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Bespoke Gin at Tales of the Cocktail

Tales of the Cocktail
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11/07/2016
Written by Gin Foundry

Tales of the Cocktail – now in its 14th year and a highlight of the calendar year for all those in the trade – ended last Sunday.  We were proud to be invited to deliver a tasting seminar, where we were joined by journalists and trade figures from the world over to discuss the finer points of Bespoke Gin & Collaborative Distilling (as well as to distribute many samples to illustrate what this area of gin is all about, of course!).

Although revealing all in one place would involve creating an interminable essay involving endless amounts of scrolling to read through it all, we thought it was important to shed a light on the various areas we covered and all of the research that went into it. Hopefully, in doing so we will showcase more details about this exciting area of craft distilling for those interested to learn more, while also providing attendees the wider context we touched upon during the seminar.

As the talk covered three key areas, Bespoke Distilling, Collaborative Distilling and Gypsy Distilling, we have split the research into a 3 part series. To see the other articles, click here: PART 2. PART 3.

Part One: Bespoke Gin

It will come as no surprise that custom-made gins created exclusively for particular bars and specific shops are becoming more frequent. But where did it all begin? Can “bespoke” batches really be traced all the back to the Victorian era, how did it evolve into what we know today, and what benefits does it offer to both distillers and those ordering the gin?

Our research has shown that yes, custom batches (both intentionally and un-intentionally) were occurring centuries ago. There was no milestone moment transforming them into what we know them to be today however. Rather, the understanding and perception about what “bespoke” means has evolved over the years. Interestingly, trends for customised gins have gone back and forth like a pendulum too, as opposed to evolving in a progressive manner in any particular direction.

The main shift has been that bespoke has moved from being a “by default” anomaly most of the time to an intentional action over the years, as a direct result of the reduction in still sizes and a lower barrier to entry.

For example at their height, the East India Company were buying so much gin that entire batches were sold to them and multiple still runs were needed to fulfil their quotas. By default, the gin they had on ships was unique to the company as they bought the lot and as each batch varied slightly (given distilling techniques were less consistent), what they had was impossible to replicate for others. Even if the distillery were to retail the same gin, they would likely retail it at a lower ABV as it didn’t need to be “Navy Strength”

Today, very few retailers are monopolising a distillery’s entire output and having a custom batch made for them in an un-intentional, “by default” way. Even if they are buying huge volumes of a particular gin, most distilleries’ flagship products tend to be consistent in its flavour and remain available to other customers too.

More importantly, buying an entire batch is not the same as having a custom-made product and it is neither marketed nor perceived as such anymore.

Nevertheless, not everything from yesteryear has been abandoned. There are many parallels to be drawn in certain markets like the UK and the US to the tied houses and Gin Palaces of the Dickensian era. For example, there are more bars that are literally attached (often only separated by a sheet of glass) to distilleries than ever before.

They range from glorified tasting rooms, all the way to high-end cocktail bars and many distillers make exclusive (both intentional & unintentionally) small batch products in order to test new ideas in venues that are either co-owned or entirely subsidised by them.

For example, the Shanty in New York is attached to NY Distilling and they usually have something interesting lurking behind the bar or being tested out on eager patrons, keen on discovering the latest experiment.

In recent years, there has even been a move in the UK for bars to reverse-engineer themselves into distilleries too. Ladies & Gentlemen bar in London now have their operational pot still making Highwayman Gin on premise, during service. There’s even a bar at Gatwick Airport which has become a licensed distillery!

Micro batches and one-off gins distilled onsite are everywhere in the UK and are increasing in the US. They are becoming a more common sighting across smaller gin markets like Portugal, Germany and Australia too.

A more recent evolution in Bespoke Gins, is the fact that they have become more of a two way process between retailer (bar / shop) and distiller. For example, the likes of Fortnum & Mason have worked closely with Shortcross to create a limited edition cask aged variant. They have also worked with Dodd’s Gin to create an Old Tom and both of these releases were exclusive to them. Based on the success of these limited edition gins, Fortnum & Mason have even commissioned their own brand of gin tailored to their audience and sold under their own label and name.

They are not alone either – there is much more dialogue about how a gin can be personalised to suit specific retail needs (from flavour profiles etc.) and how it is presented (from bottle size to design and more). Gone are the days of only having the option of an ABV change as the “customisable element” of a bespoke batch, as so often seen in airports and World of Duty Free stores.

