Gin – Are the Brits Ahead of the Game?

As a Brit, living on the other side of ‘the pond’, it’s more usual to see trends emerging in the United States followed by their arrival here in the United Kingdom, but it may just be that we’re ahead of the curve when it comes to interest in – and consumption of – gin, an upward trend that both our countries are experiencing today.

The USA and the UK are both big markets for gin, yet there are currently some significant – and growing – differences: looking at the figures, the UK is drinking just over half a liter per head per year, over twice as much as the USA, with Americans consuming a little short of a quarter of a liter. These figures from 2017 don’t reflect the fact that 73 million bottles of gin were sold in the UK in 2018 – significantly up on 2017 and more bottles per head, indeed, than the whole of our much smaller 67 million population. On a like for like basis, these figures should mean that the USA ought to be drinking no less than 180 million bottles (2018 population: 327.2 million) instead of half this number, so this suggests there’s considerable potential.

Perhaps, even more, telling, UK gin sales have tripled over the last 5 years. There are now hundreds of different gin brands on the UK market from over 360 UK-based distilleries (54 opened in 2018 alone) and, in the process, gin has supplanted whisky in the rankings and is now the second most popular drink sold in the UK on-trade, behind vodka. The UK’s Wine & Spirits Trade Association reports that a huge part of this “surge” can be attributed to sales of colored and flavored gins – pink, orange, violet hues and strawberry, plum, rhubarb, red wine, lemon, pineapple, even chocolate flavors, to name but a few. In fact, the latest data show that whilst flavored gin only makes up a fifth of total UK gin sales, it’s driven up revenue by half, growing over seven-fold in a single year.

This so-called ‘ginaissance’ is largely down to increased interest by consumers in craft products, premium quality, the ingredients and their provenance (where everything is from), the production methods used, the skills of the individual distillers, distinctiveness, innovation, individuality and the choice this offers, not to say the back stories and heritage of the producer distilleries. This is not something that’s in any way unique to the UK, nor to gin – the same strong market dynamics are being seen across spirits categories in the USA, too – it’s just that it’s so marked in the UK and it’s affecting gin more than any other spirit.

So how does this relate to the USA?

Gin sales volumes in the States are also rising, albeit up just shy of 2%, with British­-made gin proving particularly popular, a fact that’s reflected in the rise of overall British gin exports, up some 19% in the first half of 2018 and predicted to double into 2019.

With much of the expansion in all spirits sectors down to the growth in craft – overall alcohol consumption is in decline in both the USA and UK, with consumers drinking less, but better – recent figures from the American Craft Distillers Association show that the number of craft distilleries in the US grew by 20% year on year at the same time as the Wine and Spirits Trade Association puts UK distillery growth at 15%.

The craft dynamic in both countries is very much about spirits made with passion, dedication, and attention to detail and, in terms of gin, to singular recipes that are unique to each brand. As such it’s about the people behind the product who care about every element that went into creating the liquid in the glass: from the source of the neutral grain spirit – not all ethanols are the same, with noticeable differences in flavor and mouthfeel – those spirits being made from corn, wheat, rye or barley (most usually) but also from molasses, or even milk… to the different methods used for distilling and re-distilling and then extracting the flavor of the botanicals used (like steeping and boiling, or vapor infusion, or by vacuum)… to the number and type of botanicals themselves: apart from juniper, you can perm any number and proportion to get an infinite number of flavor profiles from the likes of coriander, angelica, the zest of various citrus fruits, orris root, cardamom, cassia bark, cinnamon, and licorice – these are the most common, but there’s an alphabet’s worth that is being used by modern distillers.

Both countries have clear definitions for what constitutes gin, essentially a neutral spirit flavored with juniper berries, but all these variables mean that no two gins from different distillers can be – or, indeed, are – ever the same. Of course this almost limitless freedom to mix art and science, chemistry and engineering, to be creative, to use any part of almost any plant, or even use flavourings that aren’t directly plant-based, is what provides the hugely pleasing palate of flavours, the product differences and the choices that exactly reflect what today’s consumers are looking for.

These factors also work in gin’s favor when it comes to cocktails, another dynamic market that we’re seeing on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, even if the flavor profiles, with craft gins, in particular, more and more reflecting their localities and the local herbs, plants, and botanicals being used, are leading to considerable variations between countries. Both our countries have long-standing cocktail traditions and, on its own or mixed, there’s going to be a gin that will satisfy a bartender or mixologist’s take in London or New York, Edinburgh or Los Angeles on a what will please their customers and get them coming back for more.

Gin displays the imagination of the distiller and gin’s herbal flavors are there to stimulate the creativity of every bar with gins able to create any number of new ‘classics’, like a Yellow Tomato Bloody Mary (forget the vodka), White Negroni (no Campari or Italian Vermouth), or Barbados Gin Punch (no rum!) – and also to make the best gimlets, smashes and martinis, bringing all those new gins tastes to the party.

Whilst it may be stretching a point that “we have everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language”, as the author and playwright Oscar Wilde would have it, there are indeed clear parallels between our two countries and the new and dynamic market for gin. We Brits are certainly leading the way on this at the moment – only time will tell if America will follow us on this occasion!

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