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The debatable details and directions of gin

With news just in from the WSTA that the gin boom is showing no sign of abating, we have a look at some potential problems in the category and find out what the industry is planning to do about it.

A forthcoming report from the WSTA (Wine and Spirit Trade Association) outlines how the gin craze is crazier than ever. British gin sales (domestic and export) broke £2 billion this year, doubling in value in five years, and sales are up 38% on last year. Time to crack open the gin and celebrate responsibly? Not so fast! There are clouds on the horizon. Firstly, in his next budget, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, is planning a rise in duty on spirits of 3.4% in line with inflation. Booo! The second problem is more existential – it’s a debate as to the very nature of gin itself. So it’s time to put on our thinking berets and ask, what is gin?

First, a bit of background

In April this year, Hayman’s (producer of a classic London Dry Gin) launched a punchily-titled campaign called “Call Time on Fake Gin.” Their beef was with gins that had the g-word on the label but didn’t taste of juniper.

Hayman'sHayman’s – gauntlet throwers

A meeting of minds in Balham

Hayman’s campaign led to a conference at their swanky new distillery in Balham, south London, earlier this month attended by great and good of the drinks world, and me. The panel was chaired by Edwin Atkinson, former head of the now-defunct Gin and Vodka Association, and featured Geraldine Coates (Gintime and drinks judge), Simon Difford (Difford’s Guide), Olivier Ward (Gin Foundry), David T. Smith (That Boutique-y Gin Company and drink historian), and Eric Seed (Haus Alpenz, an American drink importer).

Gin DebateThe panel debates under the watchful eye of Hayman’s stills

What’s the problem?

Gin is not strictly regulated like Scotch. There is no gin equivalent of the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association). It’s much easier than it was to open a distillery these days and the EU definitions for gin are quite flexible. In some ways this is a great thing. Much of gin’s success comes down to being so adaptable. Gin always is and always has been changing. But this sheer adaptability can be a problem. These were the main topics of discussion:

  • Gins that don’t taste like gins. These products might say gin on the label but have barely any juniper character.
  • Some gins are very sweet, but you won’t know it from looking at the label.
  • Categories such as Navy Strength Gin and Old Tom have no legal definition, so anyone can slap these words on the bottle.
  • Provenance: some gins claim to be from a certain place or small producer but are actually made by large contract distillers. These might be excellent products but they are potentially misleading the consumer.
  • Production methods aren’t clear such as whether a gin is made traditionally by distillation or by adding flavourings to neutral alcohol.
  • Some new gin brands just aren’t very good and some could be downright dangerous. One of the panel said that they have come across gins with dangerous levels of methanol in them (I should add that this is extremely rare).
  • Journalists and some companies (unofficially) are using the word ‘gin’ to describe non-alcoholic botanical drinks like Seedlip.
  • What is to be done?

    Gin DebateMany questions were raised – could these be the answers?

    There was much disagreement about this from the panel. Some (I can’t say who – Chatham House rule, darling) thought that gin’s nebulous nature was an asset, whereas others wanted lobbying for strict regulation along the lines of bourbon or Scotch whisky. But here are some simple ways that gin might be made a little easier for the consumer to understand:

  • Education: on a most basic level this would take the form of information on retailer shelves explaining the difference between products as they do with wine, rather than just being confronted with a wall of gin. Tesco, Asda and Wetherspoon pubs have already made strides here.
  • Enforcement: producers should take the lead in reporting mislabelled, misleading or dangerous gins to Trading Standards.
  • Organisation: there was some debate as how this might work, but one suggestion was for leading producers to form a voluntary association with a code of practice like the Red Tractor scheme for food or Cask Marque for beer, so that consumers would know they are getting the real thing.
  • The future

    At the end of the event, a working group was formed consisting of small and large distillers, as well as bartenders and other industry figures to come up with a coherent plan to protect gin’s good name. And then we all had a lovely refreshing gin & tonic. Watch this space for more information.

    Categories : Features

    4 comments on “The debatable details and directions of gin”

    1. Ruth Taffs says:

      I was so pleased to read this article, I do like gin, it is my drink of choice but recently to be bombarded with the amount of variations has been too much. It is diluting the ‘good’ gins that have been distilled traditionally for many years, everyone appears to be jumping on the band wagon and even those who have professed a dislike to gin in the past now appear to be avid consumers. Whilst it’s nice to hear that they have found one to their taste I do feel that the current ‘gin fashion craze’ is to the detriment of the original producers. Maybe you are right and the protection of Gin is required,

    2. Gary Cooper says:

      Its not about quality these days, it is in many cases simply about jumping on a fast moving money making bandwagon. I was astounded when offered a sample of Parma Violet gin last week at a country fair it tasted strongly of Parma Violet but nothing like gin, when I mentioned that to the seller I was told that was the point and that “young people like the taste of Parma Violet, because it reminds them of their childhood, but do not like the taste of gin” Something needs to be done or it might as well be another alcohpop and treated as such.

    3. Thanks for summarising the debate so well. Also to mention that Gin Foundry and WSTA are going to come together to produce a white paper around draft proposals for gin categories, just one of the potential steps to take this debate forward for the future.

      1. Olivier Ward says:

        Hi, to clarify, we’re not currently working with the WSTA on this, they have never approached us, and have up to the debate, never been keen to even discuss the issues around Gin nor where they as an organisation stand on any of the points made above. We will obviously place what we put together infront of many eyes, including theirs, for feedback ahead of publication. It’s also important to note that the “white paper” that Gin Foundry is putting together is intended to summarise the debate, explore the issues in depth and discuss what pitfalls each avenue being proposed will have should anyone chose to suggest ways to regulate (or should everyone chose not to) – so that others can inform themselves. It is primarily aimed to be educational as opposed to proposing a blueprint for what next.

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