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Have we missed the bigger picture? The Value of Gin

Garden Swift botanicals
Capreolus-Distillery-raspberry-Eau-De-Vie-Eaux--_DSC4307
Bareny, Garden Swift
05/12/2019
Written by Gin Foundry

How do we value Gin? Not culturally, but economically. The disparity in price is much, much greater than the disparity in quality, yet more and more brands are edging past the £40-a-bottle mark, despite having no discernible difference from those marketed in the £20 – £25 region.

While the ever creeping price may be a bug bear for many, viewed as a whole Gin is one of the few categories that has remained fixed to a reasonably low price across the board. At first this may seem fantastic for drinkers – an anchored price makes for cheaper drinks, but that’s a false argument and one that we believe is propelling both a lot of overpriced tat that’s making huge margins for multinationals, while actually under-supporting the craft makers who are having to price their products lower than they deserve.

We believe that Gin needs to be freed and to present options that range from £15 all the way up to £150 and if it does, would be a lot better for it. We think that currently, most are blind to the bigger picture. Let us explain –

Gin is not like other spirit categories – value lies elsewhere.

While Whisky can fetch up to thousands at auction, Gin is never going to be that precious a commodity. Decades of maturation time and scarcity see to that. We’ve got some great, vintage examples rolling around the Gin Foundry office, but even the ones that are rarer than hens teeth are barely worth £250, and that’s to a very niche audience of select buyers.

Rum and Tequila can lean into the Scotch playbook, while they can also talk much more about the agricultural origins and process in the same way a craft vodka can.  The options afforded for how to present their spirit are broad and have been well developed, which is why those categories have many bottlings that range between £20 and £200, and many that sell north of that too.

Age and rarity seem to present limited fiscal value to the Gin category, neither does agricultural origin and terroir – so rather than taking comparisons from Scotch, Rum or Tequila, it seems as though value needs to be attributed by using something else.

For Gin, we feel that adding value lies in weaving in the power of art and emotive storytelling into explanations of process.

When Gins approach us for a review, we’re always presented a variation on the same three messages: ‘We have an award winning Gin’; ‘we have a hyper-local Gin extolling the virtues of [insert name of obscure town]’; ‘We have a Gin made in [insert name of still manufacturer and size of model].’ We are presented with a flurry of facts, rather than emotions, but if there is anything that separates one Gin from another, it is surely the artistry that goes on behind the scenes and the vision it is trying to project.

Distilling is truly a place where art meets science, but distillers just don’t have the same instinct to project their artistic vision as those deeply romantic perfumiers, or highly-strung, notoriously explosive high-end gastronomic chefs.

It’s time for the Gin distilling industry to help consumers understand what it is to be a Gin maker in the fullest of sense. St George maker Lance Winters is a master of the pointing out the bigger picture and explaining that what they do as a team is not just flavour creation, but to attempt to depict entire scenes, seasons and stories through the liquid they make. If more were as effective as he is, it would be possible to look at higher pricer points for certain products and ideas because they would be understood as different. There’s a time and a place for good old trusty plonk – but there’s also a time where it needs to be for what it could be if simply allowed to go there.

We believe that if you consider distilling as a creative medium of expression – Gin makers can be artists and visionaries, directly comparable to painters, poets, fashion designers, musicians, film makers and chefs. There’s room for both high end and mainstream to exist in each of those – why not gin?

What can gin be if pursued to its fullest?

They say writing about music is like dancing about architecture – it’s an abstract thing. As people who have to describe Gin every day, let us assure you the issues are similar here; we have to use one thing to reveal another, asking you to dig into your own memories to try and get at least a feel for the product at hand. Gin is evocative, beautiful and expansive.

In a bottle of gin there is every conceivable colour, every subtle undertone and as vividly evocative a picture presented within as even the greatest painters have splashed onto paper or the famed writers have in books. People often describe base spirit as a canvass, yet when it comes to how Gin makers portray what they do, they revert to talking about raw material and process. Botanicals. Distillation. Size of still and – if they’re being extra saucy – it’s nickname.

People describe Spielberg, Sorcese and Hitchcok as master story-tellers. They depict a scene, draw you in, suspend disbelief, captivate your attention and transport you into their world. It is no different for Distillers – when you’re sipping on a Gin and savouring a moment, you’re entering the maker’s universe. That same power is there – but no one seems to know how to harness it, or at the very least – so few are trying to push what they do in such a way.

Food and drink go hand in hand, so perhaps food is the better place to draw a comparison from. People don’t overhype a restaurant and queue outside in the rain because the a guy called Jim is cooking Yorkshire potatoes in a 60L oven.  Yes, place is important, tools are important, the recipe is important, but it’s the deft hands putting all three together that create this magical piece of theatre that exists nowhere else on earth.

You go there for the ideas they are putting together on your plate, for their craftsmanship and for the artistry they have when assembling it. You buy into a restaurant’s vision and its ability to convey that through their food. Think of the rise of El Bulli – it was not solely the food that captured the attention of the world, it was what it represented – the ideas and creativity the team were trying to convey.

