The state of Gin in 2023

The U.K is the most competitive Gin market in the world.

As the cost of living bites ever deeper and the doom-mongers predict another flurry of craft distilling closures, our editor Olivier Ward looks at another way to evaluate the Gin category.

Through designing an infographic of over 580 bottles he makes an argument for why we should all praise the benchmark set in the UK and not dismiss it as saturation.

The most competitive market in the world

There are many ways to frame an insight article into Gin right now. Namely the ominous future that multiple closures point towards, to explaining the dwindling growth (or indeed decline) of both domestic and export sales.

It’s easy to see the uncertainty in the air but in all the turmoil, there’s a lot that isn’t being said about how amazing Gin remains as a category as we head into 2023. 

I'll give you this - It is tough to cast aside the general ennui that surrounds the spirit amongst journos and bartenders right now. But write it off at your peril. 

Personally, I find it strange that so many are negative about the state of gin today when the facts point to the opposite. 

The UK remains by far the most intensely competitive market for gin anywhere in the world. If you love gin there has never been a better time to be drinking it. While that may not be the narrative that surrounds the category right now, it ought to be something we all take note of. We ought to be far more positive about the quality there is. 

We should be far more vocal about what we have, not what's no longer able to survive.

Moreover, if you take a moment to understand why, you’ll also gain some unique insight into the category and what’s likely to happen in 2023. 

To visualise the state of the category and explain why we should be proud of where Gin is right now rather than roll our eyes, I’ve created an infographic. I believe that it shows why the UK is the best gin market in the world, why Gin has managed to capture so much attention over the past ten years and why this year will be particularly interesting for all involved.

To help, I also split this insight piece into tabs so that you can fast forward to the bits you want to by clicking on the sub headers in the menu bar. 

Identifying the top 200 Gin brands

If you look at the entire gin category in one go there’s way too much to take in to generate valuable insight. There are thousands of gins, endless data streams, constant rolling scores and circumstantial factors to consider and any given point. 

To explain why it's so competitive, I narrowed it down to those who have been most successful and set out to create a list of the top 200 producers in the UK. From a shortlist of 350 brands, I based the selection of the top 200 on the criteria outlined below and lined their bottles up.

The strongest weighted factor for inclusion was overall sales figures based on data I have from Nielsen, CGA, wholesale and the four biggest retail site's best seller lists. I then considered ABV (no liqueurs), and top line spirit quality. I also factored in brand awareness based on google search metrics and social chatter calculators. I then looked at overall brand equity and aesthetic, as well as marketing and partnerships (campaigns, promotions, in market activations). 

It took ages and the excel sheet was obscene. 

It's not a perfect science, but looking at each of these factors allowed me to place a consistent set of criteria against gins that I was looking at. 

What I found was that if you don’t worry about exact ranking of each, the top 100 to 120 brands emerge very quickly in that the big players and established names are obvious. Once you fine-tune the parameters, others expand the list through their regional popularity, their route-to-market dominance and the distributors involved.

I think it would be hard to find a panel of Gin experts that fundamentally disagreed on the line-up of 160-175 brands that pop up using this system as they are clear contenders for being amongst the nation’s best. 

After that however, you’ve got around a further sixty brands who could each make a genuine claim to be included in any top 200 and where a significant amount of subjectivity and personal experience comes in to play. 

I think it’s fair to say around 30 of the brands that you see in this graphic may be different if you were to repeat this process a few months apart. Some have better quality gins but weaker brands and vis versa, some are included for their huge sales despite the fact they are neither that good to taste nor exciting as a brand. Judging is a subjective sport, and the line must be drawn somewhere. 

Take a moment to look at the line up and tell me it’s not an incredible list gins. We should be shouting about how amazing the Gin scene is in the UK!

If you only look at the best two hundred brands, you can see just how high the bar is. You’ll not find that standard anywhere else in the world, but more on that later. 

Why are there more than 200 gins in the infographic?

Some brands have more than one “pick face” as it’s known in the trade. There are 237 bottle slots on the graphic. Not just that, but some of the faces change and the flickering bottles are brand variants. This means that while this is a graphic of the top 200 gin brands – it includes some 570 gins.

I wanted to do this because of the insight you can draw from it, as well as because it demonstrates the width and depth of the category. 

If you want to understand the logic of why some have multiple expressions side by side, some just rotate and others are static, here’s a little more but if not, skip ahead to the what it all means… 

There are a few brands that clearly have more than one well-known gin. For example, Tanqueray may have a flagship London Dry Gin, but Tanqueray No.TEN and Flor de Sevilla are seen everywhere. If you were to make a list of the 200 best gins, not brands, all three would probably make the cut. The same is true for a few other producers, such as Sipsmith or Warner’s or Beefeater etc who have multiple established expressions. 

Where I didn’t feel others had such established second or third gins, I introduced the variant as a rotating bottle, replacing the one on the front. 

Some brands will be aggrieved that I lumped all their range behind one pick face as they will feel each deserves a spot. But that’s how retailers and bars look at it and a reality check most need to address as they consolidate their ranges.

I’ve spoken to countless retailers and bar operators about this. Sometimes a brand has one good gin which does all the volume while the rest of the range is just noise, sometimes there are multiple good expressions but the brand isn’t that well known so from a retailer or bar operator’s perspective where space is at a premium, there’s no reason you’d ever stock multiple variants. You just have the one that’s most suited to your establishment / menu. There's also deliberate channel strategy from the brands themselves that compound this, but that's a can of worms for another time.

