Pink or pure?

Time to pick a side in the gin wars

The Guardian - G2 - - Front Page -

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.

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