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Bespoke Gin

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19/04/2015
Written by Gin Foundry

Bespoke Gins created by bartenders is an ever-growing area of innovation in the UK and US. New releases limited to a specific bar or by a certain bartender are being created faster than we could ever possibly write about them all. Some bars are creating their own gin in-house, while others are working with established distilleries for a one-off run. There are even some of the bigger names going all out and building their own brands with a third party contractor ready to distribute and export their gin thousands of bottles at a time.

We wrote at length about some of the major elements that go into starting a new distillery separately HERE, and having been asked by several people to comment on the rise in bar-owned gins, we’ve decided to explore this a little more. It’s also worth mentioning at this point that Gin Foundry is working with multiple bars to create bespoke gins and in doing so, we have a unique vantage point to see both the joys and the perils of embarking on such a venture.

The reasons for the trend in limited editions and “venue only” gins are numerous. However, we feel the two main driving forces are 1. the barrier to entry is slowly becoming more accessible and 2. the fundamental need to underpin new gins with credibility and provenance.

The first point can be split into two areas. Primarily, with the rise in micro distilleries, there is now a need for craft distillers to generate new avenues of income outside of just selling their flagship expressions. Distilling for third parties, hosting tours and creating limited editions are a great way to bolster the coffers. Edinburgh Gin, Dodd’s Gin and even Bombay Sapphire demonstrated this succinctly during 2014.

The fact that most craft distilleries operate stills that are considerably smaller than what was available mid 2000’s also means that a decade later, the the investment required is much smaller and the risk taken far lower. Being experimental is a lot less risky, yet the rewards of getting it right remain as attractive as ever. You no longer have to buy 2500+ bottles for a batch run. It’s more like 300 bottles nowadays. Moreover, it is no longer a huge financial investment to get it all started and with distilleries willing to minimize R&D time, the turnaround from inception to delivery is shorter too.

Secondly, equipment is becoming cheaper. Micro stills, rotary evaporators, infusion kits, carbonators and bottling plants are no longer the preserve of the huge distilling houses. With a growing interest in making your own and adapting existing spirits, new and smaller equipment is being adopted into the drinks industry faster than chemists can flog second-hand extraction chambers and centrifuges.

The pit fall that many have already fallen into in the past two years however, is that while creating bespoke cumquat bitters and a chilli liqueur may well be interesting for a one-off project, it’s a far cry from making a balanced gin. Few appreciate the time it takes to truly get to know the influence of a botanical on a gin ensemble, let alone the chemistry. Unfortunately, we seldom see newbee distillers take the time to learn which flavours can be harnessed and what effect they have on mouth feel or the perception of flavour, while too many dive in lured by the sight of fluorescent chilling coils and whirling water baths. The reality is that many don’t take the time to learn about the category either.

Of course, for those not interested in making their own solely for use behind the bar and whose eyes are firmly set on the bigger picture, the tidal wave of new gin releases have lead towards a need for more than just “small batch” be written on the label. There is more than simply the ego massage of creating their own spirit on offer for entrepreneurial barkeeps. Bars and bartenders offer an opportunity to add a unique mark of authenticity to a product, as well as an ability to provide a direct route to market through their patrons.

For the better-known bartenders whose venues regularly feature in the “50 best” in the world, they can also influence others in the trade ensuring several other bars adopt their gin too. This is nothing new of course, brand ambassadors almost all come from a trade background and are deliberately recruited for their ability to influence bartenders and for their contacts within the industry. Moreover, their understanding of how bars work is the very reason their views are trusted by their peers. There have been many gins that were successfully created and launched by former bartenders (from Aviation Gin pre “gin Boom” to Fords Gin more recently).

But where does this all leave us? Is the future of gin not in distillery-nurtured products but actual bars and hotels creating a gin for themselves? How will small batch distillers factor in the demand to make a gin for someone else, with the reality that in doing so it will cannibalize their own sales? Lastly, where does that leave the bigger players? Will Bombay, Tanqueray etc… need to make a series of gins just for a bar or is an airport as small as it’s feasible to go? Perhaps a few answers can be uncovered in some of the existing gins on the market today.

The tried and tested method: Bars asking a third party to make a gin.

