Robin Lynam on why Gin continues to make a place for itself.
The findings of the latest Vinexpo/IWSR Wine and Spirits Report have now been made public, and global consumption of imported spirits is forecast to grow by 12% for the period between 2017 and 2022.
Annual demand is expected to rise to 399 million 9 litre cases, but the news is not good for all categories. A decline in vodka consumption is predicted, with much of the business it loses migrating to gin – the second largest spirits growth category after whisky.
Gin is expected to gain sales of around 9.5 million cases – not quite as good a performance as is forecast for whisky, with expected growth of 65.9 million cases, but still well ahead of the next biggest growth category, flavoured spirits, which collectively are expected to gain sales of 2.4 million cases.
Across all categories the big gains are being made at premium and super premium levels, as more and more people emphasise quality over quantity in their drinking habits.
That’s good news for Asia’s exponentially expanding cocktail bar sector, and particularly for bars such as Dr. Fern’s Gin Parlour in Hong Kong which specialises in the spirit.
Now in its second year of operation, Dr Fern’s – a hard to find speakeasy style operation in the basement of the upmarket Landmark Central shopping complex – already has a list of more than 300 gins, and according to “Head of Prescriptions” Paul Chan is about to take delivery of around 100 more.
“It’s all about gin here, and the gin and tonic, and gin cocktails,” he says. “We have gin from England, Scotland, France, Sweden, Spain, Australia, the USA and Asia. Asia is up and coming.”
Although Asia, and particularly India, has featured prominently in the marketing of the pricier gins since the launch of Bombay Sapphire in 1986, not much high quality gin has actually been distilled in the region. That is changing, says Chan, who points in particular to gins from Japan, which he says are proving to be of particular interest to his regular customers.
“In Japan, traditionally they made nothing but sake and whisky, but now all the Japanese distilleries are making gin. The release of Roku by Suntory two years ago started something,” he says.
Suntory has been distilling gin in one form or another since 1936, but modern Japanese craft gins certainly are something new. Roku followed on from The Kyoto Distillery’s Ki No Bi, launched in 2016, but it was the Suntory spirit that made the biggest international splash when it was released the following year. The name means “Six”, and the six-sided bottle contains a spirit distilled with a botanical mix of which six elements are distinctively Japanese.
The last two years have seen the introduction of Asahi’s Nikka Coffey still gin, the Benizakura Distillery’s 9148, Hamada Syuzos’s Juju, and more. As well as serving the Japanese domestic market the producers seem keen to replicate the international trendiness of Japanese whisky.
“One of the biggest companies in Japan making gin is Youmeishu, which is known for medicinal liqueurs,” explains Chan of a current favourite which chimes well with the pharmaceutical theme of Dr Ferns. The list also features an Okinawan Gin, imported by Hong Kong’s Leung Yick Company Ltd.
“Japanese gin is the new trend,” confirms Marketing Manager Kitty Wong. “Our first Japanese gin was launched at the end of last year , Masahiro Okinawa Craft Gin (Recipe 1), which is the first gin from Okinawa, with 6 local ingredients, goya, long pepper, roselle, guava leaves, shekwasha, and juniper berries to create a unique Japanese taste.”
Hong Kong also now has its own local gins – no fewer than four, although only one, Handover Gin, is actually distilled in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
The latest to launch, Bauhinia Gin, which is distilled in London, uses the city’s emblematic Bauhinia flower as one of its key botanicals, as Henrik Tornell, one of the partners in the gin’s creation explains.
“Bauhinia Gin, a premium London dry gin, is our tribute to Hong Kong, distilled from the finest natural botanicals and united by the unique flavor of the Bauhinia flower, the emblem of Hong Kong. This artisanal small batch gin is crisp, refreshing and brimming with the spirit of the city that inspired it,” says Tornell.
Taiwan now also has its own gin – made by the acclaimed whisky distillery Kavalan.
According to Kavalan CEO Y.T. Lee, Kavalan Gin is inspired by the surroundings of the distillery.
“Along with the traditional botanicals of juniper, aniseed and coriander, we are giving people a taste of Kavalan’s home in Yilan, with kumquat peel, dried star fruit and red-flesh guava botanical extracts,” he says. “Taiwan is the kingdom of fruits, and Yilan itself is lush and wet, offering its own mouth-watering fruits.”
Kavalan’s Master Blender Ian Chang adds that the gin is intended to be the first in a range.
“After more than 10 years of making whisky. I wanted to try my hand at gin and contribute to the global Gin renaissance. I’m very excited about crafting a unique series to showcase Kavalan distillery and Yilan. The smoothness of our gins, like our whiskies, relies on the mineral-rich water we take from Snow Mountain’s springs, so it’s fitting we pay homage to it as well as gin’s juniper on the bottle,” says Chang.
Even the Philippines – by far the world’s largest market for gin but mostly for cheap locally distilled products – is getting in on craft gin production with Crows Craft Brewery’s Crow Gin.
Other gins of non-Asian origin are also creating a buzz around the region. Philippe Nguyen, owner of the newly opened ThirtySix Bar & Co. highball bar in Hong Kong’s Hollywood Road is enthused about St George Terroir Gin, which the bar serves with water melon juice and house made soda water.
“The Terroir Highball is a modern take on the highball, which has the herbaceousness of California bay laurel, coastal sage and pine to the palate, thanks to the use of St George Terroir Gin. This highball is a taste of a Californian forest without the grizzly,” says Nguyen. “The gin is made from Californian botanical selections of douglas fir, coastal sage and Californian bay laurel. Expect fir, pine, bay laurel and sage on palate, with herbaceous notes to the finish. This is a forest in a glass.”
Another unusual gin on the ThirtySix list is Australian producer Husk Distillers’ Ink gin – a shade of blue in the bottle, it turns pink when a mixer is added.
Alongside its core gin brands Leung Yick is also promoting a South American gin made with sugar cane spirit – Colombia’s Dictador.
Although small producers are certainly carving out niches for themselves in Asia’s increasingly gin oriented bars – Atlas in Singapore, currently ranked at No. 8 in the World’s 50 Best Bars has more than 1000 on its gin menu – the big players still dominate the market.
According to The Spirits Business, in 2017 the world’s seven top selling gin brands from lowest to highest were Hendrick’s, Larios, Seagram’s, Beefeater, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, and Gordon’s – every one of them owned by a major international drinks consortium. “Regarding our gin portfolio, of course, Hendrick’s is still a key item,” says Leung Yick’s Kitty Wong. Its Master Distiller, Ms. Lesley Gracie and Global Brand Ambassador, Mr. Ally Martin, visited Hong Kong last August. Even though Hendrick’s has been established for a few years in Hong Kong, competition in the gin market is continually increasing, and a lot of new and premium brands have launched in Hong Kong. We need to put great effort into maintaining our market share as well as to bring different and creative ideas and events to our customers.”