The growth of the gin category continues at an incredible rate. It isn’t too long ago that bottles gathered dust on shop shelves, the product not enjoying the popularity that it does today. It is a fantastic time for gin drinkers and enthusiasts as many more exciting, delicious gins are now available to buy. However it is this incredibly fast growth that threatens to damage the category which risks losing it’s identify and confusing consumers.
In a bid to secure market share, new “distillers” are continuously searching for new unique selling points at the cost of quality and stretching the legal definitions of gin to the limit and beyond. Furthermore there are many new inexperienced distillers who are manufacturing products that they believe to be gin but which often fall short of what the legal definitions prescribe to be gin, particularly that which states that the predominant flavour (of gin) must be juniper.
Look & Feel of Gin
Certainly at craft level, how a gin looks and is presented seems to have become almost more important than how it tastes. The fact that it is presented in an expensive elaborate ceramic bottle often results in sales even if the consumer has no idea of what the product tastes like or even if the spirit within is what it claims to be on the bottle.
At a local level, in order to cash in as much as possible on the current gin boom, inexperienced distillers using automated stainless steel stills to produce 1000s of litres of contract spirit which can be described as being flavoured vodka at best, are selling this on to individuals who are labelling it up as gin and selling it in small batches. Meet the imaginatively named “(Insert town name) gin”.
A very highly regarded manufacturer in Stoke on Trent announced this recently that it was about to launch gin packaged in a decorative ceramic bottles shaped as bottle kilns. When I enquired as to what type of still was used to produce the gin they apologetically stated that they were unsure. When they announced the new product on social media the post achieved nearly 12000 shares in a little under 17 hours. I’m sure they’ll sell a lot of bottles of their product about which they know very little.
There are products being launched on an almost weekly basis that are so cosmetically manufactured that they look like at best fizzy soft drinks and at worst nail varnish. By law, gin must taste of juniper. If a product is being marketed as Parmo Violet gin, as Strawberry Candy Floss gin or as Sherbert Lemon gin, it is highly unlikely that the prominent flavours being displayed are that of juniper.
The way that our gins are sometimes served in bars has an impact too. All too often a gin will be served in huge goldfish bowl glasses with masses of ice, multiple garnishes and mixed with incredibly flavoursome tonics, more a gin cocktail than a gin and tonic, but once all of those flavours are built on top of the gin, the consumer is in any case unlikely to be able to detect whether the overpowered gin tastes of juniper or not and so the manufacturer gets away with producing a product more akin to vodka than gin.
What Is Gin?
In 2008 legislation was passed that stated that all gins must be:
- Made with suitable ethyl alcohol with JUNIPER* berries and other flavourings. (see note below)
- The ethyl alcohol must be distilled to the minimum standards stated in the Spirit Drink Regulations.
- The predominant flavour must be JUNIPER.
- Water may be added to reduce the strength of the gin but it must have a minimum retail strength of 37.5%abv.
- Further ethyl alcohol can be added after any distillation.
* There are very few rules defining gin but at the very least a gin must taste of and have the aroma of juniper. If a gin does not taste of juniper it is not gin, and the word ‘gin’ should not appear on the label. If your strawberry candy floss gin tastes of strawberry candy floss and not juniper then it is a strawberry candy floss spirit drink and not gin. The product manufacturer knows by wrongly adding the word gin then popularity, sales and profitability are likely to be maximised. I recently challenged a local company distilling gin having tasted one of their products and discovered that it did not taste of juniper. To my surprise their attitude was that because they were not told exactly what the proportion of juniper berries in relation to the rest of the botanicals used in the production of their gin, then they were not at fault and that it not tasting of juniper was a matter of opinion.
The rules also legislate on three distinct definitions of gin:
- The ethyl alcohol does not have to be redistilled.
- Flavours can be either approved artificial or natural and these can be simply compounded (mixed with the alcohol).
- No restriction on the addition of other flavourings such as sweeteners or colouring.
- Must be made in a TRADITIONAL** still by redistilling neutral alcohol in the presence of natural flavourings but there is no minimum strength of the resulting distillate.
- Other flavourings, sweeteners and approved additives can be added after distillation whether natural or artificial.
- Distilled Gin may have approved colourings added.
