Broadly speaking, the ‘soft power’ appeal of products made north of the border, be that food, drink or art, is celebrated, with the product’s origin touted as a selling point widely and confidently. In many of these circumstances, to be of Scottish provenance is to be part of a bigger brand and a greater movement. When it comes to Gin, this is especially true.
In fact, the term ‘Brand Scotland’ was coined to explain the phenomena and the ‘made in Scotland’ tag is used so frequently that it’s become something of a hallmark of excellence. Producers use it to increase sales, to build a communal reputation and to work as a great, seething oneness in order to secure trade deals.
In other categories of food and drink, such as Scotch, the country actively sets its own rules to protect and self regulate products made there. This, combined with the strong and independent national press holding sway (where as avid readers there’s seems to be an emphasis coming from within the media to champion local products and opportunities, helping brands to gain exposure and reach a targeted audience) has helped to drive ‘Brand Scotland’ from an idea into something more concrete.
To be a Scottish distiller in particular is to be part of this wider movement. The country’s drinks industry is one that sets its own pace and operates within a distinct microclimate. As mere observers, the strangest thing about this phenomena is the relative organic nature in which it has all occurred. It wasn’t really planned; no one stood up to rally the troops Braveheart style. There were no broad tax incentives that apply to Scottish producers and not those in England or Wales, nor any specific industry bodies putting their hands up to impose or suggest that going forth as a collective was the best way proceed. Those bodies are there now, it seems, but we’d argue that they were the result of the movement, not the instigators of it.
Somehow, there was an underground current leading everyone towards a collective unity. When you look around it’s quite clear that a majority of distillers based in the country conform to, or at least enhance, strong pro-Scotland marketing strategies as part of their own wider set of messages.
We love this. It’s a hugely positive force has allowed producers to build their work around common values. It allows distillers to share concerns, to celebrate successes and to learn from each others’ experiences. It’s also allowing a path for practices to be shared and could, in future, open the door for possible regulation to be put in place.
This approach also encourages a more pro-active attitude in the country’s retail sector towards helping local distillers. Activities like the Scottish Gin Festival arranged by supermarket chain Asda are fairly exclusive to the country. This sees Scottish Gin celebrated, lauded and promoted to encourage sales and tempt the consumer into trying something new and local. That just doesn’t happen in England with the same umbrella messaging.
This can’t just be because the Gins made in Scotland are of a different calibre; English, Irish and Welsh gins are just as brilliant. No, these festivals are undoubtedly a result of the Brand Scotland movement. These distilleries have, perhaps unwittingly, built something that consumers buy into whole heartedly. Things like ‘Scottish Gin Days’, ‘Scottish Gin Awards’ and other such celebrations further propagate the message. The likes of this simply don’t exist in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.
The rest of the UK is far more tribal to their micro-regions. London, Manchester, Cornwall and Yorkshire folk all have passionate local support for their producers, but connecting the dots and championing English Gin as a whole in a similar way is unlikely to ever occur. There’s a Made in Yorkshire badge and a Cornish producers alliance, but there is no national unity. Look at Majestic stores and their typically hyper-local choices (which are left to the store managers). They are never presented as ‘English,’ rather a closer-to-home angle is touted.
It’s a special thing to have such national pride and even rarer still to have weaponised it in order to achieve a commercial advantage. It’s not only clever, it’s quite cool to see and we wish that others, not just in the UK but elsewhere across the world, would take inspiration from it.
That said, such collaborative thinking is not without its pitfalls. With fierce patriotism comes a strong expectation for new arrivals to also help promote the broader cause. It’s a minor issue really, and one whose benefit outweighs the investment demanded, but it’s easy to see how frustrations can flare between new arrivals keen on doing something different to gain attention and those who have paved the way for them, asking them to help continue building on the wider message…
Far more serious is that if you are only as strong as your weakest link then one kink in the chain hinders the overall effort. And we’re not just talking about the quality of liquid, here; there are some quite frankly shady claims of Scottish provenance doing the rounds, with a handful of Gins made under contract in London and Birmingham stamping their Scottish pride across the label.
This is where policing becomes murky. What does it mean to be a Scottish Gin? How much of a ‘pure’ agenda can you push without turning into Lord Voldemort? The main ingredient, juniper, is never (bar a very rare few exceptions) entirely locally sourced and for many the base spirit is bought in from suppliers all over the UK. Many other botanicals are imported, too, so when it comes to forming rules, how Scottish is Scottish enough?
