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Gypsy Distilling Tales Of The Cocktail

12/07/2016
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 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 for all who attended (and for all those who just wanted to know more!). To see the other articles, click here: Part 1, Part 2

Part three – Gypsy Distilling

Gypsy distilling is both hundreds of years old and now in 2016, has returned to be the “cutting edge” of cool. While it hasn’t taken off just yet, it bears all the hallmarks of something with the strong potential of creating some of the most exciting and memorable gin releases in years to come.

Anyone with a keen interest in wine will have heard the tales of travelling stills appearing at vineyards and orchards. They used to be a common sight in France, Switzerland and Germany. Each year (typically, after the harvest and throughout the early winter months) these stills would set up in village squares. They made themselves available to distil spirits for home consumption, whereby individuals who had obtained a permit could bring a certain amount of their own fruits and have them turned into Eau De Vie. These vagabond distillers would create batch after batch moving from town to town, often traveling direct to farms for one off runs as well as.

Over the last century, with licenses tightening up and more regulations being set around what could and couldn’t be done, the demise of this great pan-European tradition began. Although progressively rarer, it managed to continue long into the 80’ and there are still remnants of this heritage to be seen today. Many German and Swiss distilleries whose stills sit on flat beds (as it allows them to sit higher meaning less bending over for older distillers…!), even if they are also fixed and plumbed into location and never going to be moved again.

Over the past two decades however, the threat to the travelling distillers does not come from interfering politicians or customs officers with heavy regulations, but from the very success of luxury spirits like Cognac, craft distillers making Schnapps and of course, Gin. There are now more permanent distilleries than ever before, who fulfil both year round needs for quality spirits as well as the seasonal, one-off batches for those with too much produce on their hands.

Today the term is used in a slightly different context as it was historically. Gypsy Distilling is considered the process by which a distiller visits another distillery (other than his own if they have one) and creates a unique batch using their equipment. Also sometimes referred to as “Phantom” distilling, Gypsy Distilling as a term is derived from Gypsy Brewing – thought to have been coined by Mikkeller Brewery. It is the most interesting of the areas we have covered in researching the seminars (Bespoke and Collaborative) as it usually combines all of the elements already discussed.

With this in mind however, we’ve never seen a “pure” gypsy gin batch yet. Many have begun that way, but due to the two way, reciprocal nature of modern agreements, using complicated equipment, working with complex recipes and a wider desire to extend partnerships past just the “one-off” batch – most “gypsy” Gins are much more akin to a Bespoke or Collaborative Gin by the time they hit the shelves.

The idea is clearly growing in stature within Gin and will eventually lead to true Gypsy Batch being created. With Dee Davies working with Diageo to create Jinzu, former Tanqueray Master Distiller Tom Nichol creating a one off expression – Christopher Wren Gin – with City Of London Distillery and another project in the works in the US, the trend for a new face taking over the helm (even if temporarily) is starting to catch on both small and large companies alike.

Gin Foundry have also taken part in this when we planned to take over Cornwall based Southwestern Distillery (maker’s of Tarquin’s Gin) for a one off seasonal batch as well as SANTAMANÍA Gin to create a GINTONIC, a distilled Gin & Tonic. We also did a project with our neighbours Sipsmith, in which we harnessed local botanicals to explore the meaning of London Dry. All of these projects were far more collaborative affairs by the time liquid was being created to fill bottles and the input of both distilleries is an important part of the end product.

In the projects that we have followed over the past 18 months, Gypsy Distilling has offered up a glimpse of what might be possible in the future however. Christopher Wren Gin in particular has shown that with enough reputation behind the distiller it is not just possible to create a huge buzz around a release, it is also possible to create a gin that sells in large volumes.

They have also shown just why gypsy batches veer into other territories and collaborative relationships. Tom Nichol is not a Gypsy distiller per say, and more a consultant. It’s understandable too, as he gets to create a new gin and work with a distillery team he likes, while also not having to take the risk of financing the project. It would take a career change before big names like Nik Fordham, Charles Maxwell or Lance Winters choose to take on the true risks and ethos of being a gypsy distiller. Much like Mr Nichol, once they do, they would probably conclude that there is more fun (and more income) to be had working as a consultant. If there is going to be a true Gypsy Distiller in the future, it seems unlikely to be one of the established master distiller names, and more likely to someone who needs to be the one taking the risk in order to convince a distillery to lend their hardware.

What many of these projects have shown is that Gypsy distilling places the importance on the “Brand Appeal” of an individual and then harnesses the best parts of collaboration to make it happen. It also shows that for a distillery, having someone come in to make a gypsy batch can increase demand and exclusivity not just for that product, but also help cross-sell customers through their own core range, by introducing a reason to rediscover it. Having something different being made in your distillery is a great opportunity to educate customers on WHY it is different, in comparison to the core offerings.

For the next 12 months at least, gins that begin as Gypsy projects are highly likely to remain being more collaborative than counterpart Gypsy brewers. Our first hand experience illustrates this too. Chiswick Gin, Tarquin’s Hedgerow edition and Santamania GINTONIC were not Gin Foundry going to a distillery and hijacking their stills. Through the evolution of an idea, developed over conversations and with a shared passion to create an end outcome based on a particular concept, both ourselves as would-be Gypsy distillers and they as hosts, became far more involved in each other’s operations. Both projects became collaborations almost from the off. This not only added value to the project, but also ensured that the quality was much higher than what might otherwise have been.

Risks of allowing someone else to take over your stills aside, it’s difficult to see how a distillery would not want to get involved with something that excites them as follow ginsmiths, especially if it were happening in their own premise.

However, because of the need and the current emphasis on the brand equity of the gyspy distiller, as the trend continues, we expect many gypsy distillers to be highflying bartenders or former stars of the bar.

As the trend for “Brand Bartender” (as Alex Kratena called it in his Imbibe Live presentation) continues, their names will continue to carry weight and it is a matter of time before they are making their own brands of Gin and not just bottled cocktails. White Lyan Gin may not be around today, but is it so far stretched to wonder if one day it might be made by their bar team, “Gypsy style” in someone else’s premises?

We also expect many Gypsy distillers of the future to be specialists (whose entire business model consists on not having a site). This hasn’t happened yet and given the trust required to allow someone to take over your stills is quite large, it will take a highly connected individual to make it happen. However, between the many lifelong friendships forged during brewing and distilling degrees, the continued knowledge expansion of spirits ambassadors – it is almost inconceivable for this to not be a logical conclusion. To be fair, it’ll be a brave entrepreneur to be the first to do it, but it will occur.

Mikeller is already proving that the transition between gypsy brewer and distiller is not just plausible but profitable too. They may not have cracked the formula quite yet, but keep an eye out for other brewers to start making headway with harder liquors…

The key question is if there will there be a market for it. No matter who the maker is, it seems likely that much of the interest in Gypsy batches will remain all about the process and the unfolding journey surrounding how the batch was conceived as well as the end product. If these elements are interesting enough, if there is enough narrative to accompany a spirit and if the quality of the spirit is good enough, not only will there be a market for Gypsy Gins, there will be a veritable thirst for it.

We leave you with a final parting thought for the future of this exciting space…

Could Gypsy distilling be the new way a global brand is created, hyper locally, and be all the better for it?

Gone are the days were gins are contract distilled in separate places, thousands of miles apart. It was (and is) considered damaging to the integrity of the core distillery. However, an intentionally transient, varying and small batch gin in the same vein as Our Vodka – made locally for local markets and open about being slightly different – now that could be a game changer… You heard it here first.