Twenty years ago ordering a gin and tonic in Britain would have marked you out as middle aged, middle class and probably a member of the golf club. None of these are bad things of course but in the world of marketing they are unlikely to confer the status of cool on your product.
But blimey how things have changed since then. Today gin distilleries have returned to London in force, very average pubs boast their extensive collections of the clear pleasure and the key players are seeing heady sales too. The UK is the world’s biggest exporter of the stuff with £390m worth of mother’s ruin being shipped in 2014, up from £288m in 2010. The UK government is even serving the spirit in its embassies in a bid to boost sales further.
If you look at the global market, sales for all gins remain a bit patchy but where the beefed-up growth is coming is in the premium sector, where large brands such as Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire look very happy. But perhaps the more intriguing story is the rise of the smaller independent companies, such as Sipsmith in London, that have become the drink of choice for numerous hip young things.
So how did this happen? Gin fits into the same world as craft beer, artisanal breads and new coffee shops. It’s a product that’s not complicated to make but which when produced in mass can be bad and bland. So just as with your neighbourhood coffee roastery, there was a nice gap here for people to do their own thing without massive costs. And if they had a mate who could design a nice label, then things were really looking up.
What’s fascinating is how all these circles of what could be described as hipster trades (I mean it in a nice way) have become powerful pockets of industry. With gin, for example, it was the fact that the guys running a gin distillery, in say east London, knew the people at the nearby speakeasy-style bar which prompted the arrival of so many gin-based cocktails on drinking lists. These small worlds made all of their own connections; quietly creating networks that the big guys will struggle to compete with.
So the growth of premium gin is a tale that’s engaging in the end because of what it tells us about a changing business landscape where tiny brands can set the running, be the harbingers of change. Perhaps fashions will change and the spirit will lose its lustre but for now let’s toast the gin brigade and their truly disruptive ways.
Andrew Tuck is Monocle’s editor.