Recently, a friend asked me what is going on with gins, as the last few ‘gins’ she tried were very disappointing. To be honest, I realised I’ve not been too keen on some of the recent gins either and find the endless new versions a bit, well… meh.
Since the opening of the Sipsmith Distillery in 2009, it has been onwards and upwards for craft gin in the UK and beyond. The Gin Guild has identified well over 600 UK gin brands, and I am sure the number of brands has increased further during this year. The latest WSTA market report shows that British drinkers purchased over 60 million bottles of gin in the 12 months to June 2018. Sales in the UK were worth more than £1.6bn, up a staggering 38% increase year on year!! The world’s gone gin crazy!
But, I wonder, have things got a little out of hand, with new gins popping out like popcorn (literally, I’ve seen popcorn-flavoured gin liqueurs!)? Distilleries are experimenting with a variety of botanicals. Some work wonders and enhance the gin category, but some not so much. Unfortunately, many distillers seem to have forgotten the critical importance of juniper when inventing their gins, creating hazy lines between gin and other spirits and, quite frankly, lowering standards.
What is Gin?
Gin is a flavoured spirit where the predominant flavour must be juniper. There are no measurements or numbers when it comes to the amount of juniper needed. In the EU the minimum bottled strength is 37.5% ABV and in the US it’s 40% ABV. According to EU regulations, there are three types of gin (bear with me as this can get a bit complicated…):
London Dry Gin doesn’t actually have to be from London and it cannot contain any artificial ingredients. No additional flavours or colours can be added after distillation, and only a minute amount of sweetener is allowed. Like all gins, juniper must be the predominant flavour.
When additional flavourings and colourings are added after distillation, it is called Distilled Gin. Both London Dry and Distilled Gin are made in traditional stills by redistilling the base spirit with natural flavourings (botanicals). Hendrick’s Gin is a good example of Distilled Gin.
The third style is simply yet confusingly known as Gin. This is made with any type of alcohol and the flavourings (including sugar and colourings) can be added into the spirit without redistillation. These flavourings can be artificial. This is also known as ‘cold-compounded’, and it is not a very popular method of production, although the cost of making gin this way is lower.
There are other styles, but these aren’t legally defined. For example, Old Tom is a sweeter gin and sugar is added during redistillation. There are many so-called ‘New Age’ or ‘New Western Dry Gins’ out there, but these are the groups that are pushing boundaries and creating spirits with minimal juniper notes. Legal guidance would definitely do some good here.
What is the problem exactly?
Vodka is the neutral spirit and is the base for all gins. For a gin to transition from vodka it requires at least one key ingredient: juniper. Without juniper, it’s just a flavoured vodka or flavoured spirit.
With gin gaining popularity, many variations of the spirit have been produced. In their desperation to be ever more clever with their botanicals, some New Age distillers in particular are losing sight of the fundamentals of gin making and are corrupting the market as a result with brands that essentially are no more than flavoured spirits. New Age gins are often full of flavour, but juniper is increasingly more of an afterthought, and as a result, it is debatable whether these gins should be called gin at all! Juniper should be the predominant flavour in any gin; it is juniper that separates gin from other spirits, after all.
As Hayman’s Distillery puts it; ‘Such products undermine the work that the vast majority of distillers complete and run the risk of misleading consumers by blurring boundaries between gin and other spirit drinks.’
Another problem is origin. There have been issues with brands claiming to be small craft gin producers when in fact the spirit is mass produced by contract distillers. From the marketing you would think the gin is made in Scotland when it is actually made in Birmingham, England. Luckily, I have noticed more brands have become more honest about the origin or have tried to localise the production to match their marketing slogans. But to guarantee full honesty, this should be regulated better as well.
What can be done to save gin?
Hayman’s Distillery wanted to build awareness of the gin categories and they launched a campaign to Call Time on Fake Gin. This sparked a lot of opinions, but also a lot of support. Gin should be better protected.
Hayman’s distillery hosted a series of debates at the distillery earlier in September and wrote a manifesto, which I also signed, to help to protect the future of gin. Think whisky, for example: the spirit is well regulated and there is an association (SWA) that protects, promotes and represents the interests of the whisky industry in Scotland and around the world. This kind of help is exactly what gin category urgently needs to survive!
There are six different segments when it comes to the tasting notes of gin: juniper, citrus, spice, fruit, floral and herbal (although all should have evident notes of juniper). These help consumers to learn more about the character of different gins. It would be helpful to use these and other wordings in the shops to describe gins to help educate consumers. Misleading (and in some rare cases, dangerous*) gins should be reported to Trading Standards.
During Hayman’s Debates, a group of distillers, bartenders and other industry people was formed to come up with a plan on how to protect gin. So, we shall wait and see…
There is a lot of variety when it comes to gin category, so Hayman’s campaign will help us to think more about what gin really is and how much we care (or not) about the definition of gin. For me it is clear that if these regulations don’t get tightened, it is a slippery slope, and the gin renaissance will head towards its end very fast. Maybe that’s not all bad, as this would give room for other spirits to flourish. It does, however, feel a little like only the strong brands who believe in these regulations will be the ones to survive and the rest will be left to history (or perhaps moved into another spirit category).
(*Some gin drinkers have experienced gins with unsafe levels of methanol, but I’d like to point out this is not a common issue!)
Do you feel gin should take a time out and tidy things up a bit? Do we need new regulations? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this; it’s a very interesting debate.