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Think Gin Debate: Innovation vs Integrity

Published:  19 June, 2019

As flavoured gins continue to drive rapid growth and innovation in the category, concern grows over how to ‘future proof’ the spirit and prevent it becoming a victim of its own success.

This was the topic driving a lively debate at Harpers' recent Think Gin event, where the need or otherwise of a binding definition for variants of gin came under the spotlight.

The panel weighing up the benefits of the freedom currently allowed to innovate against a drift towards products that confuse consumers, being more akin to flavoured vodkas, and thus risking short-term gain without building the loyalty to ensure long term sustainability.

That flavoured gins are now the main growth driver is without doubt. Kantar’s consumer insight director, alcoholic drinks sector, Tom Mallett was on hand, confirming that gin is now the nations favourite spirit, with flavoured gins and gin liqueurs “playing the decisive role” in elevating the spirit to pole position.

Of the 11% value growth in gin sales (to 19 May 2019, Kantar Worldpanel), flavoured gin had grown 300%, adding an incremental £127m - “growth the gin category wouldn’t have had”, said Mallett.

“Forty three percent of all gin shoppers only buy regular gin, but 21.6% only buy flavoured gin, bringing new shoppers into the category, and [bringing new shoppers in] is the fastest way to grow a category,” added Mallett.

With the British gin industry growing at full tilt, and fast rising global exports adding to the success story, the picture appears one of rude health.

However, as April’s Portman Group ruling against Unicorn Tears Gin Liqueur and it’s raspberry variant suggested (on the grounds that the packaging would appeal to children), ‘disruptive’ innovation can go too far, and also blur the lines as to what constitutes gin, which traditionally, at least, has always featured juniper as the dominant botanical and flavour.

The catch is that there is no legal definition as to how prominent or otherwise gin’s core aroma and flavour element should be, nor what constitutes a ‘flavoured’ gin.

“We have to be really careful as producers, if a flavoured gin is bringing consumers to the flavour, but not to gin, we will end up with short term benefits, but not long term, because it becomes a very diluted category, and we saw this with flavoured vodkas,” said Emma Stokes of GinMonkey.

“Gin has potential longevity, but of all keep jumping down the flavoured gin route, we could end up in a sticky place.”

Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA), revealed that the body has done a lot of work on definitions for gin and flavoured gin, the latter of which has generally been accepted by most quarters of the industry, but with the caveat that once fully agreed “it could be a decade before it gets anywhere near to any legislation”.

“One of big challenges with gin category is retrospectively trying to come to some sort of definition as to what constitutes a gin and a flavoured gin, does it matter, and how can a definition protect the gin category,” said Beale.

“We want a flavoured gin definition so we can see what is happening, we will all fall down if we don’t have an additional definition for flavoured,” he added, but with the additional reminder, “let’s not forget all the innovation that comes from a loose definition”.

Consultant and drinks writer Nate Brown added to the debate, arguing: “It’s our responsibility to know the difference, not the consumers, and if flavoured gin is a gateway to gin, then I’m all for it.”

Another potential issue with a definition that would rein in some of the wilder and off-piste variants of flavoured gin would be the policing of such legislation, with Brown suggesting that some producers would always find ways to flout any definition anyway.

Highlighting the danger to gin producers of over-reliance on flavour for growth, Waitrose spirits buyer John Vine, who was generally in favour of a less restrictive definition to allow innovation to continue, nonetheless sounded a note of caution for the category.

“Where will the flavoured gin market go in the next three to four years, will it slow down?” he asked, rhetorically.

“We’ve already seen it slow down and [at Waitrose we] start to see trends a couple of years before anyone else – we’ve seen growth of flavoured rums, taking sales from flavoured gin… and will flavoured vodka return?”

Beale said the WSTA was witnessing a significant shift in thinking from its members on the need for a definition for flavoured gins.

“Three years ago, the industry said we don’t need to go there, we are having fun, creating things; three years later, many of the same people saying we need a definition, too protect category. Probably a decade ago the Vodka category had similar kind of challenge.”

The debate rumbles on. But on the strength of the feedback from Harpers’ Think Gin panel, it increasingly looks as if a majority are swinging in favour of clear definitions to future proof this very British success story and ensure that gin category continues to forge ahead.