Craft distilleries drive gin boom
Sales of gin in the UK in 2016 broke the £1bn mark for the first time, driven by a thirst for craft gin. But can the tipple follow craft beer to become a global phenomenon and how will mainstream brands respond? Daniel Garrahan reports.
Filmed by Richard Topping and Petros Gioumpasis. Graphics by Russell Birkett. Produced by Daniel Garrahan. Additional footage courtesy of Silent Pool.
Gin seems to be the in thing at the moment.
I like the fruity ones, but the apple and the ginger is different, isn't it?
I like the pepper one.
I like it a bit spicy, the peppery ones.
I never knew there were so many different flavours of gin.
Bring it on, that's what I say.
You might not think an autumnal afternoon in southern England would be the place for hundreds of people to come together to sample an army of different gins. But you'd be wrong.
Around 700 people have gathered here in Guildford for a festival of gin. Now, you might fancy a pint of beer, a glass of wine, or any other spirit for that matter. But if you do, you've come to the wrong place. But when you look around at the sheer number of gins on sale here and at the number of people enjoying them, it's plain to see that gin is big business.
It's like a blank canvas. You know, you put Juniper berries in there and qualify it as a gin. But other than that, you can put whatever. There's such diverse possibilities to make different flavours. And that means you can cover everyone's palate. There's something for everyone, now.
2016 was the year of gin in Britain. That's according to the wine and spirit trade association, which says UK sales broke the 1 billion pound mark for the first time. It's the equivalent of an extra seven million bottles of gin compared to 2012, or around 200 million more G&Ts. 40 new distilleries opened in Britain last year alone. And that number has more than doubled since 2010.
To understand why you first need to know the history. The gin law, which dates back to 1751, was introduced to prevent people setting up small distilleries at home, which were commonplace at the height of the London gin craze of the early 1700s. It was overturned in 2009 after a small distillery won a legal battle for a licence to operate. The growth in distilleries since has been driven by a thirst for craft gin. Just like the trend for craft beer, consumers are increasingly turning from gins made by big corporations to artisanal spirits from local independent producers.
Silent Pool Distillers opened in 2015 in Surrey. It sold 40,000 bottles in its first year, and it's on course to sell a quarter of a million this year. It uses a whopping 24 botanicals, from linden flower to licorice, bitter orange, and rose petals.
There's nothing hidden, there's nothing around the back that looks like an oil refinery. Nothing leaves unless it's in a bottle. So there's no sense of, what did they really do to it when it went off in a truck and came back. Without sticking chemicals in it, without-- what really went on. It's a completely pure process that people can see from end to end.
As more craft gins enter the market, a gin subculture is growing. Small batch distilleries are putting on educational tours with tastings. While specialist gin bars are emerging, some offering over 500 different gins, and as many as 30 different types of tonic. For the multinational drinks companies, craft gins are both a threat and an opportunity.
What the bigger players are doing is, they're starting to buy up some of these successful small craft brands. So you've seen recently Beam Suntory had purchased Sipsmith. And then before that, you had Monkey 47 being bought by Pernod Ricard. But the reason that people drink these brands is because they're independent. They're very good at doing what they do. It's about buying them up and perhaps giving them more investment, more marketing muscle, but leaving the actual distillers to do what they do best.
Those involved in the craft gin scene talk a lot about the perfect serve. The new trend for wide rimmed copper glasses and the creative use of garnishes has been heavily influenced by Spain, one of the world's biggest gin markets. While craft beer has taken off around the globe, can craft gin do the same?
Craft brewers have taken over 12% of the US beer market. I don't see the same level of success for the distillers, partly because national tastes are so varied. The US is the world's biggest and most profitable drinks market, and it really is dominated by whiskey and vodka. And what we've seen over there is an explosion of vodka distillers. We have seen some growth in gin, and I would imagine that to continue. But particularly, in some of the big cities, rather than as a national phenomenon. I don't really see that happening.
Craft gin might not explode across the world in quite the same way that craft beer has. But the new wave of craft gin distillers have shaken up the market. Consumers like the choice. They like the bold new flavours, and they like the authenticity they're seeing in the independent brands. The big mainstream brands are sitting up and taking notice. Daniel Garrahan, Financial Times, London.