Pink or pure?
Time to pick a side in the gin wars
Public, the newly crowned Observer Food Monthly bar of the year, likes to think of itself as an open, unpretentious cocktail bar. But on one issue – Britain’s current thirst for sweet, fruity pink gins – it has a bunker mentality that befits its tiny basement location beneath Sheffield’s town hall.
“It’s gone bonkers,” says the head barman, Jack Wakelin. “We get people in all the time asking: ‘What gins do you have?’ It’s an obsession. They almost turn their noses up that we don’t sell particular sweet gins.” Public stocks one fruit gin, Tanqueray’s orangey Flor de Sevilla, which, insists Wakelin, “is still very juniper-led”. But, otherwise, he is baffled by the soaring popularity of not just berry-infused gins, but vivid violet gins and gins flavoured with everything from marshmallow root to cocoa. “How far can you take it before it stops tasting like gin and becomes a liqueur?” asks Wakelin.
In traditional gin, botanicals such as juniper, coriander seed, cardamom, fruit peels and cubeb berries are added to base alcohol and their oils are extracted during distillation to create a typically dry, spicy, bitter and citrusy spirit. In pink and other fruit-flavoured gins, sugar and fruit flavours – occasionally derived from whole fruits such as raspberries, strawberries, cherries or rhubarb, but more often cheaper concentrates, essences and flavouring agents – are also added, usually after distillation, to create a far sweeter drink.
“Sweet is an easy sell. It appeals to a wider demographic than savoury, herbaceous drinks,” says Wakelin. For him, a dry, juniperforward botanical character is the very essence of gin. “It’s not for everybody.”
Wakelin prefers to make a cocktail for those with a sweet tooth, insisting that real fruit garnishes will always trump flavoured gins. “We garnish a German gin, Monkey 47, with blackberries and ginger so you get a little spice, sweetness and fruit, but still a true, juniper-led product.”
For purists like Wakelin, 2018 has been a terrible year. The British gin industry was already booming (sales now top £2bn annually), but pink gins have attracted legions of new fans to the party. According to analysts GCA, these drinkers (54% did not previously drink gin), are slightly younger and more likely to be female than buyers of upmarket craft gins, and they are drinking up a storm. Gin specialist David T Smith told October’s London Spirits Summit that there are 150 pink gins on the market, compared with fewer than five in 2013.
One tipple, Gordon’s Pink, which was launched in summer 2017, is at the forefront of this insurgency. It added £75.2m to Gordon’s sales (total growth: £103.2m) in its first 12 months, report the analysts Nielsen. “It’s astonishing. The most successful spirits launch of the decade,” says Daniel Woolfson, drinks editor at the Grocer.
Unlike craft gin, which was powered by a proliferation of small distillers, the pink gin craze has largely been created by the muscle of huge drinks manufacturers such as Gordon’s owners, Diageo, and the makers of Beefeater Pink, Pernod Ricard. Like rosé and pink prosecco before it, pink gin looks great on Instagram and appeals to those who like to share shots of what they are drinking. Pink drinks are on-trend and their sweeter flavours gives them broad appeal. But, crucially, the drinks giants have been able to give their pinks a big marketing push, get them into supermarkets quickly and can sell them at prices far lower than those charged for craft gins (Gordon’s Pink is £14 for 70cl in Tesco) . If gin was already a cool spirit (sales are growing by 28% in volume, annually), pink gin has given it a serious mass-market push. “Many shoppers buying it are coming over from other categories such as wine and RTDs [ready-todrinks, ie alcopops],” says Woolfson.
Nicholas Cook, the director general of the Gin Guild, a representative of both small distillers and global players such as Diageo, is broadly positive about pink gin. Ideally, he would prefer that drinks loaded with sugar or flavourings, where the juniper is barely detectable, were described as “spirit drinks” or, like sloe gin, as gin liqueurs. The guild is reconsidering its labelling guidance, but as long as fruit-flavoured gins are at least 37.5% ABV and taste primarily of juniper, they are gins (as legally defined by EU regulations). “Some traditional gin drinkers shudder and consider them very much not gin,” says Cook. “But it is a gin variant and it
‘It’s dumbing down the category for short-term commercial gain. That’s very dangerous’
Gordon’s Pink is at the forefront of this insurgency with the most successful spirits launch of the decade
will encourage people, l I’m I’ sure, to t experiment with other gins.
“Gin has infinite capacity for variety,” he continues, describing gins that employ botanicals as diverse as lingonberries, seaweed, myrrh and edible clay. There is even some historical precedent for fruit gins, beyond the modern pink gins that inspired this new wave, such as Pinkster raspberry gin or the strawberry Puerto de Indias. We might find That Boutique-y Gin Company’s spit-roasted pineapple gin i wacky, k says Cook, C k “but “b t at tth the beginning of the 1900s there were such gins about”.
At fifth-generation London distillers Hayman’s, that history cuts no ice. They want action on labelling and, in April, launched the Call Time on Fake Gin campaign, with a manifesto and petition (900 signatures so far), backed by meetings of influential industry bartenders, distillers and writers.
Hayman’s is seeking to put pressure on the Gin Guild and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association to enforce the law and police those gins that, says its manifesto, “have little or no evident connection to juniper”. How self-regulation of the subjective issue of flavour might work in an industry of fiercely guarded secret recipes is a moot point.
“We welcome innovation,” says the company’s Miranda Hayman. “But there are quite a few gins on the market that lack that predominantly juniper characteristic. Gin is very hot. Flavoured vodkas are not. We feel quite a few people are labelling their spirit drinks as gin.”
Hayman insists this is a matter of principle not profit, but a desire to protect market value undoubtably underpins calls for tighter control. In recent years, by emphasising locality, ingredient provenance and small-batch production, craft distillers have transformed gin into a luxury commodity that typically sells for upwards of £35 a bottle. Most pink and fruit-flavoured gins cost £15 to £20.
The risk, says James Shelbourne, the founder of Silent Pool Distillery, is that gin will come to be perceived as cheap and naff. “It’s dumbing down the category for short-term commercial gain. That’s very dangerous. You want to recruit new drinkers but, in any category, if you get vast swathes of youths drinking sweet, sticky drinks, people tend to look over their shoulder and go: ‘If they’re drinking that, I’m not.’”
Pinkster’s creator, Stephen Marsh, denies he has spawned a monster. “I don’t think so,” he laughs. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Pinkster – to which no sugar is added after the third distillation, just raspberries and botanicals – has recently rebranded to differentiate itself from its sweeter rivals such as Gordon’s Pink or Whitley Neill’s gins.
“I wasn’t setting out to make a raspberry gin and the colour is just a byproduct of how I make it,” insists Marsh. “I wanted a smooth gin, and raspberries and juniper do something special together. When you taste Pinkster, you taste juniper. I make it with three times as much juniper as normal gin. Something marketed purely on colour is at risk as trends change. But people buy Pinkster because they like the flavour.”
Long-term, says Woolfson, “I would worry that all these flavours – some of which really don’t taste all that good, if we’re being honest – don’t necessarily have longevity and risk creating a bit of a sprawl.” But, this Christmas, you can buy everything from pink gin baubles to crackers containing miniatures of Pinkster. Love it or loathe it, for now at least, pink gin is going nowhere.