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A SEA OF PINK, Coming to terms with flavoured gins…

Pink 1
Written by Gin Foundry

We’re not sure if you’ve noticed, but there’s rather a lot of Pink Gin doing the rounds lately.

It all started innocently enough: back in 2013 there was Pinkster. Then there was Warner’s Rhubarb. Then there were a few more rhubarbs. Then a couple of other fruit gins… Then came the synthetically flavoured ones, triggering a tsunami that flooded throughout 2019.

Graham Norton even got in on the act, while Echo Falls wine, Mirabeau, Kopparberg and other huge names have all but tripped over their own feet in their rush to market. It was as though Mr Blobby himself had exploded across the Gin hemisphere, filling bottle after bottle with weird, sweet, not-quite-gin flavours and bright, bold, dusky pink colours.

There are some historical precedents for this craze of course, with fruit infused Gins kicking off at the turn of the 1900s, but that was mainly Sloe, and it was an entirely different ball park. The numbers being touted today are jaw droppingly astounding. The Wine and Spirits Trade Association reported that Flavoured Gin had driven half of all growth in Gin sales in the UK in 2018, coming from nowhere to represent one fifth of total Gin sales at the beginning of 2019. That number has increased in the year that’s past with many experts saying that flavoured gin is now one third of the category in the UK.

Gordon’s Pink Gin sells well over 15 million units a year now and is growing at a considerably faster rate than the flagship dry.  If you take its UK only sales, it pushes enough volume to be in the top 5 biggest selling brands here – ahead of Baileys. Puerto de Indias launched a €2m investment to grow the brand in the UK (having sold a whopping 6 million bottles in Spain alone in 2018). ‘It’s not pink, it’s Puerto’ is what they’re saying. Well, it’s certainly something…

Individual brands aside, IWST Drinks Market Analysis’ data points to Flavoured Gins increasing by a whopping 78.3% globally over the past year, thrashing ‘Gin’ as a broader category – which was “only” up by 8.3%.

Perhaps it’s the victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Click-bait journalists have a strong belief in the notion of ‘Millennial Pink’ preaching that young people in particular are drawn to this colour. It’s a convenient narrative to pedal, but it’s a lazy one when it comes to gin. Statistically speaking, in every research poll done to date it’s not the exclusive preserve of the younger generation. The case is actually stronger that it’s those over 35 who not only started the trend but are now the core purchasing mass ensuring a constant rate of sale. TL;DR: the Millennial argument just doesn’t wash.

Never-the-less, rose-hued fish bowl glasses that are the thumbnail to almost every article about Gin undoubtedly draws people in. Want to provoke a rant fuelled comment section for “high user engagement”? Get Jay Reyner to have a rant about gin and conclude that everyone must also hate the category because otherwise why else would there be so much flavoured gin around… By talking about the flavoured and flippant and only that, journalists have created a world in which it dominates.

To cater to that, brands have had little choice but to get involved. Even the most die hard juniper-forward producers have come up with the goods. Beefeater and Gordon’s got involved first, which was no huge surprise. Their owners know what sells, and everyone can understand that innovation from companies of that scale is only judged by that singular criteria. They could see Pink was in, so they milked that sugary cash cow.

It was the Craft brands that came out of left field, though. We’d casually estimate that at least half of all British brands have now put out a Fruit Infused Gin at this stage, no matter how seriously they’d all like to be perceived as category-protecting artisans. We’ll add to that wager that the majority of those Infused Gins will be pink in colour and also have a good dose of sugar to boot…

We don’t hate Pink Gin nor are we here to have a pop at those making it. In fact we’ve come to accept it for what it is and have resolved to try and help people understand it better. We’ll admit that we’re never going to be its natural champions, it’s just so far out of our comfort zone when it comes to picking something to drink – but a third of gin drinkers consume it across the UK and we’d hate to think that all they were getting is a condescending tut about their life choices when seeking out information.

