The Great British Gin Revival
Gin has undergone an extraordinary rebirth in recent years. Once dismissed as fusty, despite it’s extraordinary history, Gin is back.
Of all the gin joints…
Everybody loves a comeback. From the world of entertainment: Elvis, Sinatra, the Sex Pistols, (Take That?) to sport – Liverpool’s magical night in Istanbul, the 2012 European Ryder Cup team, Botham’s Ashes – we love nothing more than seeing an old favourite return to former glories.
And so it has been with the Lazarus-like return of gin. Dismissed for years as a fusty old spirit, with its links to the Queen Mother and the British Empire, gin has undergone an extraordinary rebirth in recent years. What was once derided as Mother’s Ruin is now the spirit of choice for hipsters. Up and down the land there has been a proliferation of gin bars, gin clubs and gin festivals. There are even gin museums and gin hotels.
Gin is now a £1bn industry in the UK. The Wine and Spirit Trade Association’s (WSTA) end-of-year market report found that gin sales in pubs, bars and restaurants went up by 19 per cent in 2016, worth £619m.
Gin’s extraordinary rebirth
The report revealed that for six consecutive quarters, on trade sales of gin have seen double-digit growth, outperforming every other spirits category. And since the first WSTA market report released in 2012, gin sales in pubs, bars and restaurants have increased by £300m.
According to the HMRC, close to 100 new distilleries have opened in the UK in the last two years. Exports are booming and we even saw a gin & tonic drizzle cake unveiled on the Great British Bake Off. No wonder Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association declared 2016 to be the year of the ‘Great British Gin Take Off’.
So what does this mean for bars and pubs? Where did this renaissance come from, and why? And how can bar managers and publicans tap into this ongoing explosion?
From Gin Lane to the Navy Strength
Gin has left an indelible mark on the history of modern Britain. When William of Orange (William III) came to the throne in 1689 the newly imported monarch passed a series of laws that encouraged domestic distilling. The effect on Dutch sailors is said to be the origin of the phrase “Dutch Courage”. Unfortunately the Gin Craze of the first half of the 18th Century worried many in authority, culminating in Hogarth’s iconic portrayal of a city – London – soaked in gin, Gin Lane, compared to the relative serenity of Beer Street.
Gin’s (first) renaissance came about rather fortuitously. With Britain’s influence spreading across the world in the shape of the Empire, those Brits ruling India would often succumb to malaria. It was discovered that quinine (a bitter medicine extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree) was an effective preventative measure. However, to make it more palatable the quinine was added to gin, ice and sugar, and, voila, the gin and tonic was created. Thereafter small quantities of quinine were added to tonic water.
The Royal Navy’s ‘grog’ ration is origin of the idea of navy strength spirits. The Navy requiring their spirits to be at least 57% alcohol or 114 proof so that if the spirit contaminated gunpowder stored with it, the gunpowder could still be fired.
IT TOOK WHAT WAS ESSENTIALLY A VERY OLD-FASHIONED SPIRIT AND RECLAIMED IT FOR A YOUNGER GENERATION.
Towards the end of the 20th century gin had seriously fallen out of fashion – a name check on Oasis’s debut single, Supersonic, aside. Vodka was king of the spirit world, while gin was the preserve of old grannies with their ice and a slice down the Rotary Club.
The launch of Hendricks in 1999 planted the juniper seeds of change, however. Drinks consultant and editor of the Drinking Trends website Charlie McCarthy was Hendricks’ UK brand ambassador in the 00s and so witnessed first-hand how it shook up the market.
“It managed to cultivate a brand identity that was related to the whole vintage revival scene,” he explains. “It took what was essentially a very old-fashioned spirit that had an old-fashioned identity and reclaimed it for a younger generation.”
Hendricks was also adventurous. New production techniques were experimented with and out went the ice and a slice, to be replaced by bold garnishes such as cucumber.
