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The rise of Nordic gins

Published:  31 January, 2019

The gin market is a whirlwind of activity. According to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA), Brits bought over 60 million bottles worth over £1.6 billion in the year to June 2018, up 38% on the same period the previous year.

Much of that gin originates at home in the UK, where popularity of the spirit has helped distillery numbers to almost quadruple in the past decade (HMRC).

However, a raft of Nordic gins are currently giving British distillers stiff competition and generating some of the highest interest and acclaim. One spur for their success is a combination of distilling expertise gained through five centuries of making aquavit at small batch distilleries throughout the region, complemented by distinctive northern botanicals.

Norwegian gin Harahorn, for example – a gold medal winner at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition – features locally harvested botanicals including bladderwrack, wild marjoram, Nordmarka blueberries and rhubarb (the distillery is in a town that once made rhubarb wine).

Similarly, Sweden's Hernö introduced a 2018 High Coast Terroir Gin distilled with botanicals picked around the distillery including spruce shoots, while Finland's rye-based Kyrö Napue boasts locally foraged sea buckthorn and birch leaves. Birch leaves have the added effect of augmenting the impact of oak cask ageing, producing the distillery's striking dark-hued Koskue.

“Kyrö gins are now available in almost 30 markets,” says co-founder and CEO, Miika Lipiäinen. “We do most of our work in the Nordics, Germany and UK – and, recently, parts of the US like Chicago. In the UK, a lot of bars and restaurants stock us through craft spirits distributor Maverick Drinks. Kyrö is also available from Amazon, Master of Malt, Whisky Exchange and Majestic.”

Kyrö Napue won the inaugural IWSC Gin & Tonic Trophy in 2015, but Miika Lipiäinen suggests Koskue for classics like Martinez and Negronis. “Or simply with cloudy apple juice – either hot or cold!”

Alex Mills, Bartender of the Year from Cardiff's Lab 22, is one high profile fan. He said: “Because of its tartness and rich spiciness, we use Kyro Napue in more full bodied drinks.” He suggests a Finnish Greenpoint featuring 60ml Kyro Napue, 20ml Discarded Cascara Vermouth, 10ml Yellow Chartreuse, 2 dashes Angostura bitters and lemon twist garnish.

But it is Sweden's Hernö that has made perhaps the biggest waves, grabbing the ultimate accolade of World's Best Gin for their Old Tom at the 2018 World Gin Awards. Its triumphs also include 2017 Gold category wins for both their Juniper Cask Gin and 57% Navy Strength at the World Gin Awards.

It’s scoring highly in the UK market too. “2018 was an incredibly positive year for Hernö with fantastic innovation by mixologists and exciting activation in the on and off-trade,” said Ellie Jones, marketing manager of distributor Love Drinks. “We’re seeing good interest in all four of the Hernö SKUs currently in the UK, with double digit sales growth.”

Hernö's range is available in Selfridges plus specialist drink retailers like The Gin Foundry, Master of Malt, Gerry’s and The Whisky Exchange, plus high-end bars. “The Navy Strength works brilliantly in Gin Sours and the Juniper Cask is supreme in a Negroni,” Jones added.

Kongsgaard Raw Gin, meanwhile, is Danish with a French twist – made using Danish-influenced botanicals like apples, liquorice, raw liquorice root, plus charred oak and resin, but made in a Cognac still in France. To founding husband and wife team Søren and Bettina Kongsgaard however, their gin – a winner at both the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and IWSC International Wine & Spirit Competition in 2017 – is as Danish as it comes. “We like to think our Viking ancestors would have enjoyed this,” said Søren.

The UK is a key market for the Kongsgaards. Their gin is listed with seven of the biggest national on and off-trade distributors, and they have signed a deal for nearly 800 stores across the Nordic region.

While Kongsgaard sells in standard 70cl bottles, many Nordic gins come in smaller 50cl size. “Taxes on alcohol in the Nordics are very high, therefore the 50cl keeps the price sensible,” said Kyro's Miika Lipiäinen.

But even in a smaller size, Nordic gins are packing a big punch.

“The smaller bottle size has worked well in retail,” added Love Drink's Ellie Jones. “The 50cl size ensures the product is at a price point that will appeal to consumers who may have not tried the brand before. Anything that can tempt consumers and drive trial, hopefully of multiple brands is extremely beneficial to the category.”