gin, does the average Joe really care, and if it tastes good, does it really matter?

“Whilst juniper defines a gin, there is huge variety within the category with some gins relying upon a heavy juniper flavour more than others,” explains Frazer McGlinchey, Caorunn Gin brand consultant. “Provenance, tradition and palate are most important for the discerning consumer.”

Some may argue that flavoured gins are attracting attention to the overall gin category, which can only be a benefit, although John Jeffrey, managing director of Provenance Marketing that looks after Edgerton Gin, disagrees: “Consumers don’t understand a gin must be juniper-forward, and the industry isn’t strict enough about it. We should tighten the definition a bit and make sure the labelling is clear; you don’t want to deceive people and pretend they are getting something they’re not.”

Are tighter regulations the answer?

It took the Gin and Vodka Association 10 years to define gin in EU legislation so updating the rules now will not be a quick or easy feat, but the notion does have support in the wider industry. “I would support the protection of juniper levels in gin,” says James Hayman, at Hayman Distillers. “The Scotch Whisky Association carefully monitors how Scotch whisky is made, and the CRT in Mexico looks after Tequila; it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have something like that for gin.”

The danger of complacency is that if flavoured gin continues to grow as an unregulated sub-category, consumers’ perception of gin may become distorted.

“Spirits with a predominant taste of botanicals other than juniper should not be called gin,” states Jon Hillgren, master distiller for Sweden’s Hernö Gin. “It blurs the consumer’s definition of the spirit. EU regulations define flavoured vodka as a category, but there’s no similarity for flavoured gin, except for sloe gin.”

The trend for incorporating untraditional botanicals and flavours into gin has even inspired tonic water producers to do the same. Since launching in 2005 with its Indian Tonic Water, Fever Tree now has five tonics in its range, including Mediterranean, Elderflower and Bitter Lemon (also known as Lemon Tonic in the off-trade). “If gins were challenging the accepted definition of the spirit with the addition of saffron, lemongrass and tea, then why couldn’t we do the same with tonic water?” asks Luke Benson, UK on-trade marketing manager for Fever Tree.

While flavoured gins account for a minute part of the overall gin category, there are likely to be more exotic, headline-grabbing flavoured gins to come, each more extravagant than the last. But if these products aren’t labelled properly, they could damage the overall category.

Payne believes the short-term solution is a question of education that the whole industry must play a part in. “A lot of people are questioning flavoured gins now, which is good because it’s opened up the topic and might result in more defined guidelines or a legal definition,” he says. “People know Drambuie is a liqueur and not a Scotch whisky, in the same way they know cherry brandy is a liqueur and expect it to be sweet. But the gin industry needs to catch up. People shouldn’t be ripped off.”

Gin, as defined by the EU

Juniper-berries-gin

Juniper-flavoured spirit drink: Ethyl alcohol flavoured with juniper berries and other ingredients. Juniper does not have to be the predominant flavour, merely “discernible”. Must have a minimum 30% abv.

Gin: Ethyl alcohol flavoured with juniper berries and other ingredients, although the overall flavour must be “predominantly of juniper”. Must have a minimum strength of 37.5% abv.

Distilled gin: Ethyl alcohol of a minimum initial strength of 96% abv is distilled in the presence of juniper berries and other botanicals, although the juniper flavour must be predominant. This style of gin may include flavourings added after distillation, and must have a minimum alcoholic strength of 37.5% abv

London (dry) gin: Ethyl alcohol that is distilled in the presence of all natural plant materials, including juniper. The resultant distillate must have a minimum 70% abv. No other ingredients except water – and sweetener not exceeding 0.1 gram of sugars per litre of the final product – may be added, and the final product must be a minimum of 37.5% abv.

Sloe gin: A liqueur produced through the maceration of sloes in gin, with the possible addition of sloe juice. It must have a minimum abv of 25%

Spirit drink: Any other product not meeting the requirements of the above definitions, or any other definition laid out in EU regulations, must bear in their description, presentation and labelling the sales denomination “spirit drink”. If, however, they derive their base spirit from one of the above, a compound term may be used e.g. “orange gin”, so long as the alcoholic content is greater than the minimum specified. The compound term describing an alcoholic beverage must appear in uniform characters of the same font, size and colour, without interruption from an image or other unassociated text.

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