Over the centuries since its inception, gin has experienced a meteoric rise and fall. In the eighteenth century, it was branded “mother’s ruin” and “opium of the people,” and comprised the majority of the spirits black market in Europe and the UK. By the twentieth century, it had fallen almost completely out of favor, seen as a relic of a past era.
That all changed as gin was tentatively “rediscovered” by curious consumers and distilleries looking to offer a unique twist on a spirit with hundreds of years of history. Gin made its modern comeback in the midst of the pandemic when people started experimenting with at-home mixology and seeking out both new and classic cocktails.
“From what we’ve experienced, the popularity of gin has continued to grow,” says Lance Winters, Master Distiller of St. George Spirits. “Consumers are looking for complex bases for both spirit-forward cocktails and lighter drinks.”
“Gin has become cool again,” says Phil Lecours, Master Distiller of Empress 1908 Gin, an indigo gin that remains a favorite of many mixologists. “More and more people are trying it out, liking it, and continuing on with it. The ultra-premium segment, especially, has grown in the double digits for the past few years. Customers are still really supporting our brand and our gin. I would say we’re getting a lot of carryover from other spirits as well. People who typically drink vodka, wines and such are gravitating towards gins now.”
Gin starts with a neutral grain base, like vodka. Unlike vodka, however, gin has a very specific flavor profile due to the use of botanicals (prominently juniper) infused during the distilling process. While there are still historic expressions of gin that remain today (namely, Old Tom and Plymouth gin), the most iconic remains the London Dry style that features a prominent juniper palate that has come to be indicative of the genre.
Popular examples of the style include Beefeater and Tanqueray London Dry (not to be confused with Tanqueray No. 10, another option that remains a favorite of enthusiasts). While London dry is a classic, that doesn’t mean it’s left out when it comes to innovation.
“Because gin is so botanically driven, terroir and the country where it’s distilled has become of interest to consumers,” says Gary Shaw, Executive Vice President of M.S. Walker. “Now you see that classic London dry being reimagined in every country with their own botanicals. There’s gin from Scotland, from Japan, from New Zealand or Australia. In terroir, there’s discovery.”
Brookies Gin, distilled in Byron Bay, Australia, leans into this discovery, marketing themselves as a classic dry gin infused with a taste of the Australian rainforest. Botanicals are sourced locally, and the entire company operates with a sustainability-focused mindset.
“Gin is having this renaissance,” says CEO Eddie Brook. “We’re having this great period where we see this gin boom, and there’s more knowledge about gin. We talk about a conscious consumer, and that’s our customer. One that cares about where their product comes from, but also loves the quality of their product. We source almost everything locally, and grow a lot on our farm. Sixty percent of the orchard is all regenerated rainforest.”
Like other new, dry styles, juniper forms the backbone of Brookies’ palate, while letting subtler botanicals fill out its flavor profile. “If you go back, gin was essentially one style,” Brook says. “For us, when we set out, we wanted to target our gin lovers, people that really appreciate a quality gin and like to explore the gin category. Innovation is done two different ways. You can do it through something completely different, or try to bring a new quality to a classic. We want our gin to be mixed in martinis, or a great gin and tonic.”
A Botanical Takeover
The palate of dry gin can be polarizing for consumers. “It tastes like medicine,” a skeptic might say in critique of the spirit. They would be right, in a sense, as gin’s predecessor Genever was created by Dutch and Belgian monks as a medicinal liquor. Gin itself was first marketed as a remedy across Europe.
Today, the category has grown far past its medicinal roots. In recent years, the range of styles available to consumers has exploded. From pink gins to flavored gins to aged gins, craft distillers have let their imagination run wild when it comes to possibilities.
“Fifteen years ago, gin was coming into the states with lighter botanicals, fresher fruits, more of the citrus notes and was actually downplaying some of the juniper,” notes Shaw. “Because of the early success of those alternatives to the heavy, juniper-based gin, we’re now seeing a continuation of the discovery of different botanicals in order to create a myriad of different flavors.”
One type of gin making a big splash these days is aged gin, known as yellow gin, barrel gin or reposado gin. This is a relatively young category, and it blurs the line a bit between gin, Genever and whiskey. Gin is distilled via its typical process, but then left to rest in barrels (of any type), usually for just a few months. St. George Spirits, a craft distillery based in California, offers enthusiasts a chance to experience the best of both worlds of gin and whiskey.
“Releasing an aged gin was not something we set about to do from the onset,” says Winters. “Dave Smith, our head distiller, gets full credit for the idea. His reasoning was that our Dry Rye gin, which has an unaged rye whiskey as its base, has a strong enough botanical backbone to stand up to the weight of barrel aging. The ex-wine barrels that he selected added beautifully to the confusion of ‘Am I a gin, or am I a whiskey’?”
“Anyone who’s a whiskey, bourbon or rye drinker will be a fan of aged gin,” says Lecours. “We have an aged gin in our portfolio; it’s been around for a while, and it was kind of a sleeper option, but we are seeing a resurgence in it now. Is 2023 the year of the aged gin? I can’t say for sure, but it could certainly go that way.”
Flavored and infused gins have also both shown promise in consumer trends. “The flavored gin acceptance in the U.K. is certainly around,” says Shaw. “I really haven’t the same level of success in the U.S. What I have seen is innovation in flavor is not dominant like in vodka — with an orange vodka, you taste orange. In gin, if orange is used as part of the botanicals, then it’s more the essence of orange that makes up the complexity.”
“Pink gin is also quite popular,” he continues. “Gin Lane, one of our brands, makes a pink gin that’s a classic dry gin with Angostura bitters. It’s been very popular with bartenders and mixologists. One of the latest trends right now is the indigo gins. You’re seeing more of that in the market with the violet hues. Really, I think the innovation in flavored gin is all about the subtleties of different botanicals.”
Empress Gin tries to stay ahead of the curve in offering products that people want, and marketing strategies that resonate. “We are seeing a lot of new flavors coming out,” says Lecours. “People are playing with things that aren’t typically known to go in gin. For example, we have a floral gin coming out this year. It’s all about pushing the envelope.”
“We have that iconic indigo hue that lends itself really well to cocktails and layering cocktails,” Lecours adds. “From that, we’ve had a lot of success on social media that’s happened organically. A new audience emerging is Gen Z, and they’re a very decisive consumer group. They search out the experience and the story behind what they’re consuming, and that’s who marketing and brands will be catering to.”
Rediscovering the Classic
Shaw notes that these innovations may have come as demographic changes started to solidify. “These lighter gins are really geared towards a younger demographic and geared towards a non-gin-drinking demographic. I think a lot of it will interest vodka drinkers as something beyond an alternative to vodka. They’re looking for a complex flavor profile in a clear spirit.”
Meanwhile, Brook is confident that the wave of newcomers will eventually find their way to the classic styles of gin. “So many of these newer innovations bring people to the category, which is great. They pull people in, and we say, ‘Well, while you’re here, why don’t you try what a great classic gin is.’ With more people coming into the gin category, I think it’s going to be a really good thing in the end.”
“It’s exciting to see what’s happening in the world of gin,” he concludes. “With how much it’s changed today, we’re always asking what that new innovation will look like. It’s going to be exciting to see what comes next.”