“Hendricks uses roses and cucumbers in its distillation,” says McCarthy. “It makes a lighter, more fragrant gin and as soon as it – and Martin Miller’s – took off it opened the door for a lot of people to come on board and be quite experimental and quite out there.
This chimed with the trend towards all things craft, artisanal and authentic – not for nothing has gin been described as the craft beer of the spirit world. Instead of big names like Beefeater and Gordon’s, small-batch, premium, craft distilleries such as Sipsmith (since snapped up by drinks giant Beam Suntory) and Blackwoods came to dominate the conversation. Sipsmith built the first copper pot distillery in London for nearly two hundred years.
Charlie McCarthy explains more about the gin revival.
Who is drinking it?
“People who were drinking vodka and cranberry and/or vodka tonics – people who were looking to be a bit more adventurous with what they drink. It’s a really easy sell if you’ve got a nice tasting gin and you’ve got an interesting choice of tonics. You can go anywhere with it.”
What should bar managers be looking at with tonics?
“Tonics are really interesting. Back in the day everyone used Schweppes and people still use Schweppes. It has a lot of things going for it – particularly its effervescence. Its fizz level is really good. So when you mix it with gin and ice, it goes really well.
Fever-Tree is the success story – what it has done for tonics is similar to what Hendricks did in the gin market. It offered a new, fresh alternative choice. It came out with a number of varietals, like a Mediterranean-style tonic, an elderflower tonic; so again it’s giving people choice and something to get excited about.”
So it pays to experiment?
“From a publican’s point of view it’s about presenting people with choice. A gin or tonic tasting evening is a great idea. Get in lots of fresh herbs, people can garnish their drinks with rosemary, basil or thyme or strawberries and peppercorns and encourage people to get hands-on. People like getting creative with their drinks.”
STAFF TRAINING IS KEY. THE MORE YOU ENGAGE AND GET THEM EXCITED ABOUT SOMETHING THE MORE THEY CAN TRANSFER THAT EXCITEMENT ACROSS THE BAR.
What is your advice to independent pubs and bars that want to get involved?
“Talk to your distributor, talk to your local agent from whoever supplies your spirits, they’ll be more than happy to send a brand ambassador down. Take advantage of the free resources that are there and available to you. Brands love sending brand ambassadors into pubs and bars. If you get a chance go on a distillery tour, do. It’s quite good to arrange with your agent – generally if you agree on a sales target, it can be easily arranged. It’s great for having a staff day out; you can incentivise sales. It’s all about developing knowledge and education. The more the staff knows the more they can share that with your customers. Staff training is key. The more you engage and get them excited about something the more they can transfer that excitement across the bar.”
After craft beer and the gin revival what are next the big drinking trends?
“Over the next couple of years one of the big trends that people are going to be looking out for are low alcohol and no alcohol consumption. The public are becoming increasingly health conscious. And then there are people that might not be drinking because they’re driving. I think it’s important to give those drinkers options that aren’t just a J20 or a fruit juice or a Coke. So, we’re talking about a grown-up version of a soft drink.
Things like coconut water – sales of this have jumped by about 400% in the last two years, that’s becoming a big trend. So look out for things like birch water, coconut water, maple water; these sorts of things. They’re seeping into the mainstream and will continue to do so over the next year or two.
It just requires a small bit of thought and presentation. I think most bars and pubs neglect this side of the business. But for a country pub it could be a big USP. If you’re a family pub and people want to go there for the day and watch the football or have a Sunday roast, and if someone isn’t drinking but there are a number of really good grown-up soft drinks on offer it will make them want to come back.”
Make no mistake then, we are in the midst of another gin craze – although with less depravity this time around. And as it seeps further into the mainstream this revival will become unavoidable. This is not just about hipster bars in East London – although it is a great way of getting younger drinkers into your bar or pub. Indeed, Mintel believes the UK gin industry will be worth £1.3bn by 2020.
So, come on, feel supersonic. Get out the gin and tonic.