Gin parties, gin menus, ginvent calendars and even a Ginstitute hotel: the UK’s renewed passion for all things gin is fast creating a whole new industry.
There are 315 distilleries in Britain – more than double the number operating five years ago. According to figures collected by HM Revenue & Customs, which hands out licences to produce spirits, nearly 50 opened last year, while just a handful shut up shop.
Demand for interesting gins, made by small scale craft and artisan producers has driven a near-20% rise in the total amount of the juniper-flavoured spirit sold.
A total of 47m bottles worth £1.2bn were served up last year – enough, according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA), for 1.32bn gin and tonics.
Such is its popularity that last year the Office for National Staistics put gin in the basket of goods it monitors to measure inflation. The craze has even reached BBC Radio 4’s series The Archers, where Toby Fairbrother is now producing Scruff Gin, flavoured with his own mix of botanicals.
Then there is the UK’s first gin spa, where visitors can indulge in a juniper foot soak and a gin tasting menu. Trendy “ginsters” quaff from balloon glasses and increasingly prefer a sprig of rosemary or a handful of red berries to the traditional ice and slice.
Waitrose’s spirits buyer, John Vine, said local and regional sales were driving the trend, rather than the international brands. Sales of artisan brands at the grocer are up 167%, compared with a 30% rise in mass-produced brands.
“The rise in craft gin is certainly shows no sign of slowing,” Vine said. “To meet demand, this week, we have introduced three new local and regional craft gins.”
The craft spirit boom follows a surge in demand for locally made small scale beersand wines, as the hipster generation seeks drinks with a more interesting taste created by individuals rather than faceless international corporations.
Large drinks companies are battling to keep up and have started buying up smaller brands around the world. The London gin maker Sipsmith has been swallowed up by Beam Suntory, the world’s third-largest spirits company, while Pernod Ricard has bought out craft gin brand Monkey 47.
Miles Beale, chief executive of the WSTA, said the number of new distilleries showed there was no sign that the trend was coming to an end. “It wasn’t that many years ago when a pub would stock one gin brand, and now a gin menu offering a range of gins and mixers is commonplace in pubs and bars,” he said.
“It is welcome news that another 49 new distilleries opened in the UK last year, bringing new jobs to the British spirit industry and helping boost Britain’s export potential.”
Exports totalled 180m bottles last year, worth £474m.
Beale said distilleries in the UK were diversifying and new whiskies, vodkas, rums, brandies and liqueurs were appearing every year.
Sainsbury’s spirits buyer, Anne Cooper, said craft gin sales were up 20% year on year, and predicted that craft rum would be this year’s new trend.
“It’s gin that has dominated the craft spirits movement until now but we’re seeing a similar trend starting to emerge in rum, particularly dark and spiced variations. I’d expect to see a lot more of this as we head into the spring and summer of 2018,” she said.
Vine said Waitrose would also expand its craft spirits range: “We don’t stock an English whisky yet, but based on the success of gin, we will be looking into other types of locally made spirits this year.”
At least 19 distilleries in England and more in Wales are making or planning to make whisky in the coming years. Many of these have started producing gin because it can be made more quickly using the same equipment.
Whisky must be aged in wooden casks for several years before itis bottled, so gin can provide income to keep a business going in the interim.
Cooper King Distillery, near York, is expected to begin production of gin in the next few months, followed by a whisky in 2022. Its founders, Chris Jaume and Abbie Neilson, were inspired to set up their business after visiting Tasmania where local whisky Sullivan’s Cove was named the best single malt in the world in 2014.
“It opened our eyes that whisky could be made in other countries than Scotland and Japan,” Jaume said. “The UK is dominated by scotch, but we are beginning to hear of people being disenchanted by a product made in such huge volumes. To some extent it has lost its romance.”
While there are plenty of small Scottish distilleries alongside the big names, Jaume said English whisky makers had more freedom to experiment as, for example, they can age their whisky in walnut or cherry wood casks. In Scotland all whisky has to be aged in oak.
Jaume likened the rise of small distilleries to the craft beer boom. “People are looking for a really great product and a really great experience. It’s more expensive but people are willing to pay more if it tastes better and has got a story behind it,” he said.
When the great gin boom began back in 2009 with the launch of Sipsmith, few thought that the category would still be expanding nearly 10 years later.
Yet gin has overtaken vodka to become the most popular spirit in Britain, according to a recent YouGov poll. The public appetite for the stuff shows no signs of abating. One of the mothers at my daughter’s school put on a gin festival last year. It proved so popular she’s looking for a bigger venue this year. There are distilleries opening every month but, more importantly, most of the old ones are staying open.
Here are three new brands that stand out from the crowd:
Toad Gin (£38.95)
The vast majority of gins are made from bought-in neutral grain alcohol. Nothing wrong with that, but The Oxford Artisan Distillery (Toad) do things a bit differently by making their own high strength alcohol from ancient grains grown within 50 miles of the distillery. The result which was launched last year is a very classic juniper led gin.
Foxhole Gin (£39.95)
Made in conjunction with the Bolney Wine Estate in Sussex using a spirit distilled from the leftovers from their harvest, which gives this gin a distinctive grapey, grassy taste but doesn’t overpower the more traditional botanicals. It does marvellous things with vermouth making it perhaps the ultimate dry martini gin.
Hibernation Gin (£42.95)
From Dyfi in Wales, this is another gin that makes full use of the local flora. It’s flavoured with crab apples and blackberries as well as juniper for a refreshing fruity tang and then aged to a creamy consistency in old white port casks, like a good whisky. It might be too good to mix with tonic.
Henry Jeffreys is the author of the book Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass