Recently I had an interesting conversation with a wine and spirit
merchant recently over general whisky happenings and they commented on the
pressure of rising gin sales. Whilst any growth is good news for any seller,
particularly one such as gin, which is attracting new buyers to stores. It was at
the cost of whisky shelf space and to some degree highlighted limitations in the
knowledge of consumers.
Gin is an immediate cash crop. I’ve observed one of the
enjoyable Edinburgh gin distillery experiences where you can sit down and
select your botanicals, then distil your own bespoke gin. Literally an hour or
so later you’re walking out of the distillery with your own exclusive bottle of
gin. In a society and world today that demands things immediately and
exclusively, it does possess a certain attraction.
For producers of course the buoyant market is one they can
tap into fairly quickly. Whisky has a formidable rule set that includes a
specific period of maturation before it can be labelled as a whisky. Earlier
this week Waitrose, the upper end supermarket, revealed that gin sales have
grown by 17% and their top selling trio of spirits are all gin products.
Speaking to the Scotsman newspaper, John Vine, Spirits
Buyer for Waitrose, stated that: “Customers are discovering that gin lends
itself to being shaken up with more than just tonic. In fact, there
are more classic cocktails made with gin than with any other spirit thanks to
the vast diversity of flavours available. The innovation happening in the gin
world, especially with artisanal distilleries, makes is a very exciting time
for gin lovers.”
I can concur with this sentiment given my recent visit to the Isle of Harris distillery, where their distinctively packaged and flavoured
gin was literally flying off the shelves. Colleagues at work had politely asked
if I could bring home a few bottles of gin, given its scarcity and growing
popularity. Normally I’m a whisky mule for myself and not a gin carrier for friends.
More proof of gin’s unstoppable growth?
Despite being a more premium priced gin, customers were
willing to pay £35 for a bottle on Harris, some walking out with a box of six.
Then there are spinoffs for a retailer with mixers, cocktail gimmicks and
flavour enhancers all falling into the gin experience. In Edinburgh alone there
are gin tours including one on a barge that allow you to behold the splendour
of mother’s ruin, and gin bars; an unthinkable thing a couple of years ago.
All of this takes me back somewhat to the sudden tidal wave
of vodkas, whether they were flavoured or more premium distillate. The market
was flooded and eventually became saturated with products of every conceivable
type trying to find their own niche. You can still see the remnants on shelves
today with only the strongest surviving. Undoubtedly vodka will be facing the
same pressures as whisky for space and consumers given this fashionable
Part of the gin boom has been fanned by the boom in new
Scottish whisky distilleries. Eighteen months ago I was informed there were
around 37 in various phases of completion. I’ve not seen a figure since, but I do
know there are still distilleries planned for several years to come and I do
fear for some of these new arrivals long term. Part of their business plan
outside of whisky, tours and a café is the ability to produce gin. Once you’ve
decided upon your botanicals, it’s literally a simple step with all the
equipment in place to start production and shipping to market.
The Isle of Harris distillery has been very successful with
their concept utilising local ingredients and have already smashed their sales
target for 2016. With the assistance of Stranger & Stranger, a company who
specialist in packaging design and branding for the alcohol sector, they’ve won
various awards and the ability to be selective with their distribution.
Even today Harris distillery announced that they are running out of the distinctive glass bottles due to a furnace upgrade at their supplier. Gin is being rationed! It's a short-term measure but shows how popular it has become in such a short space of time.
I’m not a gin drinker whatsoever, I do appreciate the design competition that
unfolds in retailers. Bottles of all shapes and sizes, complete with visually
stunning labels all jockeying for prominence. In comparison the whisky section
looks a little drab and aged; you really have to engage and handle the bottles
to find out what you need to know before purchasing your whisky. Most whisky
bottles don’t scream come over here and look at me compared to rival gin offerings.
That’s where whisky education comes into the equation. When
I started with whisky it was very much trial and error. You often learned the
hard way and made mistakes whilst searching for your own tipple of choice. There
is a whisky for everyone and I’m sure the same applies to gin. However for the
uneducated they often revert to pricing or familiar names. That’s blends and
relevant price points. This is where my retailer friend highlighted the
importance of store assistant knowledge. That’s certainly the case in retailers
that can support such a feature whereas supermarkets you’re left to gauge these
spirit conundrums for yourself.
For many consumers it’ll boil down to
satisfaction and a bottle of gin – even a slightly premium offering – will come
in at the lower end of an official single malt release, arguably without an age
statement. Gin after all sounds more fun and offers exotic flavours whereas
official tasting notes on whisky bottles are often a little lacking and seem
concocted from the same phrase book across the board.
The future for gin currently is bright however like vodka,
sales will eventually level and lesser products will fall away from public consciousness.
At the moment with sales increasing across retailers and space at a premium, we
the loyal whisky enthusiast may have to step away from our supermarket haunts
and pay more regular attention to local independents or specialist stores.
The question could be what comes next? There are plenty of
other spirits out there that can offer an experience and a more attractive
price than whisky. Rum for instance seems a logical destination but only time
will tell. As long as this growth continues and keeps our fledgling
distilleries healthy with a revenue stream I’ll be happy.
Labels: featured, gin, Isle of Harris, isle of harris gin