It’s the drink of the moment. In honour of World Gin Day (15 June), Clare Finney finds out about the taste that’s on everyone’s lips…
As a spirit, you know you’ve made it when you’re the star of London Cocktail week, you’ve got a dedicated bar at one of London’s grandest hotels, and you’re having posh coffee-table tomes written all about you. No doubt about it, gin – the clear liquid whose shady history has garnered such nicknames as Red Eye, Mother's Ruin, and Strip-And-Go-Naked – is back, and not since the Queen Mother revealed her mid-morning fix of the stuff has it been quite so chic.
Sales have soared in the past two years, at a time when most alcohol is flatlining. Micro-distilleries are everywhere, despite only being deemed legal since 2009, and the trio responsible for that – Jared Brown, Stamford Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall – are also the ones largely responsible for the rise in the status of gin from its association with Victorian ‘dens of iniquity’ to pride of place in the 5 star Langham hotel.
Their company name is Sipsmith’s, a neat reference to ‘smith’ as an occupation (Fairfax’s father is a silversmith) and the equally skilled craft of distillation; their game has been to take gin production back to how it began 300-odd years ago. “Back in the 1740s there were distilleries in one in four houses in London,” explains Stamford. “Gin was made in small batches by hand on residential streets very much like this place. Then the Gin Acts of 1736 and 1751 came in and closed the industry down.”
‘This place’ is a small and unassuming garage in Hammersmith. From the outside – a jolly blue door, a sober row of West London houses, a Volvo – you’d have no inkling that Mother’s Ruin was being brewed here. Fairfax gestures to the one feature that distinguishes this garage from the rest of the neighbourhood and which, crucially, is responsible for the gin production: the still. “Meet Prudence”, he smiles. “She does wonderful things.” Described by the Sipsmith’s team as a marriage of ‘old artisan distillation and modern technology’, it is Prudence, and her faithful triumvirate of marketing specialist, businessman and mixologist that have both brought gin forward by making it artisan, and rather ironically, taken it back to its roots.
Dry Gin is, historically, a creation of Londoners. Though it’s easy enough to forget in an age when international companies make everything everywhere, London Dry Gin, to use its formal title, was created when Dutchman William of Orange came over in 1689 and brought with him his penchant for juniper berry spirit. The habit soon grew on us, not least after grain taxes were cut and those on imported spirits increased. Londoners started making it using a method that resulted in a rather drier spirit than the Dutch had been used to. From there the Gin Craze of the early 18th century, whose debauchery Hogarth so memorably depicted, was born.
“It is scarce possible for Persons in low Life to go anywhere or to be anywhere, without being drawn in to taste, and, by Degrees, to like and approve of this pernicious Liquor,” complained the Middlesex magistrates in 1736. Their concern heralded a major crack down on the spirit, in the form of the Gin Acts; by the end of the century only the very rich could afford the taxes that the government demanded for production to continue. Their names are familiar still: Gordon’s, Tanqueray, Greenall’s – big, bold brands who have dominated the bar shelf and whose stronghold was such that, throughout most of the 20th century, having any other gin seemed quite unthinkable. Today, though, small brands are beautiful, and those recognisable bottles are increasingly outshone by gins whose methodology and ethos appeal to all drinkers, not just gin fans.
“The reason gin went out of favour was because it was outsold by vodka,” explains Carlos Santos, head bartender at one of London’s finest hotels, Mariott County Hall. “I’ve always liked gin… when I was younger I would circulate around with a gin and tonic and people would be surprised – but we forget that up until the fifties gin really was the thing.” The early 20th century was the era of cocktails – and gin, with its complex and various flavour profiles, was the preferred spirit. But then war made the cocktail culture difficult and, with the arrival of a brand-led consumerism, convenience drinks (soda pumps and ice cube making machines) and a reaction against all things ‘old hat’, vodka stole the stage.
‘Faced with these trends, the vast majority of bar tenders opted for mechanical solutions to the bar tending skills deficit,’ writes drinks writer Simon Difford in his inaugural Complete Guide to Gin. ‘By the early 1980s bartending, cocktails and gin were at an all time low.’ Positioning itself as cheap, cool and flavourless, vodka soared; even when brothers Gerry and Jon Calabrese set up their Shoreditch cocktail bar five years ago it still outsold gin five to one – and the reasons were not hard to uncover. “Overwhelmingly the perception of gin was an old fogey or serious drinker’s drink,” says Jon, “not one reflective of London today.”
Fast forward to now and the situation could not be more different. Last year London Cocktail Week – a yearly celebration of the capital’s new cocktail culture – made gin its hero spirit, and the very fact the week exists in the first place (it was established in 2010) is testimony to just how far the scene has come. When the Calabreses launched their bar in Shoreditch, it was the first real cocktail bar there for decades. “Now there’s Callooh Callay, Night Jar, Barrio East – and that’s just the East End of London,” Jon tells me. “There’s so many more options for cocktails and that’s definitely reflected in the drinking culture we see now.”
