Comment – Spirits – When is a Gin Not a Gin?
The Hoxton 'is it, isn't it' debate has been raging here in the UK since the 'gin' was launched last month
The recent launch of a gin brand here in the UK has riled traditionalist gin fans. Richard Woodard believes the fuss is merited – calling a gin-like spirit gin is sure to get people's juices flowing, concedes Woodard. But, hey, why not call it a vodka and have done?
As drinks launches go, I’ve got to admit that it’s not one to quicken the pulse and set the heart racing, even if Harrods is currently featuring it as the store’s spirit of the month for May. But, Hoxton Gin – the brainchild of Hoxton Pony bar owner Gerry Calabrese and named after that painfully cool bit of London just north of the City – may have a significance way beyond its apparently humble roots.
You can’t move for new gins in the UK at the moment, and each Tanqueray wannabe appears to compete for the title of 'Most Outlandish Botanical' in its list of ingredients. Dragon eye, baobab, hops and heather are just some of the unlikely substances steeped and infused to create recent launches; who’s going to buy them in a vastly overcrowded market is another matter altogether.
And now, here comes Hoxton, two-and-a-half years in the making, and boasting a shopping list to tax the average deli: coconut, grapefruit, ginger, tarragon, juniper and iris. I have to confess that I’m yet to sample its delights but, to quote one experienced industry observer (who I think was only half-joking): “It tastes like Malibu.”
I don’t mean to pick on Hoxton in particular – Brockmans (tastes like Ribena) and Saffron (looks like Tizer) are two more extremely un-gin-like gins that spring to mind, and they’re not the only ones by any means. But, all of these products are playing fast and loose with the identity of the category. It’s an issue which I’ve discussed in the past – not helped by the wild and woolly regulations that govern the spirit’s production.
These rules dictate that gin must have a “predominant taste of juniper” – a helpfully subjective term which is practically unenforceable (I’m not aware of action being taken against any gin for this reason in recent times, despite the flavour profiles of a few of the more bizarre new entrants to the market).
Don’t get me wrong; there have been several other new gins in the recent past which have successfully given the category a rejuvenating new spin – Hendrick’s unlikely combination of cucumber and rose petal being the most obvious example - enhancing the gin experience without trampling its juniper essence into the ground.
The offending 'new wave' gins still often claim to be more than 50% juniper in their botanical make-up – which conveniently overlooks the fact that the regulations don’t stipulate content, but flavour – and say they’re trying to entice “people who don’t like gin” into the category.
Well, call me old-fashioned (it has been known), but while recruiting new consumers is obviously a 'Very Important Thing', I’ve always had the strange belief that if someone doesn’t like something, they should probably try drinking something else. If you can’t change a consumer’s mind about your product, does that mean you have to alter what makes it unique in the first place? Strange thinking, if you ask me.
Without getting lost in the minutiae of the European Spirit Regulations, you’d think the wackiest of the new gins would be better classified as flavoured vodkas; so, given vodka’s immense global popularity, why aren’t they?
The reason, I’d suggest, is that vodka isn’t especially cool any more. Even as they pour gallons of the stuff into cocktails and mixed drinks, bartenders are bored with the boom, pummeled into ennui by the outlandish claims of several too many super-premium vodkas, which have been filtered 48 times through Kryptonite and powdered unicorn horn.
Gin’s heritage, flavour complexity (even within the regulations) and historic role in the greatest cocktails give a sheen of authenticity which arguably only a few eastern European vodkas can match. In that sense, creating an outlandishly botanical-ed spirit and labelling it as gin rather than vodka is that oldest of drinks industry sports, bandwagon-jumping, and a veiled compliment to premium gin’s current renaissance.
So, while premium gin brand owners might be a little concerned about the way in which some of these new launches are monkeying around with the identity of the category, in the long term, I’d be more worried if I were a premium vodka producer. Because, if opinion-formers such as bartenders are increasingly losing interest and confidence in your product, can the consumer be too far behind them?
And, will we look back at this time as the moment when premium vodka’s apparently irrepressible growth began to slacken into eventual decline?
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