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Published:  23 July, 2008

From mother's ruin and the stews of Hogarth's London, to Dorothy Parker and style bars, gin has always been a spirit shot through with imagery. But how much substance is there to today's gin market, and are the modern, premium brands outperforming the traditional favourites? Joanne Simon reports

Gin may not be considered a connoisseur's drink, but there can be very few bars in the world where it is not served. It may have no vintages, but it does have subtle and allusive flavours. And unlike whisky, which is emphatically masculine, it is largely free of associations of gender or even, nowadays, of class. Yet there have always been problematic cultural connotations attached to a drink described by Samuel Pepys in 1693 as strong water made of juniper', and drunk as a remedy for various ailments rather than for pleasure. For starters, it is an incontestable historical fact that when popular consumption was at its most extreme - with six million English consuming five million gallons of gin in 1727 alone - the drink was synonymous with a national state of mass drunkenness more shameful than any before or since. It was only after the introduction of new licensing and taxation laws that gin became more expensive and managed to claw its way out of the gutters of Hogarth's Gin Lane. By the 19th century, it was once again enjoying popularity for medicinal reasons - or at least to help colonial life in far-flung, mosquito-ridden places go with a swing, while the quinine in tonic water warded off malaria. But it was in the cocktail and jazz age of the 1920s that gin really took off, in the booming cities of the United States, usually with a dash of Vermouth in the form of a dry Martini, the quintessential cocktail. Let's get out of these wet clothes and into a dry Martini', a member of writer/ socialite Dorothy Parker's Algonquin round table is reported to have said. Fashionable and respectable at last until, some years later, the US president Jimmy Carter famously castigated executives and their tax-deductible $50 Martini lunch'. Clearly, the history of gin has been one of ups and downs, with mainstream brands experiencing a steady decline in year-on-year sales, even as they remained a fixture on most drinks trolleys and maintained gin's rank as the UK's third biggest spirits category. Now, thanks to vastly improved supermarket own-label brands and a great deal of price promotion in the past year, the total gin category is growing in the off-trade, with volume up 2% year on year to 17,892,700 litres (229.7 million), according to AC Nielsen. But the on-trade is still down 3%, to 4,993,500 litres (262.9 million). Meanwhile, other white spirits, especially vodka, have consistently surged ahead - due, probably, to the simple fact that their neutral tastes are less demanding on unsophisticated palates. But that picture is changing as consumers become better educated and more demanding. The gin category is seeing a switch by consumers from the old-fashioned, strongly juniper-flavoured styles of standard London Dry gin, to the higher quality and higher (40%-plus) ABV of premium gins,' says Eugene Bacot, spokesman for Bombay Sapphire. It is important to distinguish between standard brands which are declining and premium brands which are growing. And this is the case in both the off- and on-trade,' he says.

A misunderstood drink The basic definition of gin is simple: it is a beverage made from neutral alcohol which has been distilled from cereals, natural sugars or other natural carbohydrates, and whose flavour comes from the addition of fruit, herbs and spices - called botanicals - after the first distillation. It is then redistilled to create an exceptionally clear, pure drink, whose chief aesthetic quality is the freshness it derives from juniper, its signature ingredient. Distilled water is then added, amid a growing body of opinion that 37.5% abv (the UK's main gin strength) is simply not enough to hold the lighter aromas. What's not to like? Not only are gin's botanicals fashionably green', each of them also has well-established medicinal, or at least healthy, properties. Good gin is also extremely pure, making it a surprisingly appropriate complement to increasingly popular cuisines - such as Thai - which do not necessarily pair very well with wine. But consumption of gin-based products remains overwhelmingly fixed in the early evening, because it remains a staple of cocktails. And the style bar revolution, particularly in big UK cities like Manchester, Glasgow and London, has made cocktails popular again - naturally putting gin in direct competition with vodka, the stealth spirit', as top London mixologist Dick Bradsell describes it. Vodka is all brand and no flavour. It is always its co-ingredients that make the drink taste of anything. Vodka may be seen as a really versatile spirit, but it is normally more an injection of alcohol into an already completed flavour mix. No classic cocktail has ever been invented with the flavour of plain vodka,' he says. Bradsell believes the use of gin as a base in traditional cocktails is a different matter altogether. Gin has character and it is this character that comes through in the many traditional cocktails that are still popular today. Gin cocktails have something to offer the drinker and something for the bartender to work with. They add to a drink, rather than merely make it more alcoholic. A White Lady made with vodka would just be an egg and lemon sour, but with the spirit of juniper the whole drink comes together, giving the imbiber a complete flavour experience. A Bramble made with vodka just misses the point. In fact, a Bramble made with inferior Gin misses the point too.' Indeed, Bradsell says he strongly suspects that gin's mid-20th century demise was due to the dominance of cheaper brands, with their one-dimensional tinny-ness' and none too pleasing aftertastes'. Similarly, he believes the general all-round increase of gin sales now can be linked to the rise of modern premium brands, with their refined characteristics and less crude top notes.

