This is something I wrote for Harpers Wine and Spirits earlier this year on where the gin market is going and how gin brands can still make a splash in a crowded market.
The last two years have been tough for everyone and Britain’s gin distillers are no exception. The various lockdowns and general uncertainty hit the industry hard and while retailers and direct sales helped alleviate the shortfall, “the on-trade could never be replaced by home consumption,” according to Nick Cook from the Gin Guild. The figures speak for themselves. According to the WSTA, British sales were worth £2.7 billion in 2019 but only £1.9 billion in 2020, though they have recovered somewhat to £2.1 billion in 2021. Meanwhile according to the CGA, the top ten British gin brands in 2021 were down by 22.8% by value compared with the previous year.
It’s not just the big boys who were affected. Many smaller distilleries have thrown in the towel. I was particularly sad to hear that Duck and Crutch, made in a shed in Kensington, was no longer distilling. Olivier Ward from Spirits Beacon said: “a lot of brands are a whim away from stopping as they are either in survival mode or only sold in a hyper local area”.
“It looks like the gin boom is over,” said Lisa Halstead, buyer at Master of Malt. “We saw standard gin start to decline around three years ago and premium and flavoured were driving significant growth. Since then, we have seen both premium and flavoured plateau and now are pretty steady in terms of market share”. Dawn Davies, buyer at the Whisky Exchange agreed, “it is now on a plateau and will start to drop as the market has been flooded with substandard products and people are on to the next trend.”
Some like Simon Difford from Difford’s Guide think flavoured gins are partly to blame, “[they] have helped confuse understanding of what a gin is.” But Ian Buxton, author of ‘101 Gins to Buy Before You Die’ disagrees and thinks the flavoured products are bought by people who are “very different from gin’s traditional consumer,” and John Vine, buyer at Waitrose, confirms this.
The market may have plateaued but nobody thinks that we’re going back to anything like a pre-boom market. Ian Buxton said: “Gin has captured the imagination of a new group of increasingly enthusiastic consumers even if the initial frenzy has died down somewhat.” he said. Nick Cook thought it was more a case of “market assimilation and shaking down” rather than collapse.
This is born out by master distiller and consultant Jamie Baxter: “Distilleries are getting either smaller or bigger and the middle sized ones seem to be the ones that are struggling.” John Vine explained the vast leap required from being a local player to a national brand. He cites names such as Cotswolds Gin who have successfully made this jump but it takes a lot of investment. Beyond friends and local pubs, many smaller brands haven’t thought through their route to market.
Olivier Ward thinks that smaller brands made by contract distillers are looking especially vulnerable. “Some are excellent, made by excellent makers, for genuine reasons but that’s part of the problem. How committed are you?” he said. Kathy Caton, co-founder of Brighton Gin, agrees: “Authenticity, quality, and consistency are key attributes for us in this incredibly crowded domestic market.”
Brands need to consolidate their product line rather than making five or six different products, Ward told me, and that the price of craft gin is coming down from the usual £35 a few years ago. New products need to be well thought out like the recently-launched Savoury Gin from the Portobello Road distillery, not only a fine spirit but with gorgeous packaging. Founder Jake Burger commented: “Our Savoury Gin in the white bottle with the hand painted effect was a big departure from our usual style and has been very well received and has great shelf presence both behind the bar and in retail.”
At the more mainstream end of the market, both Vine and Davies are particularly taken with Hendrick’s Neptunia, “honestly my favourite gin they have done”, Davies said. It was a Waitrose exclusive for a while and Vine was impressed by how well it was done.
The other new product Vine mentioned was Buckingham Palace Gin. Spirits judge David T. Smith said it was “one of the best gin I’ve tried recently. It’s made with botanicals from Buckingham Palace garden – a bit gimmicky but, from point of view of taste, quite incredible.” 900 bottles sold out in an hour through the Royal Collection Trust website and since then retailers have been clamouring to get hold of stock. It shows the right product, branding and timing – it’s the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee this year – can work.
Most new brands, however, don’t have this kind of marketing hook. Nick Cook thinks “it will be a brave move for anyone seeking to join the bandwagon at this late stage.” Lisa Halstead confirmed that “there are fewer brands coming to market. In the height of the boom – around four or five years ago – I was receiving requests from up to five new gin suppliers per day.”
For brands looking to enter the crowded UK market for the first time, it’s vital to get everything right first time. “5-10 years ago you would have had a honeymoon period. Now you are competing against 3,000 gins from day one,” Ward said. Lisa Halstead explained what she is looking for: “I really like a unique bottle or a really unique background story. Of course, the liquid has to match up.”
One recent launch that ticks all these boxes is Ginbey made by a winery in Lebanon, Domaine des Tourelles. The product and packaging are excellent but most importantly it has a compelling story and gifted communicator in distiller Faouzi Issa. As an arak distiller he had long wanted to make a gin, his arak Brun is a bestseller in Lebanon, but was pushed into it when the collapse of the Lebanese pound made imported gin too expensive. “We have also found that being the first premium gin from Lebanon has helped as it makes it stand out in this crowded marketplace.” He works with Speciality Brands to get Ginbey into bars and restaurants and it is listed by Master of Malt and the Whisky Exchange. A silver medal at the IWSC certainly helped too.
As well as wineries moving into gin, gin brands are increasingly diversifying with producers such as Greensand in Kent and Foxhole Spirits launching rums. Jamie Baxter has noticed this too “Many gin distilleries are looking to do secondary products now in addition to the gin, so vodka, rum, whisky as well as other flavoured spirits.” This might be a canny move according to Lisa Halstead: “The data we have seen shows gin consumers moving to spiced and flavoured rum, premium and flavoured vodka and interestingly cream liqueurs. We are also seeing some mid-size gin suppliers such as Boe Gin and Mason’s of Yorkshire move into the flavoured vodka category.”
The UK market might be crowded but David T. Smith mentioned that there’s still room for growth in countries such as France, Australia, America and China. James Baxter told me: “I’m getting far more enquiries from overseas than I used to and have done gin projects in France, Kenya, India, Ireland, Brazil.” Charly Thieme from Brighton Gin said they “have just received our first order from Taiwan (that’s our sixth market abroad) and have two more markets in the pipeline for this year.”
Back at home, all the growth is at the high end according to to Stuart Ekins who runs Cask Liquid Marketing working closely with the on-trade, “in super premium (£29-39) and luxury (£40)” He continued: “Our sales have been strong through the Covid years with a particular benefit for home grown products with sustainability credentials, such as Hepple gin and Ramsbury gin.”
Eddie Brook from Byron Bay which produces an array of Australian gins tells a similar story: “I think our strong point of difference, ethics and values as a business really shine through with Brookie’s Byron Gin so consumers in the UK who are looking for premium and sustainable spirits connect with our story.” Spirits judge Sarah Miller agreed that at this end of the market, environmental credentials were extremely important: “I really want lots of information and transparency about how and where a product is made, what the ethos is, and – ideally – its sustainability credentials.”
Behind the headlines of declining gin sales, there is definitely good news out there for producers, retailers and the on-trade with the right product, the right marketing and more than a little luck. The gin boom might be over but we’re not going back to the days of just Gordons or Beefeater.