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Distillers debate relevance of ‘craft’ in gin

The unsolved definition of ‘craft’ is affecting all categories, but arguably none more so than gin. We ask, where will the term go from here?

Nowhere is the on-going “craft debate” in spirits more prevalent than in the gin category

*This feature was initially published in the July 2015 issue of The Spirits Business magazine

“Craft” has been the undisputed buzzword of the spirits industry over the last year, but somewhere along the way the term has turned into somewhat of a contentious connotation. Even its sister labels of “artisanal”, “small-batch” and “handcrafted” have found themselves in the firing line for criticism, and brands are being called out left, right and centre for “misleading” consumers with alleged marketing trickery.

From one producer to the next, the interpretation of the word “craft” varies vastly, and with no legal clarification it’s difficult to determine a craft brand from a crafty marketer. Gin is no exception to the conundrum; new start-up distillers and established players alike are all vying for their right to sit under the “craft” umbrella.

“Craft distilling should not just mean small batch,” insists Alex Nicol, managing director of The Spencerfield Spirit Company. “It means so many things to different people, but it’s not something that can be defined by numbers – it’s not the difference between making 60,000 litres or 6,000. Craft is about quality of distillation and innovation. The big distillers simply don’t have the time to innovate on the scale we do, and so I find it difficult to accept them as craft gins.”

Diageo is one such company that has no qualms about describing its brands as craft. Charlie Downing, head of gin for drinks giant Diageo, confidently credits Tanqueray and Gordon’s as being craft gins. He explains how Tom Nichol, retired master distiller of Tanqueray, refused around 90% of juniper berries delivered to the distillery in Scotland because they were not of good enough quality.

Craft ‘applies to Diageo’

“I kind of reject the notion craft needs to be small because every single batch that’s produced of our brands is what I would consider as crafted,” he asserts. “Craft means a sense of care; real care in your liquid and packaging. Care in how you execute in store and in how the world sees you. I think craft absolutely applies to Diageo’s gin brands.”

There does seem to be an implication from some distilleries shouting about their small scale, hands-on, craft distillation methods that producing smaller batches of gin means better quality. Whether there is any truth in the matter, though, remains subjective. As David Wilkinson, head distiller at The Spencerfield Spirit Company, explains, a more hands-on approach to distillation does not directly correlate with a better product – it’s more about being the most practical method for quality control.

“When done on a large scale where output is very high and there are hundreds of previous batches to compare, there is clearly a benefit to using the data to design computer programmes and automate procedures,” he says. “On a small scale each batch is more sensitive to small changes, for example the ambient temperature of the still room in different seasons. Due to this it would be very risky to automate processes and have consistently repeatable results.”

Sizing up production is not as simple as multiplying a small-batch recipe to fit a larger still; some botanicals deliver a stronger flavour when distilled on a large scale and as such, the ingredients needs to be modified to allow for this. In which case, really, when it comes to the end product, size does not matter.

Some distillers believe that capacity is not a clear indicator of a brand’s craft credentials

‘Holistic interpretation’

“Craft is not one size fits all; it’s very much a holistic interpretation of what it is,” stresses Nicholas Cook, founder of The Gin Guild. “There are a few brands who do embellish their story by blatantly lying or alluding that they make their gin when they do not; they do a big disservice to the consumer. It leads to producers coming up with a misleading back story and provenance to make their brand seem more exciting.”

Australian-born Four Pillars Gin is one brand that is proudly presenting itself as a craft brand, hand-made and experimental in making “different, idiosyncratic, fun and delicious” gin-based products. Though co-founder, Stuart Gregor, admits it is not his place to determine what credentials are worthy of the craft title, because ultimately it is the consumer who will have the casting vote. “Consumers, and particularly highly engaged and well-informed consumers who make up the majority of premium gin drinkers, will not be duped,” he advises. “They can smell a fake a mile off, so everything we do just has to be legit. Heritage is something we hope to one day have, but we started making gin in 2013 not 1913 and we have to embrace that, not try to create some fake back story.”