I stopped at three wide as there is no gin brand that could genuinely lay claim to having a range that commands more space than that on the average back bar (the variants cannibalise each other at that point). 

Similarly, I didn’t go more than 3 deep in the changeover (the flickering variants) as no gin brand had more which also met a high enough combination of quality, sales numbers and awareness to deserve extra. 

This may seem like an unnecessary addition into the graphic, but it’ll make sense in the insights as it shows the true nature of the competition happening in the UK right now. 

Spirits Beacon Watermark
"You don’t compete against one gin, you compete against the gin brand as a whole and all its variants."

What does this set of 200 tell us?

Those are 200 strong offerings and while I’m sure you’ll find that many might not appeal to you personally – it’s easy to find something to admire in each. There are none resting on their laurels and each battles it out for the opportunity to be on shelf. 

Secondly, there are a good 40 or so brands that I mentioned earlier not on this list that could easily be included with marginal changes to the weighting criteria. Some enjoy huge local support. Some have fantastic quality products and a lot of charm. If ever anyone on this list stops hustling, they will soon be forgotten and replaced. Arguably, some have already and I was too kind to some of the Americans listed.

And then there are a further 400-500 brands made in the U.K. There is a local maker in almost every city. 

Those local nano-distilleries may not have the same calibre of offering, sure. Some are grass roots local mom-and-pops style operations, some bulk cash and carry style third party contract jobs. But between the local markets, food festivals, corporate gifting opportunities, bespoke for venue batches etc. they take a lot of smaller opportunities away from medium sized brands. They also create a lot of noise to breakthrough for new entries. 

Nowhere else in the world has that combination. 

Few countries have such a high-quality set of 200 brands (most barely have half). They don’t have such a close competitive set you can interchange the line-up with, nor the hundreds weaved into local communities, let alone constant new start-ups that are trying to up-end the status quo. 

The U.K is by far the most competitive place in the world for a gin producer to exist in and yet the narrative is one of doom. We should be so proud of what we have.

What insight can you get from the graphic?

No-one has managed to go establish more than 3 gins, not even the multinationals. 

Look at Whisky and Tequila by comparison and the contrast is stark. It's fair to say that those who have a dozen gin variants in their range are knowingly churning through trends rather than actively building sustainable additional width.

Statistically, the most common kind of Flavoured Gin edition is citrus - not a form of berry. With Pink Grapefruit so prominent however, it's easy to see why people still think with rose tinted lenses.

Over 65% of the top 200 brands have customised glass bottles (defined by a bespoke shape, a regular shape with extra embossing or etching, or have printed directly onto glass). That’s a much higher percentage than any other category, even Whisky that relies on outer boxes more than custom glass.

Clear glass still ranks as most frequent, but blue tinted glass is now as popular as green, meaning there isn’t an established associated colour code for the category. By comparison ten years ago, there were less than a handful of blue bottles.

If you look at the average weight of the bottles (yes, i went into that kind of detail too) - most are quite heavy. This means dozens have room to lighten their glass, opening the door for easy carbon savings without big design changes. This may become a big talking point in 2023.

What does it mean for 2023?

Looking at the calibre of the 200, it explains why there have been closures and why there will continue to be many more in the year ahead. 

If you want to achieve more than 20 thousand bottles sold in the U.K, you don’t just need to displace someone in that list, you need to do better than 90% of it each time you compete for a purchase, and you need to compete enough times to build up the volume. 

Given the names and quality up there, that's a daunting task.

To fully appreciate how hard that is and why I say this, let me scope the “opportunity” that most distillers face…

Most gin drinkers buy less than 6 bottles a year. If they chose a different gin each time (which they won’t as most buy based on price and availability in supermarkets, and everyone has their favourites that they return to), this means despite being one of the best brands in the UK, 95% of the names on this graphic will not make it into the average drinker's home over the period of a year. 

Consider just how many people you must be in front of to be able to build the kind of volume needed to be sustainable as a business. 

This also speaks to why so many look to sell direct via their own sites and through their own venues and why that's such a big part of 2023 plans for many distilleries. 

As for the trade, non specialist bars will stock at most 10-15 gins and will, at best, turn over half of those each year. That’s around 20 gins being poured each year. If you are a new producer, you need to outcompete 90% of the brands in this graphic to be one of those. Imagine how hard that is. 

Now imagine how much harder it is to remain listed as hundreds knock on doors looking to take your spot…

Why does that 20k number matter? 

A micro-distillery that sells fewer than twenty thousand units will always be on the brink of going under. There’s not enough margin to build reserves, not enough volume to draw sustainable full-time salaries and means that it has to be a part-time operation or a one to two person company. A few bad months and it’s time for the curtains to come down. Everyone has a few bad months eventually - that's business.

Long gone are the days sales would happen by default of having more demand than there is supply. Achieving that sales figure in the U.K in 2023 means you need to be brilliant at what you do, from distilling flavourful liquid to brand building to making sales. 

The market has hundreds of brands that deliver at a high level, and hundreds that don't achieve it despite their best efforts.

I love that about the state of the gin category in 2023. We should all praise the quality of competition, not dismiss it as saturation. Rather than looking at the demise, we should look at the minimum standard that’s now in place. 

Let this bright little GIF be a testament to the dynamic nature of the UK gin scene. 

It’s easy to be pessimistic, to be over a trend, to look beyond the incumbent and towards the heir apparent. But let it be a reminder that if you take a moment to look at the best of the gin category right now, it’s hard not to conclude that it’s a brilliant time to love juniper.

Arguably, 2023 is the best Gin has ever been.

By Olivier Ward

6 January 2023