Portobello Gin is the textbook example a genuinely exciting product created by employing the services of using a third party distiller. It is also demonstrates the need to balance the fact that in doing so, it has placed the brand they created open to fans feeling shortchanged once they uncover more about the true provenance. In their case, Portobello Gin is not made in Notting Hill. The guys who work at Portobello Road bar do not actually make it. It is as much their gin as the Duke’s Hotel bar’s Vermouth belongs to their head bartender, Alessandro Palazzi. This is not to say they weren’t heavily involved in the creation of the spirit, the development of the flavour and the inception of the look and feel but thereafter; is it really made by the bar? Once the first batch is finished and the R&D is over, can it really be deemed as a gin “MADE” by them? It’s certainly owned by them and is their baby, but “made by” is an ongoing term that raises questions as to who the actual distiller is.

There are shades of grey and we feel a categorical yes as well as a firm no are both valid opinions here. Either way, by combining a well-earned reputation from both the bar and its creators, alongside a manufacturer who has the ability to create large enough batches that are financially competitive enough to rival the likes of Bombay SapphirePortobello Road are now the house pour in many bars across the UK. Over time, it has become less about the bar behind it, and more a brand in its own right.

Take another bartender and another bar who created a gin with the same manufacturer, but whose story is very different. Hoxton Gin is now the example that many use to illustrate the point of a failed brand whose release had a detrimental affect on the standing of all involved. While the bar, bartender and industry connections meant that Hoxton Gin made headlines when it launched, became a sighting on several back bars and even national supermarket shelves – it has since declined into a side show with most relegating it to an amusing shot to give to someone… All the right intentions were there and on paper, this was a slam dunk. The reality of what happened to Hoxton Gin from launch to its lower league status today is more nuanced than what we’ve presented here, but regardless of a more favourable review, no one can genuinely claim it’s been a success.

Perhaps the lesson here is that while adding the name of a well respected bar / bartender and a competitive price point means doors are open to you, becoming a gin consumed on an ongoing basis must signify that the quality of the gin does the talking. Also, let’s not forget, creating a large batch so that it can be price pointed accordingly, means a heavy investment to kick it all off.

While many bartender-created gins will enjoy local success, our prediction is that only a few will emulate the likes of Portobello Gin and produce a good enough “package” to establish themselves further than their own patrons and their own networks. There are simply too many pitfalls and false assumptions that will prevent a surge of gin to be created in this way. Also, the fiscal barrier may have dropped in this area, but not that far it’s still unachievable for the majority.

Reverse engineering. A limited edition created by a distillery for a bar.

A distillery agreeing to a custom edition is no new thing. Chase Gin have been busy establishing a few interesting collaborations over the past 18 months. For example, the Ivy Market Grill is one of a number of venues who carry a Chase made bespoke gin. Cambridge Distillery made a gin for the team at NOMA. There are also a few distilleries who create custom editions for retailers, for example Dodd’s Gin partnered with Fortnum & Masons for their limited edition, while Sacred Gin joined TATE Modern Art Museum to create theirs.

The real issue for distillers is that while doing a bespoke edition or even a custom gin for a bar can add prestige and a better relationship – it’s also at the expense of their flagship gin. It’s one thing if the bar stocks the distilleries’ other products and that they receive more attention than they would have as a result of a collaboration, but in the long term – is it a commercially viable plan? What happens after the collaboration ends? We’ve seen numerous bar managers seemingly forget favours done by brands once it became old hat or when there was a new suitor in town.

The bars clearly benefit from this sort of relationship. However, it is hard to see any of the major distilleries follow suit because in an on-trade environment, it will mostly be at the expense of their own brands. Far more likely to succeed are peripheral products like the Sipsmith cordials, the Hendrick’s made Quinine syrup and other such add-ons created and seeded amongst numerous key accounts. In doing so, they help their brands increase their rate of sale while also doing something unique to very few locations. Almost like a liquid Point of Sale, which help brands get that all import menu listing.

Taken one step larger, will bigger distilleries ever be able to create a custom batch for a bar? Again, this is also unlikely unless of course it is to cater to a large group, as the volumes required will be too much to offset. Even then, the idea that a global partnership can be established would require a feat of negotiation and campaigning fit for the general election. That said, establishments like the Soho House group may well be able to offer a big enough global network and a big enough name to tempt the like of Bombay… we certainly hope so.