However, it seems that while new ideas for how to create a bespoke edition are being adopted, very few are no longer being considered. It seems that almost anything goes when it comes to the type of agreements being made.

There are still makers (like Skin Gin) who keep the same contents in each bottle but change the packaging at will to suit their clients requests. There are others, including the likes of Sipsmith, doing “signature batches” to mark an anniversary or other event (changing the colour of the label while keeping the same contents).

There are still distilleries that make a gin for a group on a third party basis separate to their own portfolio, like Chase Distillery and The Ivy. There are still third party gin specialists who only make gins that have been commissioned by others and who don’t have a flagship product of their own, like Thames Distillers and Bourne & Hollingsworth.

However, since 2012 there has been a huge rise in cross-branded and custom-made gins. Ones where both the source and the destination retailer are jointly named with equal status. Take Sipsmith once again, but this time their House of Commons Gin, especially made for the government gift shop and containing a unique botanical formula including a peppercorn. This is a marked difference to the historic House of Commons Gin made by Nicholson’s Distillery over 50 years ago, which was just the same gin as they bottled in their flagship Lamplighter’s Gin offering, packaged in a different bottling without their name on it.

There are more of all types of “bespoke” deals and limited edition batches being made than ever before, making it an exciting area and one that individuals need to be armed with a mountain of questions to fully understand.

So what are the benefits then? There is a clear sense that when done well, bespoke editions can help retailers and bars entice customers to discovering new gins.

There is also evidence in many establishments that it does not cannibalise other gin sales. Rather, gin as a category sells more in their particular establishment as they are pushing it more and have a better knowledge about it. Having worked with the likes of bars such as the Oliver Conquest and made custom gins for them, it is evident to us that once a bar has a passion for a spirit, they are keen to discover much more about it, which extents far beyond having their own gin. This can only be a good thing for the guest experience too.

Bespoke batches can create renewed interest, keep customers returning and add diversity to the category. It can promote a culture of experimentation and helps bridges the gap between end consumer and actual maker, as the chain is much more informed and engaged with the product, which helps them articulate and transmit that passion right the way to the end drinker.

While it is obvious for a bar to want to sell their own gin, why would a distiller choose to make a bespoke gin?

The reasons are as varied as the gins they make. Some do it to leverage a relationship from which they can introduce new prestigious accounts to their core portfolio. Others do it as once the initial testing is done, a change in recipe is no big deal to implement and while not their core product, selling a batch of gin is always good for the bottom line. Some do it purely as they like the idea and want to work with a specific bar or friend, while others do it for the prestige of being connected with particular establishments.

There are many pitfalls however and bespoke is not without danger. While many are highly creative and spectacular, some have become a huge headache for those who make it. There are many examples of gins made in a in an environment where there were too many cooks in the kitchen…

There are also occasions where small distillers are simply taking money and accepting a third party contracts in order to keep the books ticking over, even when they know what is being made is not a good product.  Many of those who do so seem to consider that a gin made for a “third party” is not theirs. In those situations, they may not own the brand name or it may not be their flagship product, but everything they make is a reflection of their ability. Making a third party gin should not be just a transaction – distillers ought to be gatekeepers and facilitate the best ideas to become reality, not prostitutes whoring themselves out to any bidder willing to spend some money. Critically, third party distilling and making a bespoke gin should not absolve the maker – be they named or not – of the ethics and consequences about what happens to it next and how it is marketed. This however, is a wider conversation for another day.

What is clear already, is that in creating something for a client in order to build a relationship or make a quick buck, some forget that doing so can be at the expense of their own long-term credibility. There have already been several occasions where distilleries didn’t look carefully enough about who they are making a bespoke gin for, or stop once the recipe to a steer towards utter disaster. Once word spreads out about their links to them, it will be hugely damaging to their reputation. After all, it is hard to state you are a purveyor of quality, while also making vile plonk on the side…

Good, bad and everything in-between, there’s been such a rise in bespoke and exclusive editions that we estimate that today almost one in every three gin distilleries make a limited edition batch of some sort by the end of 2017.

The barrier to entry is now so low that there is almost nothing standing in the way of doing a bespoke batch anymore. Because of this, it is easy to predict a continued rise for the foreseeable future…

Bespoke Tales of the Cocktail