The Losh Cause - Gin’s future at stake in explosion of flavour
Ensuring that a category actually tastes how it should, might seem a fairly fundamental requirement in the drinks industry. But are there brands exploiting the name of gin and undermining its long-term health? Chris Losh believes so and makes a call for stricter adherence to gin's heritage.
With the ultra-premium white spirit door having been kicked down by chi-chi vodkas, the mid- to top-end of the gin category is on a roll. And right on cue, here come the snake-oil salesmen.
Take G'Vine. It's made in Cognac. It has vine flowers in it. It has smart packaging, with lots of quality cues, and it sounds like a second-rate rapper.
All these things, in case you'd missed the point, make it "Very Modern". In fact, not just Very Modern, but, if you believe its owners, the "first contemporary gin" no less.
Leaving aside the fact that the team at Hendrick's might have something to say about that boast, G'Vine's claim is, in my opinion, nonsense for a rather more fundamental reason: it's not gin.
Sure, legally it can call itself gin - it doesn't (currently) break any rules. But the brand's whole USP is that it doesn't taste like what anyone else in the world would think of as gin. "If you don't like traditional gin, you'll love G'Vine," gushes the brand's owner, EuroGateWines. Certainly, the claim that it is "more flavourful and smooth, with a taste of evergreen trees", would make it unlike any gin that I've ever tasted. Indeed, unlike any gin that I would ever want to taste.
Whether such a product should be called gin in the first place is disingenuously glossed over by the company's CEO Jean-Sebastien Robicquet, who justifies EGW's policy of selling what is, essentially, tree-flavoured grappa as 'gin' just so the company can cash in on a hot category, by saying that "gin is the original flavoured vodka".
Nonsense, of course. Gin is not flavoured vodka. It's gin. It has a style and a taste of its own and to ignore that is to do the category and its rich heritage a gross disservice. Though, since they're clearly trying to produce a gin version of Grey Goose, I don't suppose that ethical niceties have loomed large in its business plan.
Perhaps more worrying is that G'Vine is part of what seems to be a growing trend. Barely a week goes by without my receiving information about yet another new small-batch, expensively-packaged ultra premium gin, selling upwards of US$40.
In itself, this wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Certainly it's good to see some money and energy going into a category that sleepwalked its way through the 1990s. But increasingly it seems to be less about a thriving artisanal distilling scene, and more about marketeers trying to rinse some money out of a category that's on a roll.
There's a definite formula, too: small production, geographical provenance, and a recipe that contains Miracle Ingredient X. The latter can be fruit, spice or, frankly, the sweat off an orang-utan's undercarriage, but its inclusion makes the new arrival unique and, therefore, so the thinking goes, justifies the price tag.
No wonder that some of the top barmen I've spoken to about this are apprehensive that the category could be setting itself up for an Emperors New Clothes moment.
"I fear that gin might go the way of vodka," said one.
It's not doing much for the category's long-term health either, with one London-based mixologist pointing out that younger barmen fall in love with the flashy new arrivals, with their unusual flavours, and convincing marketing spiel, but fail to realise that they are not typical expressions of the category.
"Hendricks has become very successful as a spirit," he said. "But it doesn't taste like gin."
This, in fact, is my biggest beef with some of the new arrivals: that they are not typical; that in their quest for uniqueness they have lost any right to call themselves gin.
Officially, of course, there is no problem. Gin has pretty open production rules and a very under-resourced controlling body. The Gin & Vodka Association in the UK probably receives less to spend in a year than Cognac's BNIC does in a month, and spends much of its time trying to prevent sharp operators around the world from passing off local versions of cheap generic gin as being the higher quality London Gin. Busy with chasing up obvious illegalities, it doesn't have the time for policing stylistic niceties.
A revision of the EU Spirit Drink Regulations was passed in February, and comes into force next month, which should make things easier, as the Gin & Vodka Association's Edwin Atkinson admits.
"There'll be plenty more room for us to take action," he says.
For me, though, the key to the new EU Regulations is not the precise definitions of 'gin', 'distilled gin' and 'London Dry gin', but the opening mission statement that "in all types of gin, the predominant flavour must be juniper".
With typical EU woolliness, the word 'predominant' is not defined further, and could be open to a fair bit of interpretation. But it still forms a good initial rap over the knuckles for those (like G'Vine) who seem intent on producing a product that is gin in name only.
Ensuring that a category actually tastes how it should, might seem a fairly fundamental requirement. But at a time when distillers are so obviously attempting to stretch gin's boundaries, it's one that needs to be enforced.
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