Once a euphemism for bingeing students, the term ‘drinking culture’ has grown up in recent years: to mean good taste and moderation– at least of sorts. “People look at the top shelf now” John says. “They ask about spirits, and products, and they linger over their drinks. I think as a result they can appreciate gin much more.”
As I learned at Sipsmith’s, gin is a complex spirit, bursting with botanicals from all over the world: “there’s a lot going on”, Fairfax explained over a neat sample. From the mellow rounded juniper to the zesty, citrus freshness of peels, the lingering warmth of cinnamon and sweetness of liquorice, dry gin is a far cry from the experience of vodka and you couldn’t down it even if you were so inclined. Nevertheless, at a time when price points are still a major point of consideration for consumers, this still doesn’t fully explain why our passion for drinks and spirits that cost more are on the rise.
The answer, according to marketing agencies like Dragon Rouge, is that gin brands have stopped trying to ape vodka’s strategies and have instead focused their campaigns on gin’s defining traits. For big names, like Greenall’s, whose account Dragon Rouge handled in 2011, it was being around for a long time. “With a 250 year heritage that lays claim to being the oldest British premium gin brand… the brand wished to seize the opportunity presented by its 250th anniversary year and the global resurgence in gin’s popularity to reclaim its rightful stance as ‘The Great British Spirit’,” Rouge wrote. The result was an updated bottle and label to embrace ‘the personality and quirky British spirit’ which, in a year when the royals were marrying and the Olympics were warming up, could not have been better timed.
Sure enough, the following year saw a 10% increase in volume of sales for Greenall’s. Yet while other big, old brands have also had marginal success with history and patriotism-lead strategies, it’s the focus on method and tradition that gin is steeped that has enabled the smaller brands to thrive.
As we’ve learned to our horror recently, knowing that a brand has been around for a long time isn’t everything. Tesco’s 94 year-history meant very little when we found that their 100% beefburgers were 100% horse.
“Fundamentally we found what mattered to consumers was the where, the who, the how of the brand,” says Stamford, “and that if that could delivered in a fun and informative way then you’re on to something.” In Sipsmith’s, the trio have delivered it, and encouraged dozens of others to follow suit.
Fentimans. Fever Tree. Hoxton Gin. Sacred Gin. 1724. The list is long – and growing, as distilleries from as far as the Shetland Isles jump on the waggon – yet while their tastes can differ as vastly as their locations, in their dedication to craftsmanship and provenance they are as one with Stamford and the team. “Everyone loves a story,” he tells me, “and if you can trace something back to its roots, and see the people and the process behind it, you have a story that’s genuine. I think everyone had got really tired of the monotonous, faceless, corporate approach to production. Small brands lifted the veil.”
Nowhere could this be clearer than at Sipsmith’s distillery, where tours of their beaming copper still are conducted every Wednesday. Accompanied by generous tastings, they are one of the top 15 things to do in London according to Time Out. “When you’re booked out for weeks in advance and you’re on The Knowledge for taxis, you know people give a monkey’s,” says Stamford, gratefully. This trend isn’t unique to gin – these days vineyards, dairies, breweries, chocolatiers and farms are all lifting the lid – but it’s certainly reaping the rewards of our growing tendency to look beyond the label, and demand more from our produce.
In fact, with our newfound love of Queen, country and its food, the conditions have never been better for the spirit’s return to power. Though largely responsible for shifting perceptions of gin as ‘old fogey’s poison’, brands like Sipsmith’s and Hoxton Gin – a bright, bold coconut and grapefruit innovation, dreamed up by Gerry Calabrese to reflect the new old East London – are very aware that gin has always been a versatile drink. The problem – at least, until now – has been marketing that. By focusing on the history and process instead of on what’s currently ‘cool’, small brands such as these have transcended the divides of class, gender and age – and the result is a spirit with an enormously wide range of styles, audiences and appeal.
On this, the demographic of the Sipsmith’s distillery tour speaks for itself. Looking round, you can see everyone from young creatives, to suits, newly weds and elderly couples all eager for a taste of knowledge and gin. Unlike breweries, there is no dominant male presence – and unlike vineyards, there’s no snobbery here. Gins do have vintages if they’re made in a small distillery (“if you try one gin from summer and one from winter, where the boiler takes longer to heat so the botanics are macerating longer, that will change the character”) but it’s nothing like wine in terms of knowledge or price difference, and without much intention either. It is simply, says Fairfax, their equivalent of the silversmith’s hammer blows.
“The reason you go to a silversmith, rather than getting something spun on lane in factory, is that it’s special. It’s unique.” The ascendance of small gin brands owes not a little to that of artisanal producers to whom, in times of despair with faceless, corporate institutions and their dodgy dealings, the public seem increasingly to turn. For gin this is very much home territory – its early history is peppered with tales of people boiling heady concoctions in their garages – but anyone hankering for the mass-production, mass-market goods of yesteryear might need to steady themselves. The genie is out of the bottle now, and the gin isn’t going back.