From Dalston dives to The Rivoli at the Ritz, people are drinking juniper-flavoured ethanol in record numbers. Last year more than 50m bottles of gin were sold in the UK for the first time, with £1.2bn in sales, up from £600m in 2011. That’s more than a billion gin and tonics.
And while the best-selling brands are owned by the big four drinks companies – Diageo (Tanqueray and Gordon’s), Pernod Ricard (Beefeater and US top-seller Seagram’s), Beam Suntory (Sipsmith and Spanish giant Larios), and Bacardi (Bombay Sapphire) – the real growth has come from the bottom up, with the number of independent distilleries almost trebling in the last five years, hitting an all-time high of 315 last month.
To underscore its ubiquity, gin was added to last year’s basket of goods used by the Office for National Statistics to measure inflation, sitting alongside chilled pizza and a pint of milk. The last time it featured was back in 2004, at which point gin sales had slumped amid our relatively short-lived love-affair with vodka, a strange time when it was acceptable to order a butterscotch-flavoured voddy and listen to trance music.
But today gin reigns supreme. There’s just one problem: “The bubble’s about to burst.”
This bombshell was dropped by an unlikely source: Joel Lawrence, the general manager of boutique gin-maker City of London Distillery. Lawrence was teaching me to make gin, explaining the taste profiles of botanicals filling dozens of glass jars in front of me, ranging from the commonplace (cinnamon, grapefruit, rose hip) to the obscure (baobab, orris root, yarrow herb).
“The only things you need for a London dry gin are ethanol, juniper berries, coriander seed and angelica root,” he says. “But you can add almost anything.”
The ethanol is generally bought as a byproduct from the petroleum industry; juniper gives gin its distinctive ginny flavour; coriander seeds help mask the taste of alcohol (navy strength gin, typically containing 57 per cent alcohol, tends to use a lot of coriander); and angelica root binds the botanicals together – the more botanicals, the more angelica root you need.
Working within suggested parameters, I measured out heaps of botanicals using a small, drug dealer-style weighing scale. I went heavy on juniper (I like the taste of gin), relatively easy on coriander (I like the taste of alcohol), with my blockbuster botanicals being ginger, pepper, orange peel, rowan berries and grapefruit.
The botanicals and ethanol are added to a small copper still, heated, cooled again, and the liquid collected in a jar (the distillery’s own gin is made in three vast stills, two of which are called Clarissa and Jennifer after the Two Fat Ladies). The flavour of each botanical is released at different points of the distillation process, so dip your finger in the super-strength gin (it’s later diluted with water) as it trickles from the still and you’ll taste intense citrus one minute, hot ginger the next, and spicy pepper after that.
After distilling your gin, personalising the label and sealing the bottle with wax, you develop a certain emotional attachment to the finished product. But even accounting for that Steve Dinneen Gin is wonderful: classy and complex, smooth and rounded, with refreshing – but not overpowering – citrus notes, and the pepper and ginger giving it a mild spiciness.
The entire process takes about half an hour, and this is the real driving force behind the exponential growth in boutique distilleries. Unlike whisky, for which you will wait a decade or more before recouping a single penny, you can make gin in the morning and sell it in the afternoon, with only a minimal investment in equipment.
“There are so many gin-makers on the market right now,” says Lawrence. “It’s saturated. The gin bubble will burst in three or four years.”
Is he worried? “Selling gin is only half of our business. We have experiences, events, a bar. We’re well positioned. But there are others out there who are more exposed, and if people move on to something else, some of them will be in trouble.”
Gin’s history is infamous. It was invented by the Dutch in the 17th century, but it was the Brits who really took it to heart. The period between 1695 and 1735 is known as the Gin Craze, which some blame for the stabilisation of London’s previously growing population, thanks to lots of people drinking themselves to death.
There are reports – probably apocryphal – that gin was cheaper than water, and it was certainly a lot more fun. People made their own at home, turning a liquid that’s already poisonous (alcohol) into something acutely lethal; when people stopped showing up for work, the government brought in strict gin laws that still inform licensing regulations today. Even worse, the gin tasted terrible.
It’s only recently that most people started to differentiate between gins. Pre-2010, if you ordered a G&T in a bar, you’d have been served Gordon’s, with Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray or Beefeater probably available if you were somewhere a bit fancy. Few, including most of those behind the bar, could explain the difference between them, aside from a vague notion that the more expensive ones are better (there’s a parallel here with the vodka industry, which spent millions boasting its products were “10-times distilled” and tasted of virtually nothing).
Then, in 2010, Hendrick’s, Martin Miller’s and Tanqueray No. Ten – all a decade old by this point – caught the public imagination, trading on the backward-looking nostalgia of burgeoning hipsterism. Hendrick’s in particular changed the way people thought about the spirit, with its medicinal bottles and million dollar innovation: the slice of cucumber.
You can’t talk about the resurgence of gin without mentioning Fever-Tree. The 2008 upstart start-up seemed destined to be, at best, a niche alternative to Schweppes – six years later a stock market floatation valued it at £154m. Since then its share price has risen 1,500 per cent, overtaking Britvic in terms of market cap and outselling Schweppes in off-sales.
Last year its revenues rose 96 per cent, with co-founder Charles Rolls cashing out £155m since 2017, which he presumably toasted with a gin and (premium) tonic. So, is Fever-Tree worried about the gin bubble bursting?
“Gone are the days when you only had three bottles of gin behind a bar,” says brand ambassador Craig Harper. “We’ve moved past that. But we’re not sitting on our laurels. I spend most of my time working with dark spirits, which is another area we see growth. A lot of gin distilleries are sitting on aged spirits they’re hoping to bring out in the future, so we’re looking for the same kind of partnerships we had with the flavoured tonics.”
Rival spirits are already trying to muscle in on gin’s territory. Mezcal is receiving rave reviews within the drinks industry; indie vodka labels are riding on the coat-tails of the gin-makers; and there are whispers that rum is preparing for a moment in the sun.
Portobello Road Gin’s Jake Burger, however, remains unfazed. “If you look at it from a perspective of centuries rather than decades, gin’s popularity is just a return to the norm. We’re a nation of gin drinkers. But the market probably is saturated and we’ll see fewer new brands, and some of the smaller brands fading away. There are people who see gin-making as a way of escaping the rat race, but it’s never been easy to make money from selling alcohol.
“The pessimistic view is that the same happens to gin that happened to vodka 15 or 20 years ago, with the multi-nationals buying up the most successful brands and the rest disappearing forever. The more optimistic view is to look to somewhere like France where you have lots of small, rural producers of things like armagnac who are successful within a geographical area rather than taking on global brands.”
This is how I see Steve Dinneen Gin – it may never take on Diageo, but as long as the recipe exists the gin revolution will continue apace, at least in my house.