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WHAT DOES GIN CONNOISSEURSHIP MEAN?

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04/04/2018
Written by Gin Foundry

It’s clear to see that the gin category has grown over the past 5 years, and for those whom have followed it, it’s not just more creative, more open to new ideas and experimentation – it’s also seen a huge rise in how informed drinkers (and bartenders) are about the spirit.

People have always been discerning – but the difference is that now, more often than ever before, they actually know what to look for, can smell a marketing lie a mile away and crucially, are spoiled for choice so have the opportunity to seek out exactly what they desire.

That wasn’t the case even as recently as 2012 let alone a decade ago. There are now over 600 gins made by British makers alone. In 2007 there were at best 40 gin brands, all of which relatively classic styles of Dry Gin, and voting with your feet was essentially a statement of limitation, rather than a search for greener pastures to graze (sip) on…

Funnily enough in this great overhaul, although we get asked about it all the time – we don’t think that there’s been a rise in Gin Snobbery or, in fact, much of a rise in mass connoisseurship either. Yet.

Some Context

More people regard themselves as being very discerning gin drinkers, and consumers are asking more questions, but many of the big success stories of the past 5 years have been gins that “snobs” would have scoffed at a decade ago. Pink Gin? Gin Liqueurs? Such a thing was not even on the shelf.

Today, the likes of Warner Edwards’ Rhubarb Gin, as well as Lidl’s and other supermarkets Gin Liqueur ranges have ripped up that rule book and are reaping the rewards. Rightly so, they are tasty spirits! Supermarket Gins are even scoring top marks at international competitions and the respect they command today is unprecedented. If this isn’t a sign of a lack of snobbery, we’re not sure what is.

There doesn’t seem to be much snootiness from producers either. Gin seems to have expanded its horizons in this new era, and while doing so it has also managed to create an all-inclusive bubble and forgone the pretentiousness that shackles many other categories such as the Whisky industry. It’s adopted new ideas, taken on the new styles and shown how innovation and heritage can be merged to sublime effect.

This is brilliant, but it creates new problems too as not everyone is capable of doing that, and some don’t even try. “All-inclusive” attitudes means that it seems everything can now be Gin. At a distilling conference we recently attended, one distiller almost went as far as suggesting that Gin was just a botanical spirit and the predominant flavour of juniper seemed to be, in their opinion, a unfortunate legacy from the past that needed to be “evolved away from”.

Today, fractional distilling methods, the use of essences, infusions, dual distillation techniques and completely bonkers looking apparatus (a glass still in a living room anyone?!) are all common place and embraced in gin making. While it’s further proof that the immovable, unflinching Gin Snob doesn’t exist per se and that producers are very progressive in their attitudes towards the spirit – it also shows that a potential identity crisis could be in the works for the second half 2018…

Why has there not been a massive rise in “mass” connoisseurship amongst everyday drinkers?

Gin is still in a state of huge flux and even though to many, this is a trend that’s a decade in the making, it’s only really 5 years since it’s gone mainstream. People are still learning. They are still finding the new too enticing not to be drawn to it, and rightly, they still exploring their palates and preferences.

These facts incidentally, never really change; they just lose a little shine as interests wean. To add to this, the everyday consumer is still being bombarded with information that’s both very subjective, often complicated and sometimes delivered by those with a specific agenda. Because of this, they can still be bamboozled by bullshit.

It takes a lot of education to increase the base understanding of the everyday drinker, namely as put simply, they don’t care THAT much. It is heresy to say this here at Gin Foundry HQ, but it’s also worth remembering – it’s only gin! It’s not exactly high on most people’s agenda when it comes to making discerning life choices.

We’ve been asking around about this question of connoisseurship, and whether or not there has been a rise in it. In response to our enquiries someone recently compared the debates occurring in Gin as being (loosely) similar to watching evasive politicians answer questions about policies that are not set yet. Most tend to avoid putting forward a position on something, instead talking about how the debate and questions should be framed in order to be comprehensive / trusted. They don’t answer any questions, they merely state what kind of question should be being asked instead, and in what tone and context the questions should be posed in the first place. Much of the same is happening in Gin where enthusiasts are only just starting to ask about what questions to ask and how to navigate the barrage of information out there.