** The legal definitions for both Distilled Gin and London Dry Gin state that traditional stills must be used for the production of the gin. To me, traditional stills mean copper pot stills. Many of the very recent small scale distillers are not using traditional stills, moreover most are using stainless steel automated stills. Stills made of copper make a clean and smooth spirit. The copper removes volatile sulphuric compounds which if remained in the distillate could result in unwanted flavours and aromas in the final product. Indeed the manufacturers of some of these new automated stainless steel stills know this, and so include small pieces of copper in chambers in the necks of their stills. The new automated stainless steel stills barely have room for enough botanicals to be used within the distillation process, and particularly do not allow enough space for the amount of juniper berries needed to ensure that the resulting finished product tastes and smells of juniper. I know of at least three brands of ‘gin’ being manufactured by new distillers with these automated stainless steel stills within a 30 mile range of my home in Staffordshire, their brands being very well known locally. The only part of the process that can claim to be handcrafted in the manufacture of gins in many of the new automated stainless steel stills is when the operator depresses the green ‘on’ switch on the front of the machine. The skill and knowledge required to accurately make the spirit cut is redundant as the machine takes over that responsibility from the operator.
- Must be distilled in traditional** stills by redistilling ethyl alcohol in the presence of natural flavourings (botanicals).
- The methanol level in the ethyl alcohol must not be greater than 5 grams per hectolitre of 100%abv alcohol.
- Flavourings used must be approved natural flavourings (botanicals) and they must impart their flavour DURING THE DISTILLATION PROCESS***.
- No artificial flavourings are permitted in the production of London Gin.
- The resulting distillate must have a minimum strength of 70%abv.
- NO FLAVOURINGS CAN BE ADDED AFTER DISTILLATION***.
- Other than a small amount of sweetener and water, nothing else may be added.
- No colouring can be added to London Gin.
*** A local ‘craft’ distiller near to where I live produces a gin presented in a decorative ceramic bottle and labelled as ‘London Dry Gin’. The back label states that flavours are infused after distillation, this precludes the product from being called London Dry Gin.
How To Buy Gin
Due to the change in the law regarding the minimum size of a still used to produce gin, many new small scale distilleries have recently opened throughout the UK, many of them making fantastic products of quality and integrity. For me, when a craft gin from a small local distillery is good, as well as tasting of juniper, the distiller paints a picture of the local environment through the use of local botanicals that grow near to the spirit’s place of birth. This idea of placeness is very important to me as a consumer and appeals to those who are interested in a product’s provenance and journey from field to table.
Placeness portrayed by a distillers use of local botanicals shows that they have invested time in creating and developing their brand. Their product name may also tie in to placeness and provenance but some lack that time invested as apparent all too often at the moment when a gin is simply named “(insert name of town) Gin”.
Some gin brands have been around for many years, some for decades, some for hundreds of years and have survived through challenging times when gin sometimes wasn’t as popular as it is today. These brands have survived because of the skill and tradition that exists within their businesses which enables them to consistently make quality gins.
- Before you buy a bottle gin make sure you taste it neat. If it tastes of juniper (piney / citrusy) its good, and legal! If it doesn’t taste of juniper it isn’t gin.
- Check out the distiller’s website and look for a description of the production process. Distillers using traditional copper pot sills will be eager for you to see their wonderful stills and there will be photos all over their website. If there is no photo of a still it is highly likely that it is either a) being produced in an automated stainless still or b) being made elsewhere on a site making contract gin in an automated stainless steel still.
- Go to gin shows and taste gin (neat)! A great way to find out about gin products is to attend shows and tastings and speak to the distillers directly to find out about their production processes.
- Buy your gin from your local independent who should be able to offer advice.
If gin is to survive and to keep hold of the it’s identity, I believe it is important to support those distillers, whether big or small, who have invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in proper gin distilleries with copper pot stills. A 500ltr traditional copper pot still will cost the craft distiller in excess of £100,000 to buy and install. Unfortunately, especially in the area where I live, more than half of the spirit that is being produced has been distilled using automated stainless steel stills that any of us could buy for a little more than a couple of thousand pounds off the internet. More than that, I think it is important to support those distillers who are set on exacting standards, who are driven by a desire to create a fantastic quality product, who have passion, skill and knowledge and who are in it for the long term and not just jumping on the bandwagon to make a quick buck.
Non Alcoholic Gin
By definition there is no such thing as non alcoholic gin. By law gin has to be a minimum of 37.5% alcohol by volume.
Call Time On Fake Gin
In September 2018 producers of the finest of gins Haymans launched their campaign “Call Time on Fake Gin” highlighting the rise in producers marketing gins that have only trace notes of juniper or juniper character overshadowed by other dominant flavourings. Have a look at the website for more information.
It truly is an amazing time for the category and for all of us who love gin. There is so much choice of fantastic product for us to buy and enjoy, lets not let fake gins ruin the fun for us. By demanding that our gin tastes of juniper we can help to call time on fake gin.