Have we reached peak gin?

17th November, 2017 by Kristiane Sherry - This article is over multiple pages: 1 2

The explosion in the number of gin brands has taken the industry by storm. Now consumers, lured in by the taste of London Dry, are expanding their horizons and exploring other styles.

*This feature was first published in the July 2017 edition of The Spirits Business

Have we reached peak gin? Surely it’s a question on the lips of every bartender in developed spirits markets across the globe. Juniper­-weary journalists, weighed down by new product press releases, wonder if the end is in sight. Retail buyers sit begrudgingly hemmed in by gin samples from new brands clamouring to be the next big thing.

There are so many questions about gin right now. What is the next big thing? In a market so undeniably saturated, what does newness look like? As brands push the ingredients envelope in a quest to establish a point of difference, what is a gin anyway? And how long will consumers care about the category before the next craze woos them away?

Thankfully for those invested in the category – and let’s face it, despite the juniper fatigue we all benefit from gin’s buoyancy – the general feeling is that consumers on the gin trail still have a long way to go. London Dry and other classic styles might be the entry point, but the sector’s alluring mix of authenticity and heritage means lesser-known, historical styles are keeping the discovery vibe alive.

Even imbibers who have enjoyed standard G&Ts for years can explore the likes of Old Tom, cask­-aged and navy strength, continuing a journey that will likely keep the wider sector in growth for some time yet. And with sales of gin in the UK forecast to overtake blended Scotch by 2020, according to Euromonitor, the wider spirits sector will be shaped by the performance of these often-­overlooked sub­categories.

“London Dry and contemporary iterations of that style [versions that are not technically London Dry], will always dominate the market, but the category is flexible and brands are exploring the potential to the fullest extent,” muses Nicholas Cook, director general of The Gin Guild.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Alexandre Gabriel, master distiller and proprietor at Maison Ferrand, which produces Citadelle Gin. “Gin is booming because of its diversity. So the other sectors are actually the beauty and the essence of gin as it is now.”

The cat’s whiskers: Hernö’s Old Tom expression

Jon Hillgren, founder and master distiller at Sweden’s Hernö Gin, says: “It’s like a pyramid, where the main consumer is at the bottom drinking London Dry gin – then they try Old Tom, navy, cask and then sipping gins. The number of people climbing the pyramid is increasing. More people want to keep exploring.”

And while few figures exist to back up the accelerated growth of these sub­categories, the anecdotal evidence for their development is strong. Alex Hanson, head mixologist at Spirit of Harrogate, confirms: “From our masterclasses alone we have seen an uptake in people interested in Old Tom, navy and barrel­-aged gins.” He says that out of the 150­-or-­so gins available at the brand’s visitor experience, tastes have shifted to these variants.

Langley's Old Tom Gin

Langley’s Old Tom Gin

OLD TOM

Quaffed by the masses in the 18th and 19th centuries, Old Tom gins were traditionally sweetened to make the poor­-quality distillates more

palatable. Today the slightly softer style is increasingly sought after, and Old Tom expressions win medals the world over for their quality.

With its compelling back story – historically, imbibers in murky back streets would slot a coin into a cat’s paw to get a secret gin stash back through its mouth to avoid the eagle eyes of excise men – it’s no surprise that the sector is stirring up consumer interest.

“Our Old Tom gin is booming,” confirms Citadelle’s Gabriel. “Old Tom is part of gin heritage but it was forgotten for years.

“It is a small niche in the gin category and it is still mysterious for many consumers.”

The Glasgow Distillery Company has recently added both Old Tom and cask­-aged variants to its Makar Gin portfolio, and sales of both are “exceeding our initial expectations,” says Mike Hayward, co­founder.

“Given the desire to explore and the ever increasing number of gins on the market, consumers are keen to try out new expressions and sub­categories as they develop their interest in the overall category. This gives a great opportunity for Old Tom gins to secure their own space in the gin market.”

Adam Wyartt, global brand manager for Atom Brands, which owns and markets Bathtub Gin, among others, agrees. He says Bathtub’s Old Tom variant is “keeping pace” with growth, with the sector accounting for around 16% of Bathtub Gin’s sales.

And the flourishing cocktail culture is having a striking impact. Old Tom’s revival has coincided happily with the resurgence of classic serves in general, and bartenders and consumers alike are taking a second look at older styles with Old Tom in mind. Mark Dawkins, founder of Langley’s gin, reckons: “We actually feel that our Old Tom will have wider appeal than the traditional gin market. Its slightly sweeter style makes it a versatile component in cocktails.”

While James Hayman, sales and marketing director at Hayman’s Gin, doesn’t go quite that far, he does agree that mixing has spurred on the sector. “Today we have seen the interest in this once-­niche liquid now starting to trickle down from the bartenders we first created the gin for to the gin enthusiast community. Recently, Old Tom has entered the mainstream market, as consumers expand their drinking repertoire and look to create authentic, high quality cocktails at home.”

But for him, a lack of consistency in the sector presents a challenge. Producers use a range of distillation processes and therefore a plethora of styles exist under the ‘Old Tom’ name. “It would be of no surprise if this created a degree of consumer confusion around exactly what constitutes an Old Tom,” Hayman says.

“As things stand,” he adds, “it would be difficult to define a subsection for Old Tom in the same way as you might have a sub­section for IPAs within the world of beer. There is too much inconsistency, too little reference to the traditional distillation technique and therefore, too much potential for consumer confusion.”

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