The general consensus to the answer of what is Scottish Gin seems to be with where it’s being distilled. If the final product (imported spirit + imported juniper) is being created in Scotland, then is that local enough? It seems fair enough to us, but in some circles even this is up for debate.
Thereafter, how do you judge the people who mature their Gin in casks in Scotland, even though the Gin was imported to fill it? What about the businesses which make infusions using fruits grown on their very own (very local) farm? Some steep, filter, fill and pack the bottles in Scotland, but use a bulk made Gin produced in England. What about those who have venues that promote Scottish Gin and teach people about the category, but whose own gin is made in South East England? They are local, as are the businesses they own and the people they employ. Does their contribution not outweigh the negatives to earn them honorary status?
Leniency allows an opportunity for those looking to exploit the ‘Brand Scotland’ reputation in order to hoodwink customers, but completely uncompromising severity would result in excluding…. well, 95% of all makers.
Everyone will draw their line at different points, and the fact of the matter is that there are grey areas aplenty and many exceptions. We find that it’s almost impossible to take a categorical stance without indulging in a little hypocrisy. It’s also all too easy for those commenting on the subject to forget that the average drinker doesn’t even know about half the technicalities of production, let alone sit in an informed position to be able to say just how Scottish the gin in their glass is.
Judgement calls aside, actually implementing regulations to protect and define what constitutes a Scottish Gin would certainly hinder innovation in the next few years, but in the long term this may not be a bad thing. Just as Scotch Whisky may seem to move at a slow pace, it is precisely that protection that has ensured its status has remained unblemished. Just think about how long Scotch has been considered a premium product within the Whisk(e)y category, and how widely revered it is. Quality of spirit and distillers notwithstanding, that has a lot to do with a serious amount of industry compliance.
There are some interesting times ahead for Scottish Gin in 2019 as conversations continue towards taking a similar approach to safeguarding its future. One of the organisations to watch is the Scottish Distillers Association. While it has its flaws and is still in its relative infancy, the SDA is already doing good work to set some baseline agreements on the criteria to which everyone can live up to. It is at present an opt-in enforcer, rather than something everyone has to adhere to, and it still needs more brands to reach a critical mass. Still, brandishing an SDA sticker on your bottle seems like a good way of promoting brand integrity, and the fact that this has happened quite naturally is very positive indeed.
Implementing regulation is where it’s going to get messy, as having to agree new terms at this early stage is in danger of tearing the whole thing apart. There’d be claws out and daggers at dawn as distillers try to out-Scottish each other (Pickering’s would probably win that to be fair, they have tartan on the actual bottle). Truth be told, it needs to continue its organic path, with common sense being the overall rule.
It is important to sub-categorise, though – now more than ever. Brand Scotland is set to reveal one of its major benefits in the months to come, with Brexit looming and instability in the market, lobbying as a block may well be a huge advantage for them.
It’s easy to forget that a majority of Gin exports go to the EU, and that no matter how you felt about the vote, in Europe, the UK’s soft power appeal and reputation is currently at its lowest ebb for generations. Down South we’ve got Theresa May trying to dance her way back into global good books, but when it comes to the messaging that’s being broadcast to those abroad, the Scots are showing a lot of sense, and their national identity isn’t generating frowns on the continent.
Ours isn’t a popular opinion to have perhaps, but we’ve been in this industry a long time and no matter how much hate mail comes into our inbox regarding our views on Brexit, we know the importance of trading with Europe.
Deal or no deal specifics aside, the approach taken and the way the Scottish producers have banded together already sets them apart and means they are better prepared than those in England and Wales to weather the storm ahead. As the climate becomes harder to export in, placing national interests that are backed by many will be far more effective than the individualistic, every-man-for-themselves sharpening of elbows, especially for newcomers to the category.
To benefit from a communal position is to be tied to a communal fate, for better or for worse, and the impact of Brand Scotland is in an intriguing space for Gin makers in 2019.
We’ll continue to look on to see the latest developments and urge you drinkers to do the same, as the sub-plots and bigger picture moves are as fascinating and nuanced as the flavours in your glass.
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