“Ten years ago, if you mentioned ‘botanicals,’ people would have thought you were talking about gardening,” quips Bob Fowkes, co-founder of Brockmans Gin. “That’s changed; consumers know a lot more about gin – how botanicals differentiate styles, especially among the early adopters in big cities.”
Indeed, interest in the gin category has grown immensely over the last decade, riding the coattails of the cocktail revolution. Many of the classics are gin-based, and intrepid mixologists have taken to the highly aromatic and flavorful white spirit, designing a new wave of gin cocktails.
Producers big and small have responded by releasing a plethora of new expressions and styles with a potpourri of botanicals. However, much of this action has been tilted towards bar and restaurant business without much of a corresponding lift in the off-premise trade—yet, anyway. Brands are helping to increase the flow from on- to off-premise with consumer and trade education, simple recipes, merchandising tools and even suggestions for retailers to bump up gin sales in the off-premise channel.
“Perhaps more than any spirit, gin has enjoyed newfound attention as a result of the classic cocktail resurgence,” says Rachel Ford, Diageo’s national gin ambassador. The company’s portfolio includes Tanqueray, a classic London dry style, and Tanqueray No. TEN, which is a citrus-forward gin made with macerated fruit and features juniper, coriander and a hint of chamomile flowers. Last summer, the company launched Tanqueray Bloomsbury, a limited-edition release inspired by an original recipe dating back to 1880. A juniper-forward London Dry Gin using Tuscan juniper, Tanqueray Bloomsbury also incorporates coriander, angelica, winter savory and cassia bark.
“Gin is well-suited to the craft cocktail movement. There is such a large palate of flavors for mixologists to play with, from all the different botanical infusions,” says August Sebastiani, president of 3 Badge Mixology, whose portfolio includes Uncle Val’s Gin. The original gin features an infusion of juniper, cucumber, lemon, sage and lavender. Recently, the company introduced two more expressions: Restorative, a new American style with more savory notes than sweetness; and Peppered, which adds red bell pepper, black pepper and pimento to the juniper.
Compared to behemoths whiskey and vodka, gin is a small category at just 9.9 million 9-liter cases in 2015, according to the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS). Volume for the gin category was slightly down last year (1.8%); but this was due to a drop in the value segment, while the superpremium end soared 37.8%. Supplier revenues showed a similar pattern, with the category dropping 1.0% while superpremium sales were up 38.5%.
“There is a tectonic shift in the gin category away from the lower-priced, traditional brands toward premium brands – some craft brands in particular,” comments Thomas Mooney, CEO of House Spirits Distillery and president of the Craft Spirits Association.
Mooney calls his Aviation Gin “an American Cocktail Style;” the dry gin has notes of lavender, cardamom and sarsaparilla (House also recently produced a limited-release barrel-aged Old Tom Gin).
“If you look not at volume but at new dollars coming into the category,” Mooney explains, “there are a handful of brands driving growth,” citing Aviation, St. George, Hendricks, Beefeater, Tanqueray and Bombay among others. “What do those brands have in common? All have had a lot of on-premise success that is starting to spill over into the off-premise.”
On Again, Off Again
Many gin brands – large and small, established and new – are focusing much of their efforts into getting trial on-premise. Those endeavors, the thinking goes, will eventually translate into off-premise purchases.
“On-premise is where brands get built. Bartenders influence consumers to try new products. More consumers are being exposed to gin, primarily in the on-premise, but that translates to the off-premise,” says Juli Falkoff, brand director of gins at Pernod Ricard USA.
The company’s portfolio includes three very different styles of gin. Beefeater is a quintessential London dry; Seagram’s has a slightly sweeter profile with hints of orange peel, cinnamon and lilac (the Seagram’s Twisted variants feature flavors such as pineapple, peach and melon); the unique Plymouth Gin has Protected Geographical Indication status and lists orris root and angelica root among its botanicals. Early this year, Pernod Ricard expanded its gin collection with the acquisition of a majority share in the Monkey 47 brand, a gin produced in the Black Forest of Germany. Monkey 47 is made from unusual botanicals including spruce tips, lingonberries, elderflowers, sloes and blackberry leaves.
“Our relationships with influential bartenders are key, as they educate consumers on new ways to enjoy our gin, which helps drive our on-premise sales,” says Joanne Birkitt, senior vice president of global marketing for Bulldog Gin. “This in turn inspires consumers to look for and purchase Bulldog for at home occasions and gifting. We are experiencing growth in both channels.” The English gin boasts 12 botanicals from eight countries around the world: Chinese dragon-eye, Turkish white poppy seeds, Asian lotus leaves, Italian juniper, Moroccan coriander, German angelica, Spanish lemon, Chinese licorice, Italian orris, Spanish almonds, Asian cassia and French lavender.
“In the off-premise there is a lot of shopper inertia, versus low inertia on-premise,” surmises Mooney. “On-premise decisions are made not by the guest, but by the establishment. The bartender recommends a gin or it’s featured on the menu. We need to let the low-inertia, open-minded on-premise channel change the mind of the consumer, so that eventually they start going into the off-premise establishment with a new perspective on gin.”
Whether on- or off-premise, the proliferation and promotions of all these new brands and styles are generating a buzz about gin. But other factors are at work as well: gin’s culinary connections, the lure of novelty and stories of craft and authenticity. All those herbs and spices that find their way into the still infuser have established a culinary connection with gin.
“The new gin drinkers are in their 20s and urban, with a strong foodie interest, and are very much interested in gin’s botanicals and recipes,” Fowkes says. Brockmans, he adds, is not the traditional London Dry style; botanicals include blueberries, blackberries, licorice, Bulgarian coriander, orris root and cassia bark. “It appeals to those nurtured on vodka or who don’t like that heavy juniper flavor,” he says
“Pairing food with gin cocktails has become increasingly popular,” says Gary Howard, North American brand ambassador for Bombay Sapphire. “Chefs understand the versatility of great gins and see them as a base for inspiration to pair with their dishes.” Bombay Sapphire’s botanical list includes Spanish lemon peel, Moroccan coriander seeds, angelica and orris roots, cubeb berries and grains of paradise.
The brand, says Howard, has positioned itself in the culinary world, through partnerships with leading chefs like Tom Colicchio and offering suggestions of cocktails pairings with dishes from those chefs. “The gin drinker is generally very interested in food as much as they are the drink,” he says