Fear not however, the interest is there and there are enough commentators and groups whom are propelling the category forward educating and informing people! All the groundwork seems to be underway and drinkers are sponging up all of it. Where there is curiosity, in time there will be knowledge that will lead to connoisseurship.

So how are producers responding to a rise in interest, and the soon to be rising connoisseurship?

From a flavour perspective, the search for exotic botanicals has certainly intensified to keep up with demands. That said, from using ants (yes actual ants), to tonka bean, Iva flower and the edible seaweeds, producers are also aware that a “token” botanical will do little to convince a true enthusiast. It’s got to have a discernible presence in the glass, to be palpable and to have a reason for being there.

Many of the best gins have unique botanicals that add just a touch of magic to the gin, but crucially, almost all of them use their ingredients as a way of stating the distillery’s provenance and imbuing their identity, their regionality and their attitude into the liquid. It’s also why you’d have to be deeply cynical to be a snob in this category, as there’s just so much to engage with (from the spirit of the maker to the spirit they make), that you can never truly write off any gin.

It is this combination of factors that resonates with today’s gin geeks and even, it seems on both conscious and subconscious levels, for the layman drinker.

Another critical aspect where the rise, and shift, in interest is manifesting itself is in what is being presented and how this is done. The story behind the gin, from production to people is now “out there” in a way that was unprecedented a decade ago. The advocacy of today’s gin geeks is hard earned and easily lost. They demand to see a face, to know where a gin came from, to be able to ask questions about how it’s made and to be able to ask why. In short, they demand access and expect it to be on display.

Label design has had to improve as a result, while custom bottle shapes and digital presence have all had to upgrade to keep up with expectations (and the ever more crowded shelf that is vying for the same basket). This level of transparency, of information and of carefully honed aesthetics is a direct result of the growingly astute consumer and it’s already propelled Gin as a category to new heights as a result. Expect even more of this in future as the growingly discerning transforms into being the growingly judicious come purchase time.

There’s a more curious, more informed era ahead but what does connoisseurship mean to us and do we actually need it?

People are drinking less but are making, or at least trying to make, more informed choices. It’s a more curious era we live in and a more connected one too.

The distiller’s search for new frontiers has been a response to the consumer’s search for the perfect match for their evolving aspirations and desires. Vice versa, the choices drinkers have today has been a result of the incredible way gin makers have embraced the idea of moving with the times and of adopting the new. A lack of snobbishness has afforded this and long may that continue.

It’s possible to be transported to the far reaches of the Scandinavian wilderness, to the sundrenched Australian coast or the heady lavender fields of Provence in the summer just by removing the cork on a bottle of gin and taking a whiff. It’s possible to see human endeavor and creativity on labels, and to be mesmerized by their ingenuity in how they wrangled the flavours into the bottle in the first place.

Connoisseurship is having the curiosity to want to find out about every element of a gin. It is the willingness to engage with both the spirit in which something is made, as well as the spirit itself. It is accepting that once you buy into the idea of a gin and its flavour, there’s a certain amount of suspending disbelief until the end of the journey – and only then at the end, can you fully judge it (as you might do with films or theatre). We absolutely need more people whom are willing to engage with gin as such.

To be a connoisseur it can’t just be about blind curiosity and a willingness to be whisked away however. There needs to be some thoughtful reading between the lines and the ability to challenge bullshit where you see it. Done in the right way it can be positive, but it must be encouraged to occur in a way that drinkers can remain more starry-eyed than battle worn. Unless this happens, we’ll end up with drinkers that are so jaded they will be naturally set against innovation and entrenched in their beliefs, much of the dynamism of the category will be lost for a generation.

That’s also why it’s worth noting the difference between being a discerning drinker and being a snob. Snobbishness is having preconceptions and not parking them at the door. It is to refuse to try and engage with something without the baggage of one’s own expectations and it is not being able to see past a certain viewpoint.

While connoisseurs are needed to help continue the appreciation of the category and to introduce great gins to even more people, a rise in them will unfortunately, also mean a rise in gin snobs.

No drinker ever finds that zen-like middle ground of being non-judgmental while also being selective and it’ll be a sliding scale that swings back and forth. We certainly don’t achieve it naturally, and go through patches in one camp and the other. For the moment and for a category in need of some careful curation and insightful critique – the balance is tipping into the right direction and a much needed, more discerning consumer is on their way!