How Gin took over the world: It’s selling in record numbers with little sign of slowing down, but with so many competing distillers, could the bubble be about to burst

 
Steve Dinneen
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Gin-making equipment and botanicals at the City of London Distillery


From Dalston dives to The Rivoli at the Ritz, people are drinking juniper-flavoured ethanol in record numbers.

Last year more than 50m bottles of gin were sold in the UK for the first time, with £1.2bn in sales, up from £600m in 2011. That’s more than a billion gin and tonics.

And while the best-selling brands are owned by the big four drinks companies – Diageo(Tanqueray and Gordon’s), Pernod Ricard (Beefeater and US top-seller Seagram’s), Beam Suntory (Sipsmith and Spanish giant Larios), and Bacardi (Bombay Sapphire) – the real growth has come from the bottom up, with the number of independent distilleries almost trebling in the last five years, hitting an all-time high of 315 last month.

To underscore its ubiquity, gin was added to last year’s basket of goods used by the Office for National Statistics to measure inflation, sitting alongside chilled pizza and a pint of milk. The last time it featured was back in 2004, at which point gin sales had slumped amid a relatively short-lived love-affair with vodka, a strange time when it was acceptable to order a butterscotch-flavoured voddy and listen to trance music.


But today gin reigns supreme. There’s just one problem: “The bubble is about to burst.”

•••

This bombshell was dropped by an unlikely source: Joel Lawrence, the general manager of boutique gin-maker City of London Distillery. Lawrence was teaching me to make gin, explaining the taste profiles of botanicals filling dozens of glass jars in front of me, ranging from the commonplace (cinnamon, grapefruit, rose hip) to the obscure (baobab, orris root, yarrow herb).

“The only things you need for a London dry gin are ethanol, juniper berries, coriander seed and angelica root,” he says. “But you can add almost anything.”

The ethanol is generally bought as a byproduct from the petroleum industry; juniper gives gin its distinctive ginny flavour; coriander seed helps mask the taste of alcohol (navy strength gin, typically containing 57 per cent alcohol, tends to use a lot of coriander); and angelica root binds the botanicals together – the more botanicals, the more angelica root you need.

Working within suggested parameters, I measured out heaps of botanicals using a small, drug dealer-style weighing scale. I went heavy on juniper (I like the taste of gin), relatively easy on coriander (I like the taste of alcohol), with my blockbuster botanicals being ginger, pepper, orange peel, rowan berries and grapefruit. The botanicals and ethanol are added to a small copper still, heated, cooled again, and the liquid collected in a jar (the distillery’s own gin is made in three vast stills, two of which are called Clarissa and Jennifer after the Two Fat Ladies).

The flavour of each botanical is released at different points of the distillation process, so dip your finger in the super-strength gin (it’s later diluted with water) as it trickles from the still and you’ll taste intense citrus one minute, hot ginger the next, and spicy pepper after that.

After distilling the gin, personalising the label and sealing the bottle with wax, you develop a certain emotional attachment to the finished product. But even accounting for that, City A.M. Magazine Gin is wonderful: classy and complex, smooth and rounded, refreshingly – but not overpoweringly – citrusy, with the pepper and ginger giving it a mild spiciness.

While the Gin Experience, which includes several large and delicious G&Ts, lasts a whole afternoon, the gin-making itself takes about half an hour. This is the real driving force behind the exponential growth in boutique distilleries. Unlike whisky, for which you will wait a decade or more before recouping a single penny of your investment, you can make gin in the morning and sell it in the afternoon, with only a minimal investment in equipment.

“There are so many gin-makers on the market right now,” says Lawrence. “It’s saturated. The gin bubble will burst in three or four years.”

Is he worried? “Selling gin is only half of our business. We have experiences, events, a bar. We’re well positioned. But there are others out there who are more exposed, and if people move on to something else, some of them will be in trouble.”

