We’ve been seeing a lot of commentary around the wider state of the category of late. Call it the remanence of election fever and a sense of righteous indignation about the status quo spilling over into other walks of life if you will, but recurring themes are becoming louder and louder, with more joining the fray and wanting action. Is it time to begin policing gin? And is it time to openly question some of the practices in our industry? We published an article earlier this year about the Politics of Gin, but with the rhetoric hotting up elsewhere; we’ve been left to wonder if any action will come of it.
Despite Gin’s all-conquering success, it isn’t all rosy at the moment. Here are some of the topics that the industry has been discussing of late, from the likes of Diffords Guide, to distillers in their blogs/LinkedIn and to industry figures at events such as Ginposium and the ADI.
Hands off “Craft”
It’s easy to see why there’s outrage when a huge gin company adds “handcrafted” to their label, or when they talk about batch sizes. Both can be perceived as disingenuous at best, or a shameless spin at worst. In one specific example, a “handcrafted” gin had sales of approximately £30million in the last financial year, leaving one smaller distiller to publicly ask: “just how much of this roughly 2 million+ bottle production is actually ‘handcrafted’?”
It’s a fair question, and one that raises the need, once again, to try and place minimum criteria for brands to achieve in order to use terms like “handcrafted” and “artisan”. It makes no sense to just accept that they are terms lost to marketers looking to hoodwink consumers, even though this seems to be the accepted fate, with many in the industry already moving on.
Lose the “hand” and take “craft” on its own and you’ll discover that it may be even harder to define. There will be no consensus anytime soon judging by the polarising decisions currently being debated. If there is a will however, there could be a way to set some minimum benchmarks – an easier shared ground that everyone could agree too (even if it was just to set a starting point to frame further discussions).
Batch size, for example, should be a relatively straightforward metric that can be defined in logical, calculable terms and set above a quantity so that 95% of those who use the “craft” term would be under it. It may not solve the issue at hand but it sets a constructive first step from which more progress can be achieved. In the US, they have maximum yearly outputs and other metrics to calculate what constitutes “craft” and while almost all metrics are flawed (as craft cannot be defined by size of operation alone) and easily manipulated, they are at least setting a yardstick that can be used to control the times where ludicrous appropriation of the term has been carried out.
There are many other items like size that can be part of a metric where it is not about subjective interpretation, but calculable numbers that are based in fact, not terms that are open to bias and prejudice.
In the outcry to protect “craft”, there’s often a move to finger point at the bigger players. Truth be told, however, there’s as much (if not more) damage being done to the term by smaller players. In many ways, when it is they who abuse the title, they’re a lot more cynical in the way they hide their production and cause a lot more damage to the wider community’s reputation when they are exposed.
Consumer perception aside, one of the biggest issues with chastising the conglomerates as if they alone were the root of today’s issues is that they literally fund the very establishments and individuals that could be the ones to implement a real solution. An adversarial stance is not just too simplistic in its understanding of the situation, it is also detrimental to the category wide, unilateral progress being made.
When is a Gin not a Gin?
This is a thorny issue that goes from easily calculable fact to the entirely personal perceptions of flavour. Gins not having enough juniper, gins not using a neutral base spirit and gins with way too many additives (like sugar) added after distillation are all issues plaguing the category.
So who should sort it? A Juniper Police was offered up by Simon Difford, and there’s certainly merit to the idea. It would be easy enough to put enough connoisseurs in one room at a time and combine both traditional and progressive thinkers to maintain the fine balance of letting the category evolve with new flavours whilst remaining true to the juniper core that underpins the category. The idea that you could calculate it by measuring juniper oils in an end product may be laughable, as there is just no way that you could isolate juniper compounds alone, but a combination of human and machine could have a positive impact, and set a high standard that would safeguard both the experimental nature of the category and its longstanding heritage.
In a somewhat ironic manner, much of the debate about the amount of juniper required is almost perfectly parallel to the now seemingly global question about immigration playing its way across party politics from country to country. Swap immigration for juniper in the next two paragraphs and you’ll see what we mean. You’ll also see why it’s not that easy to create a hard line in the sand, measure it, achieve it and then also be taken seriously.
Do we need to stop new arrivals who are changing the very fabric of our category with tighter regulation surrounding juniper? Do we have to recognise the massive contribution these new arrivals make to the category and encourage more? Is it not because of a relaxation around juniper levels that the category has prospered in recent years? And is it not they who have made it a more vibrant scene?