So is the expression “craft” responsible for bolstering gin sales this past year? According to combined off-trade figures from Nielsen and on-trade statistics from CGA Strategy, gin sales totalled £797 million in the UK in 2014, growing 9.6% compared to the previous year. That’s some leap, but hardly proof that the term “craft” is a golden ticket to increased sales. At The Gin Guild’s second annual Ginposium in London last year, Nate Brown, co-manager of The London Bar Consultants and Merchant House, said a consumer has never asked him for a “craft gin”, nor did he know of any on-trade establishment that had received a similar request.

‘Eroded term’

“No one has ever asked for a craft gin when they walk into a bar,” he said. “No one asks for small-batch or artisan. Does it sell gin? No, it does not. Craft is a generic word; it’s an eroded term. Where we exist in bars, craft means nothing.”

But can that really be true? Does craft truly mean nothing to consumers? “Let me put it this way,” suggests Jacob Ehrenkrona, CEO of Martin Miller’s Gin. “Would you look to fly an aeroplane that was craft-made or artisanal? Well, it’s the same with spirits. Nobody can tell the difference between craft or not craft, small batch or big batch – they can only tell the difference in high quality and low quality alcohol.”

With so much variety on the market these days combined with better educated and discerning gin drinkers, brands need to deliver more than a promise of careful craftsmanship. There is a shift occurring that’s bringing focus back to the quality of the liquid in the bottle, although qualities such as heritage and authenticity do still hold some clout. Botanicals are a key factor when swaying consumer choices, but Ehrenkrona considers this to be most relevant for new gin consumers exploring the category for the first time. “At the moment people are going through a lot of trial and error,” he explains. “If someone is a vodka drinker or fresh out of university, then they are intrigued to try weird and wacky botanicals.”

Data shows that Opihr Oriental Spiced Gin is now the world’s fastest growing super-premium gin

Trade-up trend

What’s more, there’s a noticeable trade up to more expensive brands. Quintessential Brands’ Opihr Oriental Spiced Gin is now the world’s fastest growing super-premium gin according to data released by the IWSR, boasting a volume increase of 277% between its launch year 2013 and 2014. Lizzy Johnson, global brand and marketing director at Quintessential Brands, puts Opihr’s success down to a combination of “amazing packaging” and its ability to offer the category something new.

“People can enjoy Opihr with ginger beer or ale, which is a new and unique way of drinking gin,” Johnson enthuses. “Everyone knows the gin category is growing and we have been able to satisfy a new desire in people to be experimental with their drinking choices with this spicier gin. But it also needs to be good quality – if they don’t like it, they won’t buy it again.”

The IWSR figures also showed that Quintessential Brands’ Greenall’s Gin is the world’s fastest-growing “leading” gin – in all gin sub-categories combined – with volumes growing 55% between 2013 and 2014. Johnson attributes the brand’s impressive stats to being affordable and accessible, while maintaining its heritage as a British classic with more than 250 years’ history. “We’ve gone from UK roots to a national phenomenon – it’s incredibly exciting,” she says.

‘Not something you can regulate’

When it comes to the on-trade, bartender recommendations are crucial when influencing consumer choices. “People are very trusting of top mixologists and I think they listen very carefully to what they have to say,” comments JC Iglesias, global brand director for English gins at Pernod Ricard.

With so many contributing factors influencing gin drinkers’ buying habits – from botanicals and heritage to price points and marketing – where does the term “craft” sit in the grand scheme of spirits?

“On a relative basis, craft is a little different for gin compared to other categories,” says Iglesias. “It’s a little trickier to police compared to other categories such as Scotch, which is made in just one country and has the Scotch Whisky Association. I don’t think it’s something you can regulate.”

The future looks set to hold countless conversations and debates surrounding the craft topic, and whether it will be big brands or small distillers who win the tussle. Ultimately though, the truth will out.

“You have to be careful with how you describe your products,” concludes Cook. “Craft is a term that’s abused and there are some producers who imply they make the gin themselves, when they do not, and that is wrong. There’s no need to fly a false flag about being craft – let the gin speak for itself.”

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