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In like gin

Published:  23 July, 2008

When it comes to making cocktails, vodka is a damp squib. Gin is much cooler,' insists Jamie Walker, global ambassador for Bombay Sapphire. Vodka is like alcoholic tofu,' he continues. It doesn't have any character of its own - it just takes on the flavour of the mixers.' Walker, of course, has a vested interest in slamming the UK's biggest-selling spirit, but before he teamed up with Bombay Sapphire, he consulted
on the cocktail lists for some of London's leading bars, and his frank boredom with vodka and enthusiasm for gin is a feeling that is creeping up on bartenders across the capital.

The trouble with this evolution is that while the joys of gin are beginning to hit home behind the bar, there's still a lot of reticence in front. Vodka was welcomed with open arms precisely because of its neutral character, while gin is often considered too distinctive in flavour for the undiscerning drinker. But this hasn't stopped a whole host of new premium brands from tiptoeing - or, in some cases, stamping - on to the marketplace in a bid to revisit the days of gin-palace chic. Still, whether you're talking about Diageo-backed Tanqueray No. Ten or the one-man bands behind the likes of Whitley Neill or Junipero, can these brands really take on the might of vodka and convince the British consumer that gin is where it's at?

Botanical infusions

A big focus for each premium gin is to deliver a point of difference. This is obviously an important factor for any product, but it's in this area that gin will always be one up on vodka. While vodka companies are floundering in their efforts to convince increasingly sceptical barmen that there really are differences between brands of what is essentially a flavourless, odourless spirit, gin companies can demonstrate the variation with a mere nose of a newly opened bottle.

Gin might begin life in the same form as vodka, but the subsequent process of botanical infusion produces a liquid that

may contain up to 20 different flavoured layers, even though, as Walker points out, it's not the number of botanicals that matter but the individual qualities of each'. Bombay Sapphire contains 10 such flavours, ranging from the traditional juniper berries, through to lemon peel and liquorice, but the unique thing about the end result is that not one of these infusions stands out, says Martin Horner, senior trade marketing manager. Bombay Sapphire doesn't have big notes of juniper, for instance, like many traditional gins. All the ingredients are completely balanced, and this gives it the same versatility as vodka.'

This move away from juniper might have been started by Bombay Sapphire, but it's now becoming big business, helped along by the belief among many that it's this most established botanical that's largely to blame for the cries of but I don't like gin'. Hendrick's is a brand that's coming up smelling of roses, quite literally, in this regard. An infusion with cucumber and

rose petals has led to the brand's fabulous odd and unusual' marketing slant, which has recently seen the addition

of The Illustrated Field Guide to Hendrick's Gin, including party

tips such as: Hendricks gin goes superbly with scintillating conversation. Make sure you have octogenarians on hand, as well as a cheerful monk and at least one ex-circus performer.'

Sarah Foster, business development manager, is confident that this campaign to provide an eccentrically English gin fit for a Victorian gentleman' is paying off. We have created a number of quintessentially English cocktails and also worked closely with bars to create their own version of the "teatime martini", which is served in a bone-china cup mounted on to a glass stem.' Apartment 195 in London is one of these bars, and general manager Charlotte Voisey is a big fan of the brand. Although the growth in demand for premium gin is mainly thanks to Tanqueray No. Ten, there is a definite opportunity for anything that is niche and quality. Hendrick's is the perfect example: very clever, quirky and interesting marketing, as well as being a great-tasting product.'

Blackwood's Vintage Gin and Whitley Neill are two more brands that use an interesting choice of botanicals as a USP. The former comes from a base in the Shetland Islands off the north of Scotland, and sales director Tara Benson reveals that location is everything. It's made with hand-picked Shetland botanicals and has the natural hue of the sea around the water-ravished islands.' Whether or not this wilderness element is really captured in the bottle is up for debate, but there's no arguing with the trend for products with provenance, and the hit of wild water mint has obviously gone down well with two bars at least. Tim Oakley, bar manager at Iniquity in Clapham, sees the fun in serving Blackwood's - or the more premium newcomer, Blackwood's 60 - with a garnish of mint and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Scottish bar/restaurant Albannach, in Trafalgar Square, has chosen the brand as its pouring gin in the main bar.

Although, downstairs at Albannach, in the late-night cocktail bar soon to re-emerge as Doon (as in doon the stairs'), the pouring gin will be Whitley Neill. Scotland has been given the shove in favour of Africa this time, with a gin that uses the botanicals of Cape gooseberry and the cocoa-like seeds of

the baobab tree. Creator Johnny Neill wanted to stick with tradition but give it a contemporary twist, and the characteristics, he says, are less juniper-driven and more citrus, coriander and pepper, with a hint of mocha from the baobab seeds'. This has been a dream project for Neill, and he's pleased with the reception so far. I think people like the personal aspect of me coming round to the bars with my own creation - especially when they see that it's gin I'm carrying and not vodka!'

Not everyone wants to send juniper to the sidelines, however, and two boutique brands have even included the maligned ingredient on their labels. American brand Junipero is filled to the brim with juniper and makes a fantastic martini', says Jim Fristoe of Anchorsteam Brewery. Growth in the UK has been slow but steady according to Fristoe, and that's how he's happy for it to stay. The whole process is really just done by one guy, but we can still annoy the big guys and steal a lot of press space because we're small and special.'