•••

The history of gin is infamous. It was invented by the Dutch in the 17th century, but it was the Brits who really took it to heart. The period between 1695 and 1735 is known as the Gin Craze, which some blame for the stabilisation of London’s previously growing population, thanks to lots of people drinking themselves to death.

There are reports – probably apocryphal – that gin was cheaper than water, and it was certainly a lot more fun. People made their own at home, turning a liquid that’s already poisonous (alcohol) into something acutely lethal; when people stopped showing up for work, the government brought in strict gin laws that still inform licensing regulations today. Even worse, the gin tasted terrible.

•••

It’s only recently that a significant number of people started to differentiate between gins. Pre-2010, if you ordered a G&T in a bar, you’d have been served Gordon’s, with Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray or Beefeater probably available if you were somewhere a bit fancy. Few, including most of those behind the bar, could explain the difference between them, aside from a vague notion that “the more expensive ones are better” (there’s a parallel with the vodka industry, which spent millions boasting its products were “10-times distilled” and tasted of virtually nothing).

Then, in 2010, Hendrick’s, Martin Miller’s and Tanqueray No. Ten – all a decade old by this point – caught the public imagination, trading on the backward-looking nostalgia of burgeoning hipsterism. Hendrick’s in particular changed the way people thought about the spirit with its medicinal bottles and million dollar innovation: the slice of cucumber.

You can’t talk about the resurgence of gin without a special mention for Fever-Tree. The 2008 upstart start-up seemed destined to be, at best, a niche alternative to Schweppes – six years later a stock market floatation valued it at £154m. Since then its share price has risen 1,500 per cent, overtaking Britvic in terms of market cap and outselling Schweppes in off-sales. Last year its revenues rose 96 per cent, with co-founder Charles Rolls cashing out £155m since 2017, which he presumably toasted with a gin and (premium) tonic. So, is Fever-Tree worried about the gin bubble bursting?

“Gone are the days when you only had three bottles of gin behind a bar,” says brand ambassador Craig Harper. “We’ve moved past that. But we’re not sitting on our laurels. I spend most of my time working with dark spirits, which is another [area] we see [growth]. A lot of gin distilleries are sitting on aged spirits they’re hoping to bring out in the future, so we’re looking for the same kind of partnerships we had with the flavoured tonics.”

Rival spirits are already trying to muscle in on gin’s territory. Mezcal is receiving rave reviews within the drinks industry; indie vodka labels are riding on the coat-tails of the gin-makers; and there are whispers that rum is preparing for a moment in the sun.

Portobello Road Gin’s Jake Burger, however, remains unfazed. “If you look at it from a perspective of centuries rather than decades, gin’s popularity is just a return to the norm. We’re a nation of gin drinkers. The market probably is saturated and we’ll see fewer new brands, and some of the smaller brands fading away.

“People see gin-making as a way of escaping the rat race, but it’s never been easy to make money selling alcohol. The pessimistic view is the same happens to gin that happened to vodka 15 or 20 years ago, with the multi-nationals buying up the most successful brands and the rest disappearing forever. The more optimistic view is to look to somewhere like France where you have lots of small, rural producers of things like armagnac who are successful within a small geographical area rather than taking on global brands.”

This is how I see City A.M. Magazine Gin – it may never take on Diageo, but as long as the recipe exists, the gin revolution will continue apace, at least in my house.

A-Z of botanicals

Compiled by Katherine O’Neil, AKA The Gin Whore

• Angelica One of the most prevalent botanicals in gin, the root is most commonly used, but the seeds are sometimes used, too. Producers cite its properties as a binding agent, as well as its earthy flavour.

• Bergamot Best known for giving Earl Grey tea its distinctive flavour, Bergamot is derived from the bitter zest of the Bergamot orange. Half Hitch Gin uses Calabrian Bergamot from Southern Italy.

• Coriander Coriander seeds are found in almost all gins, and are sometimes roasted or crushed to alter the flavour profile. Coriander seeds provide the ‘high citrus’ notes towards the end of the taste.

