Gin is not taking a back seat as Robin Lynam discovers. 

The global love affair with gin goes on. In 2016, the most recent year for which annualized International Wine and Spirits Research figures are currently available, sales of the spirit grew by 3.7 per cent, putting it in second place in terms of growth behind tequila with 5.7 per cent, and ahead of whisky with a surprisingly low 1.7 per cent.

It’s something of an anomaly, then, that of the giant gin brands not one makes the top ten of the world’s best-selling spirits over that period.

One reason may be that the category now offers the consumer so much choice – and that choice is now the point. People don’t order one preferred gin to which they have an established brand loyalty any more. They match different gins to their mood, or even to food. They choose different gins for different cocktails. Some aficionados even choose different gins for different tonics.

Ginspiration

All this enthusiasm has been generated by the plethora of boutique brands and artisanal gins that have mushroomed in recent years – but it remains a fact that most of the world’s best-selling brands and all of the top five gins are owned by the big booze companies.

Gordon’s at number one is owned by Diageo, as is Tanqueray at number three. Pernod Ricard owns Beefeater at number four, and Seagram’s at number five. Bombay Sapphire at number two is owned by Bacardi.

Bubbling under, Larios at number six is owned by Beam Suntory, and Hendrick’s at number seven by Glenfiddich owners William Grant & Sons.

The obvious conclusion is that while the boutique distilleries may be a focus of creativity, it is still marketing muscle that drives volume in the gin sector.

Boutique Expressions

The big players are diversified in their approaches to safeguarding their market share. Although all focus on a core expression, some are taking a leaf from the boutique operations’ book in introducing new, sometimes limited edition versions of their spirits.

One good example of that is Diageo’s Tanqueray, which the company promotes as “the bartenders’ favourite gin” and which has been distilled in form or another since 1830. The gin lover can currently choose between the original London Dry, Tanqueray No.10, and Tanqueray Rangpur – in addition to limited editions such as Malacca, Old Tom, and Bloomsbury.

Rangpur, named after an Indian exotic lime, has just received a makeover in its packaging, which will now feature the signature of the brand’s founder, Charles Tanqueray. Gin drinkers, like whisky drinkers – they are in many case one and the same – like to feel that they are drinking heritage, and Tanqueray has the advantage of nearly 200 years of history. Hendrick’s and Bombay Sapphire, despite the Victorian affectations of their packaging, were first distilled in 1999 and 1987 respectively.

Gin“Tanqueray’s founder, Charles Tanqueray, was an innovator in the world of gin. In 1830 he set out to make the world’s finest gin. He poured his heart into it, creating over 300 recipes in pursuit of the definitive gin,” says Tanqueray’s house archivist, Joanne McKerchar. “As other younger brands begin to experiment with their gin recipes, we are proud of our successful legacy of innovation and experimentation that spans nearly two centuries.”

Grant & Sons’ Hendrick’s, conversely, having hit on a winner with its cucumber and rose petal botanicals formula, is sticking to it. There is only one expression of the brand seriously marketed, although in 2017 they did introduce a limited edition “quininated” gin called Orbium. It was, said Grant’s “what Hendrick’s might taste like in a parallel universe”.

“The brand identity is still ‘delightfully curious’ and as the branding says, ‘Life is too glorious not to experience its peculiar flavour, infused with rose and cucumber in our Scottish distillery’,” says Jenny So, General Manager of Hong Kong importer Leung Yick Co Ltd.

Hendrick’s was probably the inspiration for many of the boutique producers, and sells itself like a craft gin, although with annual production in the region of a million bottles it can’t really be said to be one.

Handcrafted

Pernod Ricard’s response to the craft movement has been not to behave like it but to buy into it. In 2016 it acquired a controlling stake in Germany’s Monkey 47, and in 2017 Drinks International’s Annual Bar Report declared it the Gin of the Year.

According to David Haworth, Managing Director of Pernod Ricard Deutschland, 2018 will be “the year when we start to really activate the brand,” and increased promotional activity in Asia is planned.

Although significantly more steeply priced than most of the other big players’ premium gins, Monkey 47 already sits alongside them in most of the fashionable bars in Hong Kong and in the other sophisticated bar towns of the region.

There is still room for the small player though. Carmen Tam, Adega Royale Ltd’s Spirits Consultant, reports that the company has enjoyed some success with Le Tribute gin from a distillery near Barcelona established in 1835.

Spain was where the gin and tonic revival seriously got going, and Le Tribute is capitalising on the trend for mixing premium boutique gins with artisanal tonic waters by producing its own, specially intended to match the gin.

For big players and small, gin remains one of the liveliest sectors in the drinks industry. If this is a (gin and tonic) bubble, don’t expect it to burst any time soon.