Juniper Green Organic Gin comes from London and Scottish International, and managing director Chris Parker is also comfortable in the niche category. Many bars are reacting well to the organic option. This is a growing sector of the market, and we will grow within it. The big boys will lose no sleep, but by our standards we will have a thriving business.' Indeed, there doesn't seem to be much competition in the field of organic gin, and, as Parker points out, for those who want an organic cocktail, Juniper Green is the gin of choice'.

The mixologist's favourite

Another man who knows all about standing alone within a category is James Hayman of Hayman distillers. Hayman's 1820 is a gin liqueur - and the first of its kind. The idea, says Hayman, is something that his family have had for years, and he wanted to create a product that would hark back to the earlier, sweet-gin days of Old Tom and encourage bartenders to make traditional cocktails in the way that they were originally intended. Hayman is no stranger to the world of gin - his great-grandfather created Beefeater - and he is perfectly aware of both the plusses and pitfalls of his product. We're trying to get away from the G&T concept, which means we have to market a whole new product, as well as a new brand. But on the flipside, this can make things easier, because we're not really competing with anyone, and people can't just ask for gin, they have to ask for Hayman's 1820.'

A presence on cocktail lists is vital for all the brands, and most of the gin companies are more than keen to educate the on-trade - and therefore the consumer - with this in mind. Walker at Bombay Sapphire is in his element here. A mixologist's favourite cocktail always uses gin,' he declares.

And just in case anyone begs to differ, Walker will soon be unveiling the new-look Bombay Sapphire Experience at Vinopolis, geared to help push bartenders in this direction. Trade-focused mixology classes will send participants into the food haven of Borough Market, with a mission to come back with their own handful of fresh ingredients to be used in a brand-new Bombay Sapphire cocktail.

Martin Miller's Gin is another premium brand to push the boat out with education. Emma Martin, UK manager, reports, We invest a lot of money in training within the on-trade, and we concentrate this on the category of gin as a whole, rather than just Miller's. We have enough faith in our product that we are happy to promote it within the larger frame.' Alex Kammerling runs this training programme, and he is very enthusiastic on the subject. If everyone learns about gin, the industry will become a better place. It's good, it's refreshing, it's England's national drink. People should drink more gin!' Miller's also runs an annual cocktail competition that, as of this year, will focus on the standards of bartending, as well as on the product itself. We want to add value to the on-trade,' explains Martin, rather than just bribing them with cash, like many of the other brands.'

When it comes to training, Plymouth Gin's aim is to keep things simple, and to this end, it has created a range of Easy Drinks through its G&3 campaign. Victoria Bowstead, brand manager at Maxxium UK, explains. We want to encourage consumers to ask for a G&3 cocktail in bars and show that Plymouth Gin can offer a new alternative to the G&T,' she says, just by adding grapefruit or strawberries as a garnish, instead of lime.' Joel Constantino, general manager at Milk & Honey, likes this idea of a simple mix. Most bars are trying to erase the memory of that horrible gin hangover and "gin and juice" may soon be upon us.'

Getting brand-specific

So does the future look good for premium gin brands, and are consumers becoming more selective? Zuma's head bartender, Paul Birtwistle, thinks the answer is yes on both counts. It is a category I find myself thinking about more and more,' he reveals. Over the past few years, a lot of new gins have been released, many of which are significantly different to the older style of juniper-driven gin, and customers are becoming more brand-specific, in the way they did, and still are, within the vodka category.'

However, he's not sure whether this is through links with a particular lifestyle or actual knowledge of the brands.

Constantino is also convinced there's been a growth in demand for premium gins, but he believes the lifestyle factor rules for the moment. As with cars, houses, watches and handbags, what you are drinking is now deemed a status symbol, and due to intelligent bartending and obviously cunning marketing, clients are definitely "calling" their gins.' Chris Edwards at Blanch House in Brighton agrees. More education is needed,' he says, since people tend to request the products that are best marketed rather than the best in quality.'

And regardless of brand preference, can gin stand up to vodka? Chris Moore, head bartender at Doon, Albannach, has no doubts here. Definitely. Where vodka can be characterless, gin is fit to bursting with personality, and this makes it very exciting to work with.' Edwards is also straight to the point: Let's hope gin can present a challenge, because we're all fed up with making vodka drinks.' Birtwistle at Zuma is equally positive, saying, I think that if you were to ask a bartender what he/she prefers to work with, 90% would say gin.' But whether or not this will translate into significant changes on the cocktail list, he continues, will be entirely up to the imagination of the brands and bartenders out there'.

This should surely mean that premium-gin producers can breathe a collective sigh of relief. After all, London is widely regarded as home to the world's best and most creative bartenders. Fristoe at Junipero sums this up, commenting, You'll never find better cocktails than in London - the enthusiasm is just incredible. Every time I come to town, someone's got a new cocktail recipe for me.' That said, it would be a shame to hide these products within the M25, and hopefully the brands will remember that other cities need a change from Gordon's too.

There's no shortage of exciting future plans for gin - not least the prospect of a blue gin from London Gin, due to arrive in the UK on-trade at Easter time. According to Martin Gill of The London Gin Company, the reception for Blue London Gin in Spain has been terrific', and he sees the product as the way forward for the UK market as well. And while London has headed off to Spain, Spain has arrived in London. Spanish gin, Rives, has just been taken on by UK agent Fine Wine Emporium Ltd, and it's already bagged a listing in The Cuckoo Club. And there's no rest for Walker at Bombay Sapphire, either: he plans to start research for a book on food matching with gin cocktails.

Gin doesn't need a palace anymore, it just needs this sort of invention and perhaps a bit more noise from behind the bar.