When it’s done well it’s very, very good. Consider one of the originals: Pinkster supplies huge, juicy doses of raspberries, but it also adheres to Gin’s juniper-forward policy. One of Ireland’s top sellers, Boyle’s Pink Gin, is sweet and sticky, but it’s honest about that and ginny enough to pass muster. Same goes for Warner’s, Penrhos, Bullard’s, Tiptree and many others in the UK. Bloody Shiraz is setting the standard in Australia, too, and the same goes for Time Anchor in South Africa. In a G&T they may look like Cherryade, but they taste nothing of the sort.

The problem with Flavoured Gins is that it seems foolish to style a Gin after a star botanical and not steer into it. The problem with that, though, is that by its very definition, Gin needs to be predominantly juniper flavoured. Furthermore, we have been engineered since time began to associate the colour pink with sweet flavours. Fruit does it, Skittles do it, juice does it… pink is the colour of dessert, so if you’re following the market to create a Pink Gin, you can’t go against expectations too drastically. Pink is sweet and fruit, but juniper forward gin isn’t. Which expectations do the producers follow?

It is a hugely divisive matter at the moment. Those wielding their pitchforks and calling for more juniper obedience are being accused of short-sighted snobbery, while those churning out pink stuff are being accused of diluting – polluting, even – the Gin category. There’s truth in both. Even now, we’re getting splinters trying to stay on the fence just for the duration of one article and we’ll openly acknowledge that this happens each and every time we tackle the subject.

The reality is that Gin is a famously experimental spirit, forever playing with flavours. It stands to reason that fruit could get involved and – as we’ve said there are some amazing Pink Gins doing the rounds. To lumber them all in with the same label is to do them a disservice. The well-made ones aren’t cheapening the category, they’re broadening its scope.

Likewise, the over sweet, juniper-shy and artificial, bright pink bottles of tooth-rot inducing nonsense are a slow poison. They’ll sell like the wind, but once people realise how crap they are, the general public will steer away from them. Quality always shines through. The real question is whether they will become sick of Gin in general when they do (if they are even gin drinkers in the first place). There’s a lot of statistical sales evidence to suggest that over half of the Fruit Gin shoppers are not Dry Gin shoppers anyway, so that verdict’s still out…

If we loop back around to the Millennial argument, we’ll see why lazy assumptions are the enemy of understanding Pink Gin, let alone being able to help people discover the better ones out there. To call it a young person’s drink is to work from the headlines out, and to do so in a really patronising, ill informed way. Yeah, sure it photographs well and lots of younger people are also drinking it, but the base fact is that some people just like sweet flavours, so sweet gins are going to appeal. The greatest truth of the matter is that price points dictate most trends, no matter what age its adopters are or the flavours they are into. Most mainstream Pink Gins are seriously cheap, which is why they achieve the volumes they do.

It might be hard to accept that there is a strong demand for this kind of product if you have a deep-rooted love for booming juniper flavours and neat spirits, as it goes against every instinct you have. When you look at the broader economics and competitive environment there is in the category however, it’s also hard to begrudge producers for servicing that demand and call them sell outs. Mark our words when we say that Pink gin will be the saviour of many a craft distillery before the end of 2020…

For the record, it’s worth reminding yourself frequently that those who drink these sweet pink gins are proud about doing so; it’s not a guilty pleasure or lesser than in their eyes –  it’s just different.

We’ll readily state we’ve spat out more than we care to remember this year and last, but we’ll also put our hands on our hearts and say that when it works, it works. It all comes down to that age-old adage: don’t judge a book by its cover. Many producers are pushing products with no synthetics and no sneaky doses of sugar, just fruit going toe to toe with juniper.

Love them or loathe them, Pink represents a new audience for the category and the opportunity for distillers not to just to supply them with a drink, but convert them onto something else in their range as well – be it Gin or whatever they are all moving onto next…