‘Signature serve’ has become an accepted term. It’s now so mainstream an expression that it features on the vast majority of brand websites we’ve looked at over the past six months. When did this happen? At what point did a suggestion for how to use a gin become a signature serve? and what’s it all about? Moreover, if it’s become conventional to talk about the ultimate way to serve a gin, are there entire areas that connoisseurs and barkeeps are forgetting about when judging a brand’s recommendations or creating their own?
After all, most forget it’s almost never just about flavour… Signature serves have long been part of marketing strategies. No booze brand intent on building an army of engaged consumers will have forgotten to look into how their spirit might be served. Whether they embrace the exact term or not, all brands will have spent time looking into recipes and cocktails that they could use to inspire others to drink their gin over someone else’s.
Signature serves come in many different forms, from twists on classics to entirely new, outlandishly complex propositions, but they are at their most elemental when encapsulated in a G&T. The Gin and Tonic is by far the most widespread serve people choose to use at home, so this is the area we are going to look into here, as the very best ‘signature G&Ts’ actually have a lot more behind them than meets the eye.
When seen from a brand’s perspective, a signature serve is a way of shining a spotlight on their USP, as well as a method to accentuate flavour. The suggestion might have a nod back to provenance, it might include a cornerstone botanical or it might just be about sharing a core ethos (for example Chase’s continuous push towards cross proliferating all things British). These USP’s and messages are in addition to a pairing’s ability to showcase the range of flavours within a gin that can be harnessed by partnering certain garnishes/tonics/ways of serving etc.…
We find signature serves at their most intriguing in this simple cocktail as they separate the clever from the well equipped. For example, a G&T is fundamentally only ever really three parts (and that’s being generous by counting the garnish as a core component). Sure, people get fancy with infusions and a splash of juice here and there, but when it comes to those dreaming up brand suggestions for which tonic/garnish combo to pair with their gin- it is understood that their suggestion has to have universal appeal and needs to work for the adventurous drinker as well as it does the occasional tippler.
Message, flavour profile, aesthetic and overall impact all have to be wrangled into a compelling proposition whilst only using what are quite basic tools to do so. It’s the ultimate challenge and the equivalent to fashionistas taking an haute couture concept all the way down to the Primark shopping floor. Too complicated and no one buys in, too simple and there’s not enough impact for people to feel inspired and want to try it out.
We understand the stance many makers take that it is frustrating – after months or even years toiling away on a recipe – to suggest mixing it with something that will entirely change that finely balanced mix, but we’re, personally, big fans of signature serves and have a lot of time for the ingenuity brands show when they suggest a way to partner their spirits. It’s naïve to think that saying “just serve it neat” or “don’t add a garnish because it’s perfect” is as effective as suggesting a combo.
It’s not that most gins need a garnish in a G&T; many don’t, but by adding one you tilt the serve towards one direction or another and for many that’s a joy in itself. Suggesting how to do this is like someone suggesting how to wear a garment of clothing. Sure, you can dress yourself, but if someone hints at the end vision of how something could be when combined or placed in context, the sense of style and the ethos behind a brand becomes clearer. This is no different for gin (and equally as important).
So, what’s the holy grail of G&T signature serves and why? In our opinion, you’d be hard pressed to look past Hendrick’s with Fever-Tree and a slice of cucumber as a perfect example. It’s certainly the best known, and possibly the most simple, but its in this incredible simplicity that a great deal of factors reside.
Two of Hendrick’s core USP’s are their ‘unusual’ brand stance and their addition of cucumber and rose. Picking a cucumber as a garnish was (at the time) highly unusual, so much so that it was years before even a minority of bars would consider stocking it. We estimate that it took around seven or eight years before the majority of bars that carried the spirit got on board with the garnish, but that in itself wasn’t without merit.
Hendrick’s fans believe that they are/were the vanguard of gin drinkers. The use of a cucumber was of utmost importance to their enjoyment of the spirit, so they’d take bartenders to task if it wasn’t available. In the end it was not the sales teams, brand reps or repeated brand messaging that transcended the pairing into the mass consciousness, but the indignant responses of consumers who would shame barkeeps for not serving it right.
Incidentally, just imagine what sticking to such a singular message of “put a cucumber in your G&T” was like for such a long period of time when it wasn’t being adopted. It’s important to understand just how long and how widely they had to seed the message before it began to stick, as it helps contextualise why it’s unlikely that anyone else will be able to replicate the success of their “signature serve”. It was always – and still is – very hard to have such a cemented serve that everyone knows about. Even if a brand had the ambitions to do it in the future the realities of the timeline required to implement it might mean it’s out of reach simply because of team turnover and changing landscapes.
As for the Fever-Tree element… There may be a few options on the market for premium tonic today, but that’s a very recent development. Fever Tree was one of the only premium tonics that were widely available in the UK even as far back as 2010, so it made sense that it was only natural that it was selected as the signature serve. Even if Fever-Tree wasn’t the perfect partner for the gin (from a purely flavour driven perspective), it would likely have been chosen as the match for Hendrick’s, because to be perceived as premium it had to paired with premium.
The Hendrick’s and Tonic with a sliver of cuc’ became successful because it managed to straddle the divide between premium and simple so neatly; it is a drink can be made in top end super trendy bars as well as at home in suburban heartlands. It is about flavour, brand position on shelf and appealing to their fan’s core beliefs about both themselves and the gin. It combines ease of service with a clearly noticeable point of difference and is deceptively clever. In our opinion it ought to go down as one of the greatest marketing decisions in this new era of Gin’s history.
Many brands want their “cucumber” equivalent, but few understand that it is never just about flavour or positioning alone. It is about having a perfect compromise of the two translated into a combination that everyone can do.
No one takes you seriously when you suggest a sliver of carrot with a G&T (the market is just not there yet, no matter how adventurous you think the Spanish are), neither does anyone have the mental capacity to deal with making a candied rose petal for a garnish just to make a G&T look pretty. Especially not on a Monday night when they just want a double as soon as they walk through the door…
While these may be the perfect flavour or USP partners (and signature serves for two existing brands) they are unobtainable in their nature and not complete as an idea. They are respectively either too complex to consider chancing it for no real underlying brand reason, or too fiddly to do with no real palpable effect.
The machine gun approach that some brands have taken with a triple or quadruple garnish of several simple peels / spices is no better. It’s a G&T, not a fruit salad… Therein lies the problem; it is in simplicity that signature serves work best, but it is in this same simplicity that they face being just the same as everyone else. Moreover, when at their most complicated they are easier to explain and link back to the brand and to the gin.
We’d urge newbie owners to keep this bipolar dilemma in mind when creating theirs. We, for one, are grateful that all we have to do is focus on flavour alone. All things considered – making something work for personal preference is a lot easier than trying to sum up a complex set of factors and translating it into one idea that carries universal appeal.
We doubt that it will be possible to have another universally accepted pairing in the way that Hendrick’s and cucumber have been so synonymously linked. The market has moved on, fractured and become much more promiscuous in the way it is presented. That said, just as it is incredibly hard for a sports brand to create a tag line that permeates across all popular culture, it is not impossible either. New campaigns are launched on a weekly basis and some brands are making good headway staying on message season after season.
Only time will tell if this will work for brands. While we wait, we’re off to make our signature serve… The signature aspect you ask? That the whole drink disappears before you can even cut the peel.
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