Ginning Up the Gin Market

Paul Blow

I grew up with a taste for gin. My parents, who had their nightly G&T on summer evenings, often gave me a sip or even a minicocktail of my own (very heavy on the tonic). Their gin was Tanqueray, from the big green bottle. My friends, though, did not share my taste for the spirit. It was popular in the ’80s and ’90s to have a visceral distaste for gin; I suppose I was witnessing the coming-of-age of Generation Vodka. Today, when I work behind the bar, I come across a broader tolerance for gin, but I can’t say I’ve noticed much enthusiasm for it. The excuse I’ve heard several times as to why a customer won’t drink it is—I kid you not—“Gin makes me sad. Somehow I always get depressed when I drink gin.”

Looking at the shelves of a good liquor store today, though, you’d think that gin is one of the hottest products on the market. In the last couple of years there has been a boom of new brands, both big and small, from Broker’s, Bulldog, and Martin Miller’s to boutique American brands like Sarticious, Bluecoat, Cascade Mountain, Aviation, No. 209, Spruce, and the gins from Chicago’s North Shore Distillery. And those represent only a fraction of what’s out there. Many are not traditional, London dry styles (like Tanqueray) but “flavored” gins in which the staple juniper flavor is knocked to the background and other elements, like lavender, pine, and citrus, come to the fore. The definition of gin is broad, but it’s always made from a neutral spirit (a vodka) and the lead flavor has to be juniper. The press has caught on to all this gin-making, declaring a gin explosion.

The danger for the gin market is that low quality in some of the new boutique offerings will actually turn people away. I’ve tasted muddy and discordant flavors in a few of the newer gins, due either to a poorly chosen mix of botanicals or to improper infusion or distillation. In others I’ve noted the heat from too much or unintegrated alcohol. It’s not easy to craft a great gin. Anchor Distilling, which produces the boutique Junípero, runs an exacting operation, and the distilleries of classic brands like England’s Plymouth put a lot of effort into sourcing the juniper, the citrus peels, and all the other botanicals. Beefeater master distiller Desmond Payne regularly visits Umbria to check in with the juniper foragers who source his product.

According to figures from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, gin sales by volume showed a 4.2 percent growth between 2005 and 2006, but that’s only because sales had dropped the previous three years. The actual growth from 2002 to 2006 was a modest 1 percent; the reality is that the gin market is flatlining. The only consolation for producers is that revenue grew at a 6 percent tick over that same period, meaning people are paying more for premium gins. Anchor Distilling spokesman John Dannerbeck corroborates this statistic for Junípero, which was the first gin to debut at the $30 price point in the ’90s: “We can’t make enough gin right now to meet demand, but then, we don’t make very much.”

So, is a gin explosion the same thing as a population explosion? The proliferation of new gins is not a response to a market demand, but instead seems angled to create one, fueled by bartenders, distillers, and booze enthusiasts rather than the general public. A basic gin is relatively easy to make and it’s a low-capital endeavor (i.e., no aging required, as in whiskey). But without demand, the efforts ultimately may not amount to much. H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of the San Francisco bar Elixir, echoed what many other bar owners have told me: “Gin doesn’t move very fast in my bar. Not a lot of people are coming in and asking for it.” How can all these brands survive if people don’t ask for them? Gin’s real heyday may still be down the road.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.