A few years back I was at a literary festival giving a talk about booze history and someone in the audience asked where the current gin boom came from. Why was gin suddenly everywhere and there were now hundreds of brands when previously there had been just Gordon’s, Tanquerary and Beefeater?

It was a good question. My answer waffled about changing tastes and fashions and the growth of a food and drink culture, the cocktail boom, localism etc. The chap in the audience then said, that’s very interesting but wasn’t it just all about Sipsmith changing the law in 2000 to make it easier to get distillation licences? That’s what inspired gin’s current popularity.

I felt a little stupid because he was right, up to a point, without Sipsmith, you couldn’t have all the British gin brands we know and love today. But the boom has deeper roots, they go back to a crazy time called the 1980s. Hair gel was big, in fact, hair in general was big. Just take a look at Kirstie Alley in Cheers, her hair looks like it had its own agent.

What was gin like in the 1980s?

According to a lady I spoke to who worked for one of the big spirits conglomerates in marketing in the 1980s the consensus around gin at the time was ‘managed decline.’ Customers were getting older, new ones weren’t coming. The big brands still sold in large quantities but to a shrinking group of customers.

Gin was what your parents or grandparents drank. It was golf clubs, Jags, and personalised number plates; it was the Major from Fawlty Towers or Margo and Jerry Leadbetter in The Good Life. In the ‘80s wine was in, or vodka for cocktails. Gin was not.

Dick Bradsell

The late, great Dick Bradsell (credit: Diffordsguide.com)

Bombay Sapphire, Dick Bradsell and Oasis

And yet new things were happening in the gin world. In 1986 International Distillers & Vintners (IDV) – the forerunner company of Diageo – launched a new gin called Bombay Sapphire. It came in a fancy blue bottle and it had a light, fresh flavour profile that was aimed squarely at the vodka drinker. 

In 1994 top Beatles tribute band Oasis released ‘Supersonic‘ which contained the line “I’m feeling Supersonic/ Give me gin & tonic.” Suddenly gin didn’t look quite so pedestrian.

One of the places Oasis used to hang out with top celebs like Kate Moss, Jude Law, and Steve Wright was the Atlantic Bar which was run by a certain Dick Bradsell, best known as the inventor of the Espresso Martini.

Bradsell pioneered a return to cocktails made from scratch with fresh ingredients when everyone else was making luridly coloured concoctions with syrups. On both sides of the Atlantic, the ocean not the bar, bartenders were rediscovering the classic cocktails from the late 19th and early 20th century, which were largely based on gin. But Bradsell wasn’t just content with perfecting the Dry Martini, he also invented a modern classic gin cocktail, the Bramble. 

Hendrick's Gin

Nobody had seen a gin bottle like this before

Gin booms

At the close of the ‘90s, William Grant and Sons, the family firm behind Glenfiddich whisky, began work on a new gin, Hendricks. Created by master distiller Lesley Gracie it boasted an unusual rose and cucumber flavour profile and distinctive packaging like a Victorian medicine bottle. Nobody had seen anything like it when it was launched in America in 2000 and the UK in 2003. Served with a slice of cucumber, lots of ice and tonic water, nobody had tasted anything like it either.

Hendricks is made in Scotland as is Tanqueray and Beefeater. Bombay Sapphire, since 1997 owned by Bacardi, was made by Greenalls, in Warrington. There were only two distilleries in London, the home of London dry gin, Beefeater and Thames Distillers. Due to archaic regulations dating back to the ‘gin craze’ of the 18th century only licences for a still greater than 1800 litres could be issued. So though there were some exciting new brands like Jensens that arrived in the 00s, they were usually made by contract distillers.

Sipsmith distillery

Sipsmith distillery – a genuine game-changer

The Sipsmith moment

This all changed in 2009 when the team at Sipsmith led by industry veterans Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hal, as well as drink historian Jared Brown, successfully lobbied HMRC for a small scale distilling licence, and opened in Chiswick, West London. They were inspired by the growth of craft distilling in the US in the mid 00s. Thanks to Sipsmith the floodgates opened and the number of distilleries grew exponentially. The cost of entry could be as low as £500 to buy a little Portuguese copper alembic still and then obtain a licence from HMRC.

In the late 2010s, it seemed that not a day went by where we didn’t receive a press release about a new product usually with some tenuous origin story about an old recipe found in the attic. Seemingly every town got its own gin, though many were made by contract producers like Thames Distillers (and nothing wrong with that as long as it’s clear).

Gin clubs proliferated around the country as people discovered that it was much more fun just to drink gin rather than discuss a book that you’ve barely read before moving onto the drinking. 

The big boys began to take an interest in what was going on. In 2016, Sipsmith was acquired by Beam Suntory while Pernod Ricard hoovered up various smaller brands including Malfy. Flavoured gin, gin with flavours and often colours added post-distillation took off in a big way with Gordnon’s Pink becoming Britain’s best selling of any type.

Is the gin boom over?

From a high in 2018, there was only one way for the UK gin market to go. Exacerbated first by Covid and then by soaring energy costs, many distilleries have gone out of business since those heady days and there are far fewer new brands coming to market in the UK. Our buyer Lisa Halstead commented: “It looks like the gin boom is over. We saw standard gin start to decline around five years ago [2018] and premium and flavoured were driving significant growth. Since then, we have seen both premium and flavoured plateau and now are pretty steady in terms of market share”. 

And yet the gin boom has changed the market irrecoverably. Ian Buxton, author of 101 Gins to Try Before You Die explained: “Gin has captured the imagination of a new group of increasingly enthusiastic consumers even if the initial frenzy has died down somewhat.” 

Meanwhile outside the UK, gin is still expanding with new brands and expressions coming out of Japan, China, Australia and all over Europe. Just because we might be cooling on gin, the rest of the world isn’t. There’s all kinds of innovation within the category including unusual botanicals, cask ageing and zero and low ABV iterations like Tanqueray 0.0. 

What does the future hold for gin? Who knows. But we’re definitely not going back to the ‘80s.