• Dandelion Dandelion leaves are unusually used in Caorunn Gin, one of 5 ‘Celtic’ botanicals, that add sharpness to this Scottish Gin.

• Elderflower Elderflowers can be found in abundance in the British countryside. Warner Edwards steeps its Harrington Dry Gin at 89% abv, for a week with elderflower petals, adding sugar & water to create their Elderflower Gin, bottled at 40% abv.

• Frankincense A resin tapped from the bark of the Boswellia Sacra tree, found in Arabia and North Africa, and used as an incense. Sacred Gin uses it to provid a gentle warmth.

• Green cardamom Sweet and fiery, this cardamom pod is native to South India. The easily identifiable flavour is put to good use in Opihr Gin, paired with black pepper and cubeb.

• Honeysuckle Native to the Northern hemisphere, there are 160 varieties of Honeysuckle. Bloom Gin uses Chinese honeysuckle to provide a delicate floral sweetness.

• Iris root Or Orris Root, is also used in perfumery, where it is dried for five years before use. Orris root is used as a base note to bind other flavours, with woody, oily properties.

• Juniper The thing that makes gin gin. Juniper berries are sweet with pine notes and grow across huge swathes of the world. In Britain it’s particularly common in the Scottish Highlands. Legally, gin must be predominantly flavoured with juniper.

• Kaffir lime leaves Native to tropical Asia, the kaffir lime leaves are high in citronella oil, which is also found in lemonbalm and lemongrass. Berkeley Square Gin balances this beautifully with basil.

• Liquorice A traditional sweetener in gin, liquorice root was prevalent when sugar was too expensive during the 1700s.

• Mint Often used as a garnish, mint is occasionally used in the distillation process, too. Beckett’s Gin uses Kingston-Upon-Thames mint to provide a cool aftertaste.

• Olive Famously paired with gin in martinis, Gin Mare uses arbequina olives with thyme, rosemary and basil to create a savory, Mediterranean gin.

• Pomelo Native to South Asia, this citrus fruit resembles a large grapefruit, but tastes sweeter and less bitter. Monkey 47 uses it as part of its mix of a whopping 47 botanicals.

• Quince Golden yellow and related to the apple, quince brings acidic balance to Ferdinand’s Saar Dry Gin.

• Rose Rose petals provide a delicate floral note and perfume. Hendrick’s Gin infuses its gin with Bulgarian "Rosa Damascen".

• Silver birch Sap from Silver Birch is the newest health fad, but Blackdown Sussex Dry Gin uses it to deliver a smooth sweet gin. Tapped once a year in early spring each tree can give up to five litres of sap.

• Turmeric Native to Southern India, this bright orange spice is related to both ginger and cardamom. Blue Gin uses it to add earthiness to its delicious gin.

• Urtica dioica Better known as stinging nettles, this is traditionally used in beer where the sting is removed by cooking. D1 London Gin uses it to add a green kick and peppery zing.

• Vanilla Native to mexico, vanilla pods come from a flowering vine, which takes three to five years to bloom. Indonesia and Madagascar are the biggest growers. Sloane’s Gin uses it to deliver a smooth creamy gin.

• Wormwood More famous for being used in Absinthe, you’ll also find wormwood in bitters, vermouth and in Bath Gin. Toxic in large quantities, it’s often used to relieve indigestion.

• Xocolatl Our word for chocolate comes from the spanish Xocolatl. Belgium’s X-Gin uses it to give it a bitter-sweet kick.

• Yuzu From East Asia, this citrus fruit has hints of mandarin and grapefruit. Used in Jinzu Gin, alongside sake, to create a British Japanese fusion.

• Zest Almost all gin uses citrus zest, either dry or fresh, to balance the sweetness of juniper. It’s often lemon but sometimes orange, East Asian fruit yuzu or grapefruit, the latter being used in Tanqueray 10.

• To book a gin-making experience with City of London Distillery, go to cityoflondondistillery.com

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