Gin’s Journey in Britain, From ‘Mother’s Ruin’ to a Hipster Drink

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LONDON — Ever since European apothecaries began distilling gin and selling it as a cure-all in the 16th century, the juniper-flavored liquor has been revered as a medicine, vilified for fueling public disorder and consumed in a multitude of every-season cocktails.

Now, it is stirring up a specialized tourist trade in the homeland of London dry gin thanks in part to entrepreneurial bottling and branding.

After surging for a decade, gin sales in Britain reached nearly 2 billion pounds, or about $2.6 billion, in Britain through last fall, compared with £1.26 billion for the same period in 2017, according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. Drinkers of pink and flavored versions have helped make it the country’s second-most-popular spirit, ahead of whiskeys and behind only vodka, the group said.

Gin has gotten so popular in Britain that the country’s Office for National Statistics added it back to the basket of goods it uses to measure inflation after a 13-year absence.

Many of the newer products share the flavor of juniper, but others vary widely from traditional dry gin, which, by European law, must be distilled from natural plant materials and have a minimum of 37.5 percent alcohol by volume.

The revival has spawned gin-flavored marmalade and gin-scented candles, prompting fears of overkill among some British producers. As a result, they are seeking new growth overseas.

Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall, childhood friends from Britain, were working in the beverage industry in the United States in the early 2000s and watching microbreweries and craft distilleries multiply around them.

They set about starting a gin distillery in West London in 2007, but were quickly stymied by bureaucratic rules stretching back more than 250 years.

In 1751, British officials, worried that too many people were succumbing to so-called mother’s ruin, passed the Gin Act to stamp out small-scale and home production by limiting gin making to stills with a capacity of at least 1,800 liters.

Mr. Galsworthy and Mr. Hall lobbied the government to ease the restriction, and in 2009, their company, Sipsmith, was granted a license to produce gin. The move opened the door for other small distilleries.

Gin making has exploded in Britain since then. The number of distilleries grew to 419 in 2018 from 113 in 2009, according to the Office for National Statistics.

The distilleries have become popular tourist destinations. Sipsmith says it gets about 25,000 visitors a year. Taste-testers like that — those buying the experience as well as the gin — have helped fuel the growth in sales.

“It’s part of a food culture that probably didn’t exist in the U.K. 20 years ago,” said Miles Beale, chief executive of Britain’s Wine and Spirit Trade Association. “People are drinking less, but they’re more interested in what they’re drinking. They will spend money on it.”

Ian Puddick was renovating the London building that housed his plumbing business in 2013 when he discovered that it was once home to a bakery where illicit gin was made.

He tracked down the owners’ descendants, and although they didn’t give him a recipe, they identified several ingredients. With that and some guesswork, he came up with Old Bakery Gin, which is now sold at Harrods and Fortnum & Mason.

Mr. Puddick’s tale is one of many origin stories whetting the appetite of the new generation of gin connoisseurs. Oscar Dodd, a Fortnum & Mason buyer, said shoppers often wanted to learn more about the provenance or ingredients of their purchases.

“They’re nearly all looking for something new and exciting,” he said. “There’s a social currency with gin. You want to introduce your friends.”

Still, the proliferation of new gins is a challenge for relative neophytes like Mr. Puddick.

“That brand loyalty, getting people to choose your brand above others, is definitely getting tougher,” he said.

Beefeater, a London staple since the 1800s, is sticking to basics even as rivals keep sprouting up. If the rise of sloe gin and snow globes with gin bottles leads to consumer fatigue, the company wants to make sure its product remains the main ingredient in gin-based cocktails.

“Gin is designed to work in many different directions,” Desmond Payne, Beefeater’s master distiller, said. “Very few people drink gin on its own. Gin should have the ability to be versatile and work in different directions.”

Beefeater welcomes the industry’s growth and has even produced some limited editions of new blends. Still, Mr. Payne is wary of making something too different from the product that the company sells 2.9 million nine-liter cases of a year.

The risk with some of the experimental gins that have emerged, Mr. Payne said, is that “they’re too much about one particular thing,” limiting their ability to work well in all types of cocktails.

Mr. Galsworthy of Sipsmith expects the gin boom to stall at some point. “Make no bones about it,” he said, “the proliferation of it endangers the category in of itself.”

He and other distillers are looking beyond Britain for new customers, sometimes getting snapped up by big alcohol companies that hope to capitalize on a global gin market that, according to the research firm Euromonitor, grew to about $15.5 billion in 2017 from about $10.5 billion in 2007.

In 2016, Sipsmith was acquired by Beam Suntory, which has also acquired Japanese and Spanish gins. Diageo, which owns popular brands like Gordon’s and Tanqueray, added a Japanese-inspired gin to its offering.

Smaller entrants from other parts of the world are also getting into the market.

Dragon’s Blood Gin has just started making gin in a custom-built distillery in Inner Mongolia, China. Peddlers Gin, a Shanghai brand, recently signed an international distribution deal. And new distilleries are popping up from Australia to Liechtenstein to the United States, said Nicholas Cook, the director of the Gin Guild in Britain.

Gin’s appeal, he said, is that “it’s both grown-up and hipster at the same time.”

Joseph Judd, who helped found Peddlers Gin, said even as the company sought to increase its global reach, especially in Asia, it was hewing to the liquor’s European heritage.

“I think it would be difficult to come with purely Chinese ingredients and disregard the British perspective,” Mr. Judd said. “With gin, you have to respect the process and the history.”

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