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Think Gin: The big flavour debate

Published:  01 May, 2018

The colourful world of flavoured gin was a hot topic at yesterday’s annual Harper’s Think Gin event, coming up time and time again as sub-section driving overall gin growth, yet at the same time dividing opinion on what role it should play within the wider category.

Helping to shed some light on this often controversial, yet popular, part of the evolving gin conversation, was gin writer David T. Smith, who pointed out that many of gin’s recent success stories are flavoured.

“Gordon’s Pink Gin is one of the best selling gin’s in the UK at the moment. If you’re into gin, it can be easy to overlook the flavoured aspect, but there is great consumer demand there, so it should be taken seriously, with plenty more flavours and export markets to explore,” he said.

In his presentation yesterday, Smith also pointed out that flavoured gins often start out as secondary or even tertiary products, only to become best sellers, offering clear points of difference as well as an accessible gateway as “gins for non-gin drinkers.”

The presentation, in front of a full house of gin enthusiasts, also broke down the notoriously unregulated flavoured gin category into three helpful sections.

Firstly, signature botanicals, which are typically made via distillation only (for example, London Dry Gin), with no colour, sugar or flavours added, and where the signature botanical is clearly stated on the label.

Then there are flavoured gins, which are typically made by macerating fresh ingredients.

They must be full strength – at least 37.5% abv – and can be made with fruits and also non-fruits: everything from honey to asparagus.

Last but not least are gin liqueurs, including Sloe gin.

Typically these are low in abv, (minimum 15%), and high in sugar, with a minimum of 100 grams of sugar per litre – only 7 grams per litre less than Coca-Cola.

As an entry point, flavoured gins and signature botanicals have helped to pull in new drinkers who are more familiar with flavours used on the likes of Masons Tea Gin and Whitley Neill’s Quince Gin, rather than terminology like London Dry.

However, they pose a bit of a quandary for producers around drinkability – they are typically sweeter and therefore harder to mix – and also around categorisation.

London Dry Gin is governed by a number of EU regulations, such as only using a pure grain spirit and natural botanicals.

Flavour can only be introduced via re-distillation.

Flavoured gin however is not recognised by any official body as a category, causing uncertainty for the future, and has also left it vulnerable to an invasion of low quality products.

“Are flavoured gins ‘predominantly’ flavoured of juniper?” Smith asked. “Production wise, flavoured gins are gin, but if you’re putting tea or honey and it doesn’t taste of juniper, does it mean it’s therefore not gin?”

At the same time, he points out that all gins are technically flavoured with botanicals, further confusing the issue.

The difficulty, he added, is that, “if you’re not going to call it a gin or flavoured gin, what is it going to be called?”

There’s also the issue of stability and consistency to consider.

When exposed to oxygen and light, colours fade “to clear if you’re lucky, but sometimes brown”, Smith said. 

The session also opened up debate around the impact of regulators on spirits categories: in particular, the ruling of the Scotch Whisky Association which banned flavoured or infused Scotch, compared with the success of flavoured variants in US bourbon.

There is an argument, said Smith, for better protecting London Dry, which is the “benchmark of quality” for gin; while flavoured gins could perhaps be allowed more freedom to encourage creativity and innovation.

The most important thing for Smith rather than regulation however, is that overall production values are maintained.

“The biggest threat is something that’s badly made,” he said. “I’d rather have something that’s vaguely gin, rather than a badly made gin, which is arguably more detrimental to the category overall.”