When you look at the institutions (the big six brands that play a massive role in the category today, for example) do they not have a mix of classic gins and more modern flavour profiles at their hearts? Therefore, is it not possible to say that we would have missed out on the likes of Hendrick’s, Bombay Sapphire and Martin Miller’s if we had an overtly strict juniper policy. Is it perhaps not the amount of juniper in gin overall that is the issue, but the rate at which the change towards a different looking category is happening?
All of these points have multiple nuanced arguments for and against and as always, there is validity in all opinions.
This change has mostly been brought on by the rise of craft. The vast majority of the flavoured vodkas masquerading as Gin that can be regarded as a brand’s core product are all from smaller distilleries, or being made third party. We’re yet to see a big player release a non-gin and call it that, perhaps with the exception of Jinzu, which comes heavily caveated as being its own entity. This is absolutely an issue for the smaller producers to hold their hand up to and contribute to whatever solution may be required. It is also a perfect example of why it’s all too easy to lampoon the bigger players while forgetting to look alongside the raft of new arrivals for issues to solve.
Where is this actually made?
Many are asking whether a statement of geography made on a label should in fact be representative of where it’s made. At the moment, sometimes it refers to team’s HQ, or the ‘narrative’ and concept the spirit is geographically tied to.
On numerous occasions, we’ve been asked to review gins and upon questioning the brand owners, the latest foreign gin is in fact UK made, or the local rural gin comes from a team who are firmly embedded in their community – yet whose actual product is made thousands of miles away. Despite this, many of them still call both their gin (and often their company too) *Insert Town/County/Location Here* Gin.
One has to wonder what the impact labelling something a Dartmoor / Yorkshire / Scottish / Cornwall / etc. Dry Gin when it is made elsewhere has on consumers. It’s misleading even if the team themselves are open about where it is made. However, if it is not entirely false information, then why should it be stopped? If the water is from there, or the botanicals all come from the place mentioned, or the team have a bar / visitor experience based in the location stated, why isn’t it good enough?
Not every shopper can interact with the core team, so there must be a value placed about not misleading consumers. As always the questions is therefore How to do so and how can this be fair to all? Is there a need for the UK to have the equivalent of the US’ TTB? Bureaucracy and red tape bring huge complications to most distillers lives, but it has to be said that equally they do prevent a lot of clearly misleading labels appearing on shelves. Perhaps we Brits can create a half-way house that is free of the cumbersome admin that the American institution has been forced to evolve into.
Is it all talk?
Unfortunately, yes. At the moment it is a redundant conversation, and it will continue to be so until there is an authority that can implement change. They will need actual powers to do so, as well as the ability to deliver punitive consequences if not followed. Without that, all this talk and posturing will be akin to campaign promises, hollow slogans and giant billboards projecting absurd numbers. Perhaps it’s time we need the Gin equivalent of the SWA. This would be for better and for worse, as doing that would undeniably be a double-edged sword. Whatever it is, we need it now, when it is still possible to self-regulate and before consumer trust is lost.
The Gin category needs a watchdog with actual teeth and enough gumption to accept that doing so will be at times unpopular and combative. It is a necessary evil. It is not a job spec that needs to come with a cape, nor is it the type of “great work” that the powers of old embarked upon when solving the swathes of unscrupulous makers during the Gin Craze. It just requires a reasonable organisation that will set standards, get its hands dirty once in a while to uphold them and call it as it is in order to stop the constant and continued erosion of what it means to be a Gin.
At the moment, public lashings at the hands of bloggers (that are often misinformed rants) that disappear at the slide of a thumb are as public a dressing down as unscrupulous distillers get. It’s a start, but tutting from the back benches and outcries of despair from some in the industry will not take us very far.
The real hold up? No one with enough clout will hold their hand up and go it alone because of the financial implications of doing so. The detrimental effect of enforcement and even, in far less confrontational terms, building support – costs the bottom line. When you rely on popularity, stats, sales and continued two-way commercial traffic with the very makers (both big and small) that you then need to curb, stop, prevent and force to ensure they adhere to rules makes it tough to take a hard line, and makes it all too easy to not be the one whose head is above the parapet.
Only people whom have a generous cheque from all the biggest companies in the industry and enough support from those at the smaller end can do this. Only then would there be enough financial provision to keep big players in line and enough traction and support to push it wide enough for good practice to set in industry wide. Many of the existing regulations are perfectly fit for purpose at the moment (though their enforcement could be better managed), some desperately need an overhaul and it’s time to clean house.
Which leaves but two questions: is there a reason the Gin Guild or the WSTA are not really performing this role? If they are not supposed to be doing it and if instead a new organisation needs to be created to fulfil that task – what is it and what does it look like? We’ll continue asking around but if you have any opinions on the matter or about anything in this article – get in touch as we’d love to hear them.
Copyright © Gin Foundry