Beefing up sales 2001 may well be remembered as a year when many gin suppliers finally admitted that the stereotypical gin drinker - older, middle class and female - wasn't too far from reality, and that it was time to shed traditional imagery and adopt new strategies to attract younger consumers. In a move designed to appeal to a broader consumer base', Allied Domecq's Beefeater, with steady annual case sales of around 2.2 million, was the first to get a new look - with its younger, more assertive Yeoman launched at a strobe-lit event in Madrid, no less. The challenge for Beefeater and, indeed, the whole gin category is to rid itself of the old stuffy image, which is endemic within mainstream and standard gin brands,' says Beefeater brand manager Rosie Kent. We had felt for some time that the premium status and positioning of Beefeater was not truly reflected in the brand's appearance.' In the off-trade, the new look appears to have paid off. MAT data to October 2001 showed Beefeater growing by 76.7%, compared with 0.6% for the category as a whole. Bi-monthly figures for September/October, meanwhile, showed a rise of 109% compared with market growth of just 6.6%. MAT results showed growth of 330% in the multiple grocer sector, with bi-monthly data (September/October) indicating over 340% growth. Sales have soared, reflecting both the success of our repackaging initiative to give the brand a more contemporary feel and the increased distribution now enjoyed in key multiple grocers,' says Kent. Meanwhile, at 40% abv, she says Beefeater's distinctive taste is not masked through mixing - a core component in style bar culture. The new packaging, along with Beefeater's premium taste proposition, makes the brand a natural choice for the style bar market, where brands such as Gordon's could be considered too mainstream.' With an extensive bar staff education and tasting programme forming the basis for growing distribution and sales, Beefeater is almost seven times bigger than its nearest competitor, a position that, says Kent, provides a solid distribution platform from which to build future volumes'.

The world's fastest growing premium spirit brand? Bombay Sapphire, at 40% abv, is distinctively lighter in flavour than other, more heavily juniper-flavoured gins, as a result of its vapour infusion method of distillation and the secret proportion in which its ten botanicals are blended. The iconic blue bottle is designed to appeal to the younger white spirits drinker - and research shows that the Bombay Sapphire drinker is aged 24-35, well-educated, affluent, ABC1 and stylish. Interestingly, there is a slight bias towards men. Prior to its acquisition by Bacardi-Martini in June 1998, Bombay Sapphire had annual sales in the order of 500,000 cases. By 2000, the brand had reached 1.12 million cases, and it chalked up another sparkling rise of 18.2% last year, to reach 1.3 million cases. Bombay Sapphire now heads the list of the world's top 15 growth brands within the ranking of 100 premium distilled spirits worldwide, as measured by Impact Databank, beating such newcomers in the white spirits sector as Skyy (ranked second) and old-established Smirnoff (ranked sixth). In terms of total sales worldwide, it is ranked at number 70 in the world's top 100 premium spirits brands. In the UK, Bombay Sapphire claims that AC Nielsen MAT figures reveal it is leading the premium sector, with an 8% volume increase in the off-trade (48,000 9-litre cases) and a 27% rise in the on-trade (7,000 cases). Significantly, in the key pre-Christmas period of November/ December, Bombay Sapphire was the third biggest contributor in terms of volume to the gin category, after multiples' own-labels and Gordon's. Bombay Sapphire, which does very little above-the-line advertising, says growth in the past year has come from promotion and public relations activity. Off-trade promotions have included such items as a bottle plinth to enhance shelf stand-out; a 1 miniature trial offer; and an invitation to mail a miniature to a friend. On-trade promotions have included sampling through multiples and a trade-up promotion (buy a Bombay Sapphire for the price of a house gin). Global brand director Paul Murphy says: This has been another very strong year for Bombay Sapphire across all our major markets, and we expect to do even better as the brand increases penetration throughout Europe, the Far East and through duty-free outlets.'

