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Innovation vs Heritage

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15/06/2016
Written by Gin Foundry

With World Gin Day having been and gone and a swathe of gins been released, we’ve once again been left wondering where the ideal balance is between all these progressive flavours and the core heritage of the gin category. So many of this year’s releases and official debuts were brilliant additions to the category showing real innovation, yet (as always) a few were, well, just not gin at all…

To be a gin, the spirit must taste predominantly of juniper. It’s both written in the legislation and a sacrosanct part of the understanding for all those who pick up a bottle with the intoxicating mono-syllable, GIN, written on the label. Gin is first and foremost an ode to juniper and if Champagne is just wine that knows someone, Gin is different to flavoured vodka because it is juniper focused.

However, much like the diamond in an engagement ring, even if the star of the show is upfront and centre, there are still many questions. How big is it? How it is held? Is the overall structure is complimented or if it is accentuated by surrounding elements? You can range from traditional to modern, from to intricate and complex, as well as from brash to nuanced and elegant. All of these factors need to be decided and are highly subjective. Gin’s diamond is juniper, but other botanicals are all used in the mix to help transform it from a humble berry to an evocative and transformative spirit.

When it comes to gin, arguments over how far new makers can push the boundary of the category are inevitable. The purists will bemoan the adventurous flavour combinations, while those trailblazing a new gin style will point out that there is no point creating the same thing over and again.

Whichever side you take, both views are needed and there are some undeniable truths. Firstly, the “juniper predominant” is so highly subjective it is impossible to police or to enforce. Secondly, without innovation, the category will simply retract and interest will diminish, however, innovation at the expense of heritage will also lead to an inevitable implosion.

Quality is often used as the key point for those seeking to assuage those at loggerheads to come to a compromise. “It’s okay so long as what is being made is of a high quality” they say. However, quality is a red herring in the long term. It doesn’t matter if what is being produced is a great spirit, nor does it matter that there is an audience for it – if it diminishes and dilutes the overall understanding of what gin is. It might “broaden the church” now, but how do you then reconcile such a huge array of random flavours, styles and production methods after a few years where an anything goes policy has been in place?

The other huge red herring is when many of the more “adventurous” gin makers claim to have more than xx% juniper in their botanical bill. It doesn’t matter if the it is made of 90% juniper if the resulting 10% completely overwhelm the flavour. Saying so merely overlooks the fact that regulations don’t stipulate juniper content by botanical weight, scale or proportion, but its clear presence in the flavour of the end outcome.

In the long term, if Gin loses its meaning and no one knows what to expect when buying a bottle, the category will have an identity crisis that will result in many consumers  – new and old – becoming disenfranchised.  Short term thinking may well bring in a new audience, but if anything can be “gin” you will start having more Unicorn Tear / Anti-ageing Gin-type releases. If this is the case, in the blink of an eye the spirit will lose that most ephemeral of things – being cool. Needless to say, shortly after that, the new audience that has just been brought in, will be onto the next thing as they continue to search for something with credibility and authenticity instead, leaving the Gin category without an identity or an audience…

We agree there is a need for Gin to have “entry points” with a choice of less juniper heavy liquids on offer. We all need to continue bringing in new customers to the category who will eventually progress to juniper heavy versions as their taste buds develop. Salted caramel marshmallow gin is not a valid tool with which to do that however…

More importantly, if Gin becomes akin to flavoured vodka, it will be to the demise of all, progressive and traditionally styled alike. Not just because consumers will no longer understand gin and will become frustrated, not just because it will become gimmick ridden as mentioned above. It will be because all gin makers will have to compete against the flavoured vodka category – whose pockets are much deeper and whose understanding of how to bring a product to market and find a niche, no matter how demented the idea may sound at first, is much more savvy.

In pure marketing terms, Gin would do well not to poke that mighty bear and keep growing in a different area, a safe distance away, especially as doing so plays to its core strengths. The authenticity and heritage Gin has, is something that only a few vodka brands could possibly ever rival. Why ditch this massive advantage and opt to play their game instead?

It is important to remember that progression is important however and to not hinder it. Without it, Gin would still be in the dark ages, hidden behind row after row of Rum or Tequila. Hendrick’s did a fantastic job at bringing in a new audience to gin when it launched. Hoxton Gin (although clearly this part was unintentional), has been a fantastic benchmark of what “too far” looks like.

But now that there are hundreds of gins on the market, the edge of the category is more populated than ever. There is no longer one or two “outliers”, there are dozens that challenge the status quo. Many of them show that is possible to do set out a new vision without losing sight of the wider identity, heritage and fundamental ethos – that of being juniper predominant. Bertha’s Revenge and Pothecary Gin were two new gins in the past few months that showcase this exceptionally well. They challenge convention while also ring-fencing gin’s flavour heritage.

Juniper is after all, a complex flavour both capable of being green and resinous, while also being citrusy and sometimes even a touch spicy. Like a prism of glass, juniper can be both singular while also, with just a slight a change of perspective, refract a huge array of different flavours. Its very nature allows it to be accentuated, twisted and contrasted by a vast selection of botanicals even when the sole intention is to boost a specific part of its profile.

Gin has long been a multi-botanical spirit and trends and “new discoveries and ideas” have been influencing which botanicals were added into the mix for centuries. It would be much poorer without the addition of all the other botanical elements that support juniper. Moreover, distillers would not have the ability to be as evocative as they are, nor be as equipped to instil a sense of place into their spirit and convey their regionality.

So where does this leave us? Were the team behind Aviation Gin right to try and define a new sub-category all those years ago? Should there be a new classification for these progressive flavour profiles so that consumers, trade and producers can all understand what is in a bottle? Something along the lines of  “Contemporary” or “New Wave” perhaps?

We certainly think so and we’re not the only ones to want to see something happen. Having stricter regulations on what exists while also simultaneously opening up a new avenue would not affect the possible creativity distillers want to have in future. It would not limit the category’s possible new growth and curtail its ambitions to appeal to a new audience. Yet crucially, it might just offer up some much need protection for both those wanting to make more traditionally styled gins and spare consumers a confusing minefield of mixed messages.

Incidentally – our vote is to call it New Wave, although, there clearly needs to be a much wider discussion as to what would be most appropriate term. Currently, “contemporary” is being used in many tasting competitions, but we feel that it possible to be both contemporary and classically styled at the same time (Dorothy Parker GinHope on Hopkins Gin for example) and in calling it that, too few in the industry would endorse the idea and nothing would happen. “New Western” suffered this fate as (partly) it applied geography to the debate and for a new term and new protection to be enacted, it needs to be flexible and vague enough to begin with, in order to be moulded into a workable compromise that we all accept.

It’s clear to us, a new sub-genre of gin seems like a good way to keep innovation going while also not compromising the vision for, heritage of or understanding about the existing areas. If Old Tom, Navy, Fruit Cups and Sloe are all accepted then why not a new one? Historically, there were many more styles of gin too (Table Gin and Cream Gin for example), so this wouldn’t even set a precedent either. There are talks due to be scheduled and thoughts being gathered by better minds than ours on this very matter – and we’ll keep updating the site to let you know what emerges.

Until this happens however, we’ll just have to keep the faith that those who are creating new gins are going to stay within reach of what exists. We hope that they continue to sympathetically build upon those gone before them and stay true to what has made Gin a spirit that has been loved for generations – one whose resinous, green, piney core is very much palpable and celebrated.