The likes of Noma and Alina understand that the value and the interest in the dishes that they make are not just because of a literal combination of foodstuffs on a plate, but because of the concepts they are laden with. They understand that their dishes are their Art, and that the food itself is a vehicle for others to experience it. For distillers, it should be no different.

By capping the amount a bottle of gin can sell for by making it such an outlier if it goes over a certain point, it is depriving the category from pushing into a new arena of creativity. No-one eats at Michelin starred restaurants all the time, and just like with food no one is suggesting that all gin must be more expensive. We are simply suggesting that not having any distillers position in the over £60 arena, means that some kind of ideas can never be attempted as they could never be sold.

Imagine if food was still stuck without the likes of Heston Blumenthal or Ferran Andria and their insane moments of magic, theatre and sensory escapism. That’s where Gin is today and a big part of the reason innovation currently takes the colour Pink…

If not Gin, then surely the makers need to be better valued

No one is suggesting walking away from telling consumers about how a distiller makes their product, nor what goes into a gin, but it is time to ask ourselves – brand owners in particular – one pertinent question: If Gin is as much about the spirit of the maker as it is the spirit they make, does this come across and is the value of that even being assessed appropriately?

When brands band about terms like ‘Craft Gin,’ ‘hand-made’ and ‘artisan’, they’re often referring to the extra steps they take. Hand-labelled, hand-poured, hand-filled – but these reflect nothing more than a small budget or lack of infrastructure. These are extra steps that take hours, yet add little extra to the end value of a product and in our opinion, nor should they.

“It’s expensive because it takes me ages to hand fill each” isn’t a great way to convince people it’s worth forking out £60 a bottle. Anything that is being done to enhance the end spirit’s flavour however, should be the emphasised and can reasonably be something that cumulates to a higher price point.

The value of a maker isn’t their ability to fill bottles, it’s their vision and expertise in capturing a moment in liquid form. Take  a deliberately different spirit category as an example (as to not create gin heroes or villains). Capreolus Distillery and their Raspberry Eau de Vie – checking each berry individually by hand before distilling  takes a long time, involves a trained eye and is the reason it is so exquisite. The distiller’s time, there, has been valued appropriately as it’s about their focus on delivering authentic flavour and being true to the art of distilling – not because they had to spend hours doing a menial task with no impact on liquid. The cost of the bottle isn’t simply due to the cost of the materials, it’s a form a patronage of a distiller who is uncompromising in their pursuit of perfection.

Surely what we all want to see is a master craftsperson whose spent years honing skills, spending the time required in the right areas in pursuit of an artistic endeavour, and for all to value that. If the emphasis was about the passion and learned skills being applied to an end product, rather than the presenting process alone, it would be evident to more drinkers just why £30 a bottle is a very cheap valuation for the crafted product many make.

Seeing them for what they are and accepting that the price is as much about them, if not more so, than the liquid is the only way gin can find a new and genuine frontier of innovation. This begins with distillers presenting what they do – in its fullest sense – properly for others to be able value the entire thing appropriately. Artists understand that,  Architects understand it, game breaking chefs understand this.

Why is untethering the top-end price point actually good for both value & Gin as a category

Currently, we don’t really (financially) value the rarity of age or batch quantity given everyone is so young and small.  We don’t place a huge premium on agricultural origin of base spirits, the raw materials and botanicals, nor do we really place a premium on ideas, creativity and the people behind them. There’s a bit of value everywhere, and because of this, the mid range of gin is overfilled and it’s easy for the average to hide. There is so much pedestrian quality gin, made by average quality makers asking for far too high a price tag.

There’s also an issue at the bottom end. There is nothing wrong with the big gin manufacturers producers making affordable, everyday gin. In our opinion, there is way too much snobbish judgement cast on the value end of Gin. They are the bastions of the category and they make good, honest, reliable Gin. Their scale means they can produce gin at sub £25 with ease but despite this, many of their offerings are in the mid £30’s.

If the craft makers presented what they did to its fullest – it would be so much more obvious that some are overpriced for what they are, especially the big multinational ‘premium’ ranges, and consumer pressure may help bring the cost down.

People want great booze for great prices – that will always be the case and the bulk of the volume will be at the value end. Just as with food in supermarkets, having a clear differentiator to place value on helps people make an informed decision. It also helps to keep one end of the market low while also allowing the other end to actually exist as it’s valued high enough for makers to be able to make a living from it.

Allowing the top end of Gin to be an unshackled as a creative medium, will help put some distance between the big and small, the artistic and experimental and the every day. Restaurants have this (value, mid mange and Michelin starred). Art has this (mass & populist to niche & exclusive). Design has this. Architecture has this. Beer has this, wine has this and every other category of spirit category has this. Gin however, is currently stuck.

The result of this . current stagnation is that instead of aspirational innovation based on creative endeavour, on craftsmanship and the pursuit of an ideal – we have a downwards trajectory where we might well have seen the best of the category has to offer, given there is no room for anything else at the price points being presented.

It’s time to create a real escalator in price that allows consumers to choose to support what they want to – both cheap and expensive – and that allows these superstar makers that are currently martyring themselves and keeping their creativity in check due to a fiscal barrier to live up to their full artistic potential. In doing so, Gin will live up to its full potential.

 

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