The idea of a distillery making a bar a bespoke gin also relies on that rarest of beast too – a natural synergy between both parties. It also relies on an acceptance that creating a custom spirit involves the bar saying no to the easier to sell and cheaper option for house pour and with it, tighter profit margins. Many American distilleries have tried to create hyper local spirits for bars and simply seen their cool but expensive project receive a lot of talk and not much action, as the house pour gin remains the driver of the bar’s bottom line… Few openly discuss the need for both parties to understand the financial ramification for the other’s businesses and almost always, the end outcome suffers.

Our prediction – more collaborations will happen in the future but expect this co-creation approach be few and far between. As with any collaborative projects, there is a need for equal partners and until the bar is no longer the only one holding all the cards, expect even fewer to be a long-term success.

The micro distillery behind the bar.

We’ve all seen distillery bars in the US and UK, but this is not the same as a bar suddenly distilling their own or creating a brand. The likes of NY Distilling’s The Shanty, East London Liquor Company and Edinburgh Distillery were designed and built to do both at the same time. The theatre of distillation is the key aesthetic choice for them as floor to ceiling glass separate bartender and ginsmith.

These bars and distilleries don’t really fit into what we are talking about. However, they do show that connecting the two elements, bar and distillery provides the owners with many options in their arsenal. This can help with new revenue from onsite and off premise sales, tours, masterclasses and more.

The area we are seeing rise as a trend for 2015 are bars who are investing in creating bespoke spirits with no real immediate consideration for serving them in anything other than their own cocktails. Bars like the Aviary in Chicago, White Lyan in London and more all create their own recipes for spirits, tailored for what they are serving on their menus. It’s about creating a spirit for the bar, with the production of the spirit happening out of sight and not the emphasis of the operation.

With such furor and interest surrounding these establishments and the heavy competition to raise the level of service that one is offering, the trend to emulate what these bars are doing is spreading fast. It’s always been important to have a point of difference at any bar and a custom gin (or other spirit), is a good way to achieve this. We would also argue that it’s good for service too. Creating a spirit forces questions about how the end outcome will be served and the more time that this is considered the better the drinks menus are likely to be. Additionally, creating something as a team is a great way of ensuring that all are impassioned about what they are serving. This will translate down to patrons who will be on the receiving end of better explanations from more informed staff who in turn are more enthusiastic about what they are serving since they have had a hand in creating it.

So – where does this leave us? Are bars the Ginsmiths of the future? Not quite. While there will certainly be more bars owning their own gins, distilling their own spirits and collaborating to create a limited run with the titans of the distilling world – few will create something that blossoms to anything truly global.

The main reason for this is simple. Money. All distilleries have factored in a plan to get their gin to market and commit budgets to doing so. It’s a part of their business plan. Bars and bartenders have an existing asset to protect and grow – their bar – and few can afford the investment it takes to seed a product outside of their establishment. It’s one thing to make your own, it’s another to make enough for yourself, others and still continue to be a successful bar. It’s the equivalent of doing two jobs simultaneously, while funding both businesses off the back of one for the first nine months.

It’s possible, but it is not for the faint hearted. Without doubt, more bars will have their own gins but many will stop at that. The other implications of this trend lay in the need for the bigger players to adapt as they now face questions that are difficult to answer. How do they stay relevant to a bartender when that same person is comparing it to something they have made themselves? How do they still generate word of mouth and advocacy from bartenders when they are competing with something that is naturally more exciting to talk about because it comes from the bar and is unique to them? Furthermore, how will this affect the level of understanding about how something is created, and will it increase the necessity for transparency from brands when training bartenders? None are easy to answer, and even if you have the answers, none are easy to implement.

We love micro gins created by impassioned barkeeps and Gin Joints. Long may there be more to talk about and more to discover. However, we for one don’t think it will lead to the demise of flagship expressions from the big gin institutions nor the craft distillers’ continued rise. They all have a role to play in keeping the gin category in the rude health that it is today. As with any trend – the challenge on how to harness it and how to combat it will be an exciting contest to watch. Let’s all just hope it takes it to the next level as opposed to reducing what has become a beautiful category into an incoherent mess.

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