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Gin: Analyzing a market in flux

Pascale Ruchon
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Gin: Analyzing a market in flux

Gin has gone from rotgut to chic cocktail. Today, it makes up a creative, cosmopolitan market teeming with products — perhaps too many. So what's the risk? That an overly crowded marketplace could blur visibility and bore consumers, even when it comes to the burgeoning premium niche segment.

Does gin have a nationality? Not really. One might think it’s English, since it was in England that the spirit first gained renown in the late 17th century. But in reality, gin came into being much earlier in Holland in the form of Jenever brandy. Not constrained by an appellation of origin, it spread to the four corners of the globe. Today even London dry gin, the most popular, can be produced in Spain or Japan as well as in England.

Gin has seen its ups and downs. It took the blame for a wave of alcoholism in England in the 18th century and the lack of production regulations earned it the label of “bathtub gin” during the Prohibition in the United States. At that time, it was made into cocktails to mask its execrable taste. Yet at the same time, across the Atlantic, gin was associated with the much more festive image of the bar scene in the Roaring Twenties. The glamorous touch of James Bond’s dry Martini, a blend of gin and vermouth, also contributed to its reputation. In 1987, when gin had all but fallen into oblivion, it came back to the forefront in the form of a sparkling blue bottle, Bombay Sapphire. The name, associated with the effigy of Queen Victoria, refers to the spirit’s popularity in the Indies of the British Empire. It is surely in India—or in the tropics at least—that the idea came into being of keeping malaria at bay by mixing bitter quinine, gin, sugar and sparkling water—in short, the gin and tonic.

The gin market is currently having a good run and since the mid-2010s could even be deemed a success story. Gin has gone so far as to take market share from vodka, the undisputed star of white spirits. And gin’s popularity is spreading to new territories; in France, it was the fastest growing spirit last year, with volume growth of 8.7%, according to IWSR. In reaction, major spirits players have grown their presence in the market. In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, and with Gordon’s and Tanqueray, two heavyweights in the sector, already in its portfolio, Diageo acquired Aviation American Gin. Owned by Davos Brands and actor Ryan Reynolds, the brand significantly boosted the premium gin segment in the US last year. Mixology is also a reason behind the rise of gin. “Its growing success can be attributed to bartenders, who understood what gin could offer in terms of creativity, as well as to premium tonic waters, such as Fever Tree. Sweetness had gradually taken bitterness away from the cocktail scene. Bartenders have brought this up to date with a new ‘perfect’ serve that enhances the value: pool glass, premium tonic water, toppings...” notes Séverin Bayle, marketing manager, modern spirits at La Martiniquaise, owner of Gibson’s gin.

A wealth of proposals

Gin’s growth isn’t measured so much in volume of liters sold, but rather in the number of new brands and products. The offer is heterogeneous, which is primarily due to the way the spirit is made: the starting point is a grain alcohol base (wheat or other) with a neutral taste in which juniper and other plants, spices and fruits are macerated and redistilled. The ingredients used for maceration are increasingly diverse, making its aromatic palette infinitely varied. Yuzu, bamboo, Sancho pepper for Japanese gin Ki No Bi, Buddha’s hand and lotus flower for the Vietnamese Saigon Baigur... Each distillery has its own recipe and each region its own bouquet. This has made gin a regional and even local product. The Royal Collection Trust, part of the Royal House of England, a gin infused with plants grown in the gardens of Buckingham Palace, is a case in point.

The craze for small batches goes hand in hand with the rise in micro-distilleries, but is also an opportunity for established distilleries to diversify. This is notably the case for cognac houses in France that have begun producing gin. Maison Ferrand was a pioneer in this field, launching French gin Citadelle in 1996, which has become a commercial success, including in export markets. “Cognac’s distillation generally begins between November and December and must be completed by the end of March to comply with the appellation. The stills are therefore available most of the year to make gin, which is not subject to seasonality,” explains Vincent Voisin, head of strategy and communication at Linea. The Cognac-based design agency created the packaging for Osmoz, a gin that the Montifaud family firm makes from grape brandy. Gin also does not require aging, so it offers good short-term profitability.

This has generated a niche market, with the playing field becoming increasingly crowded. So to stand out, brands best have a solid concept. Lord of Barbès, a small Parisian brand, plays on the discrepancy between the English-style dandy and African exoticism (the gin contains monkey bread, the fruit of the baobab tree) with a touch of humor. The company has also pioneered refills for the gin category; in 2016 it launched a blue glass five-liter bottle that can be refilled at wine shops, and since 2020, a refill box with a tap.

How to stand out?

When it comes to packaging design, gin has some textbook examples, often with a strong focus on color: blue with Bombay Sapphire (Bacardi), which recently launched a limited edition with artist Hebru Brantley in connection with the Black Lives Matter movement; green from Tanqueray for a simulated shaker, which came in a lemonpress punt effect for the No. Ten version; black apothecary bottle for Hendrick’s, part of William Grant & Sons. Lesley Gracie, master distiller at Hendrick’s confessed his surprise when he first saw the bottle in 1999: “This stocky black bottle was the exact opposite of what was being made at the time. In the end, it’s just what we needed for our gin, curiously infused with rose and cucumber. Giving up conventional thinking, zig when others zag—that was our plan.”

This aesthetic creativity continues, but some believe it is maybe going a bit overboard. “In the saturated world of gin, many brands have begun to tell increasingly complex and bizarre stories about equally complex and bizarre gins, which has unfortunately led to increasingly complex and bizarre design executions,” quips Jon Davies, cofounder of Butterfly Cannon, who advocates a return to simplicity and emotion to connect brands and consumers. This English agency has several references in the gin sector: the Art Deco packaging of a special edition of Tanqueray, the bottle of Blackwoods millésimes inspired by the siphon sodas of yesteryear, or the colorful and Hispanic style of Verano (William Grant), a new fruit-flavored range.

Gins that feature an extra infusion of fruit or flowers are indeed in fashion. This gives them a milder and more playful flavor, which is said to make them more accessible, especially to the female target. Ready- made sparkling gins are also coming to the fore, in bottles or cans: the spirit can be mixed with Spanish sparkling wines at Kaava or with sparkling waters with fruit flavors in 58 Gin, a London-based brand that is riding the wave of hard seltzers to attract younger consumers. For purists, these eccentricities associated with a galloping democratization of their favorite spirit are not viewed kindly. “I stock about 40 gin references today, compared to 70 eight years ago,” says Jean-Luc Tucoulat, owner of the Parisian store Les Caves du Roy. What interests me is anticipating trends, not following them. What’s trendy these days is vermouth, for example, but no longer gin, which has become a product of social status.” That being said, given its tonic spirit, gin does not appear to be fading away any time soon!

Read Formes de Luxe's Autumn 2020 issue for the full version of the report.

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