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Does the gin category need tighter definitions?

Gin is experiencing one of the most exciting moments in its history, as a host of new brands launch, innovative trends take hold and super-premium sales hit an all-time high. The Spirits Business considers whether the rapid development of the industry means it has outgrown official regulations.

SB considers whether the gin industry has outgrown official regulations

*This article was first published in the February 2017 edition of The Spirits Business

A cluster of powerful brand titans once dominated the gin world. With hulking volumes and bold, traditional taste profiles, their dominance long went unchallenged. However, a new wave of indie heroes has risen up, boosted by consumer interest in provenance, artisanship and locally owned businesses. These new players have, arguably, disrupted established notions of what the category is, and what it should be.

Now, consumer choice in the sector is almost boundless. While gin creativity was once largely restricted to alcoholic strength, sweetness and packaging, contemporary producers are offering an abundance of local and seasonal botanicals, unusual base ingredients, vintage batches, cask finishes, liquid colours, hybrid recipes, and pioneering production methods. This level of innovation owes its growth to the creative minds of producers, and also to the loose (by spirits industry standards) definition and regulation of gin.

“The nature of the gin category allows for a great deal of innovation because the rules are a little broader than other categories,” says Paul Hletko, founder of Illinois-based Few Spirits. “It allows producers to be creative, and that’s fantastic – it gives the market a much broader choice of products. But that also allows for a lot of market entrants, so over the past several years, the sheer number of brands has made the gin category exceptionally competitive.”

By and large, gin is characterised in EU law by its ‘predominant’ flavour of juniper, and not much else. However, according to William Lowe, master distiller at The Cambridge Distillery, and spirits educator for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), a number of new distilleries do not adhere to this stipulation, meaning the “predominant flavour of juniper that the EU definition requires is being lost”.

Flavoured vodka

He argues: “As a general rule, the industry sticks to the official requirements of gin, but there are people who are not doing that and are at the point where juniper is not the dominant note anymore. The resulting spirit just isn’t gin – it’s a flavoured vodka.”
It would seem that, in law at least, juniper is as central to gin as barley is to Scotch, juniper-predominant style of gin – and will align with one of the other two EU-defined categories: ‘Gin’ or ‘Distilled Gin’. All three categories have unique specifications, but differ in terms of comprehensiveness – ‘Gin’ having a more minimal definition and so leaving room for greater experimentation.

However, Pierre Naud, export area manager for France’s Distillerie De La Tour, notes an interesting trend: “The simple ‘Gin’ category allows more room for creativity. Nevertheless, we have noticed an increase in demand for ‘Distilled Gin’, which implies a more complex method of production. It is imperative that European regulations are respected so as not to degrade the image of gin, whether it be Gin, Distilled Gin, or London Dry Gin.”

Beefeater: world’s third-largest gin brand

The EU categories of gin may be unique, but they are all linked by one requirement: that their predominant flavour is that of juniper. But this notion of ‘predominance’ is hazy at best – how much juniper is needed to make the botanical more prevalent than its brethren? Surely different palates will detect different levels of juniper?

“The predominance issue is one that has been discussed and challenged at length,” notes Nicholas Cook, director general of The Gin Guild, which will discuss whether EU regulations of gin need tightening at its Ginposium event this June. “It will continue to be a topic going forward as new gins arrive, many with aromatic and powerful botanicals that suppress or mitigate the juniper lead.” The Gin Guild is “undertaking academic research” to assess what exactly ‘juniper predominant’ means, and evaluate whether the existing EU definitions of gin are fit for purpose in today’s market.

Legitimate experimentation

For Cook, the definitions are a “broad church” that allow “a fantastic amount of legitimate experimentation” and so do not need enhancing or amending. “The market has clearly expanded from the original juniper-forward ‘classic’ gins – usually London dry styles,” he asserts. “While that remains the dominant gin style and is what most would identify as ‘gin’, as with the development of gin from its genever origins, there is evolution and style extension. The great thing about the gin category is that, within reason, the definitions are loose enough to allow a wide range of flavours.”

Faye Thwaites, co-founder of Jam Jar Gin, concurs: “We haven’t found it [the EU regulation of gin] to be a problem. But I guess if it was, you could perhaps just call your product something else – perhaps ‘not gin’. Tradition is important, but so is innovation, and in most industries, innovation usually upsets someone. More often than not it’s the complacent ones lacking in creativity, or who are just unable to apply it.”

William Lowe, master distiller, Cambridge Distillery

Lizzy Johnson, global brand and marketing director at Quintessential Brands, maker of Greenall’s Gin, believes the regulations are unlikely to change any time soon. “It’s always a balance with these things. We have been making gin since 1761, and there’s been a lot of change in that time,” she says. “But I think some of the key plays in gin and definitions have remained he same and will continue to do so. We should all be bound by certain rules, but have flexibility.”

Most producers agree that EU controls provide scope for them to exercise creativity, particularly through the use of local ingredients. “The EU definitions should be maintained,” says Paul Currie, managing director of The Lakes Distillery. “There is nothing wrong with distillers producing other spirits that are not gin, but this should be made clear to consumers. Local botanicals and flavours can be included to produce some wonderful, varied tastes – but juniper should be at the heart of the gin.”

Terroir problem

Herein lies a problem for terroir-focused distillers – can there ever be a single estate gin with such dependence on juniper? Perhaps in Italy and other regions where juniper grows plentifully, but it seems unlikely that many producers would be able to label their gins ‘single estate’ with conviction. Some have managed – Master of Malt’s series of Origin gins are distilled using juniper as the sole botanical; all are sourced from single locations in Italy or in eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, ‘farm-to-bottle’ Scottish distillery Arbikie has used both single estate wheat and estate-grown botanicals to distill some brands are walking a thin line and play with the consumer. Things have to be clear and regulated.” For its part, The Gin Guild is looking at producing a “method of explaining where gins fall, which might be of interest to consumers”.

With so much variety on the market, a rationalisation of trends seems inevitable. Beefeater’s Payne predicts a return to more classic flavours: “Consumers will always see through ‘gimmicky’ eventually. That’s why genuinely new and exciting innovation is key for the growth of the category.” Any use of ‘wacky’ botanicals should be grounded by authenticity, it seems.

Portobello Road’s Ged Feltham believes it’s nigh on impossible to make a single estate gin

In addition to a shake-out of trends, many commentators have been holding their breath for a broader industry ‘fallout’, anticipating that the number of brands – particularly super-premium ‘craft’ players – will diminish.

However, Guy van Everdingen, head of sales and marketing for Dutch alcohol supplier Sasma, has a more hopeful view: “The risk of consumer fatigue could be there, but new impulses in the category give the consumer new incentives to try new gins. The main challenge for brands is to distinguish themselves from all other gins on the market.”
Booming markets

In particular, the established gin markets of the UK and US are booming. Data insights provider Euromonitor has even predicted that gin sales will outstrip those of blended Scotch whisky in the UK by 2020.

Fledging brands are clearly trying to capitalise on the momentum – 34 ‘craft’ distilleries are thought to have opened in the UK last year alone. “There are 600 gins available in the UK, so some of those won’t survive over the next five years,” says Quintessential’s Johnson. “Competition is rife, but that can prove to be an exciting time as well – with challenge comes massive opportunity, particularly as super-premium gin continues to grow.”

The future of gin may seem rosy, but distillers carry the heavy burden of making sure the category grows in the right way. As Jam Jar Gin’s Thwaites concludes: “With so much excitement around the category, if fatigue sets in – perish the thought – then we only have ourselves to blame.”

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