Plymouth - a new missionary zeal Plymouth Gin has been a documented bartenders' brand of choice' since 1896, when it was the gin used in the original Dry Martini recipe (Stuart's Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them, New York, 1896). It is also cited as the gin for 27 cocktails in the 1930s Savoy Cocktail Book, the bible' of mixology. Like Bombay Sapphire, the brand is less juniper-heavy than some brands, thanks to the more even balance of its seven botanicals. And Plymouth claims the softness and purity of the Dartmoor water used in distillation and bottling makes it the smoothest gin on the market. In the UK, it is available in two unique strengths: 41.2% abv Original Strength (a strength which holds the essential oils in our botanicals perfectly and is, quite simply, the best strength for gin'), and 57% abv Navy Strength. UK sales of Plymouth Gin for 2001 saw an increase of 39% on last year, with significant distribution gains being made in both the on- and off-trade under international distributor MaxxiuM UK. Plymouth is now the house pour at Steam, the new London gin-themed bar - part of the Hilton Group - as well as at Schrager's Sanderson hotel and the award-winning Hakkasan restaurant. And all the major UK multiples now stock the brand, whereas Gloag's - also on MaxxiuM's books - will remain a niche brand directed very much at the on-trade in and around London, according to brand owner Highland Distillers. In 2001 Plymouth Gin began to prove itself as a world player in the premium gin sector, growing at 42% globally year on year, largely thanks to its 50% partnership with Vin & Sprit. Vin & Sprit has opened the world to us, bringing two things to the party: global distribution opportunities and renowned, long-term, brand-building expertise,' says Plymouth MD Nick Blacknell. Jane Yelloly has been appointed product manager, with the remit of working closely with Plymouth's 20 international markets to replicate the brand's UK success. This year, Plymouth is planning its biggest push in the US, the world's largest branded gin market: in autumn it will bring Future Brands on board to look after sales, while importer/distributor Absolut Spirits Company Incorporated looks after marketing and strategy. Premium imports are currently driving the US gin category,' says Blacknell. The white-hot brands are those that promise high style and high quality. Plymouth has already achieved cult status among some of New York's leading bars. Our next challenge is to increase distribution.' To this end, Plymouth has appointed Eleanor Dodd, formerly of Seagram UK, as brand director for the US. Her initial remit will be to oversee the push of Plymouth in five key cities with a strong cocktail culture: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago.

Gordon's: gin and bear it? So far, it seems a lot of the innovation and action in the category is coming from the top end. Indeed, UDV famously took the strategic decision to remove Gordon's (at 37.5% abv) from its priority list of global brands, indicating that it was preparing to put all its might behind its considerably smaller but undoubtedly premium gin, Tanqueray (at a hefty 47.3% abv). Certainly, latest combined UK on/off-trade performance figures show that Gordon's experienced 0% growth last year, while Tanqueray soared by 17% (AC Nielsen December 01/January 02 MAT). But then, Tanqueray continues to have just a 0.5% share of the total gin category, while Gordon's remains far and away the largest brand, with 39%, followed by Beefeater, with a mere 2.5%. We have over seven million regular consumers of Gordon's and the recent AC Nielsen figures signal a turnaround for the brand and the category,' insists Paul Flanagan, commercial PR manager, Guinness UDV GB. When people think of gin, they think of Gordon's (seven out of ten consumers), so the work we have done above-the-line and in the on-trade especially has helped to make gin, and Gordon's, more relevant to a new, younger audience and helped refresh its image in the mind of existing consumers.' Meanwhile, far from sitting idle, Gordon's is this month launching a fresh new pack design supported by the full weight of Guinness UDV's sales and marketing muscle'. The result of over nine months of exhaustive qualitative and quantitative research involving hundreds of gin drinkers of all age and usage groups, the design keeps some important symbols of the Gordon's brand identity: the famous emerald green colour of the bottle, the crisp white label, the elegant black logo script and the Queen's Royal Warrant (testament to the quality of Alexander Gordon's recipe, which remains unchanged since 1769). But the pack structure itself has become more distinctive, with the new shape reflecting the sharp, crisp nature of the product and designed to increase standout at point of purchase, both on-shelf and on-optic. Four new back label designs have been created, three of which feature different mixer recipes to encourage drinkers to experiment beyond tonic water. The fourth carries the boar's head - the Gordon's family crest and a registered trademark. The new pack is an exciting leap forwards and represents an important part of the hard-hitting marketing plan that we have in place to make consumers feel great about the brand and the category,' says brand director Wendy Darlington.

The feel-good factor For a category that - as a whole - hardly seems to be moving at all, it seems to be good news all round. Whatever you do, don't imagine that the guys are doing nothing,' says Edwin Atkinson, director of the Gin and Vodka Association. From market surveys to brand development, Atkinson says there is a great deal going on behind the scenes and he quotes one of the bigger players' as saying, in a recent television interview, that a gin-based PPS is the obvious next step to look at'. As Bombay Sapphire's Bacot sums up: Gin has never gone away and (premium brands) are making this a hotter category. I forecast a lot of action in the next five years.'