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Rise of the Restaurant Gin

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Wright Brothers Gin
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Tarquin's Rick Stein Gin
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05/12/2019
Written by Gin Foundry

From our count, at least one in five UK distilleries are either collaborating with someone to create bespoke bottling for them or fulfilling a ‘White Label’ contract service. It’s not just the preserve of the larger operators either – even the smallest, back-garden distilleries are offering custom made gins to just about anyone who’ll ask these days. It’s hardly a surprise that as a result, more and more restaurants are embracing the opportunity to have their very own house pour.

Afterall, while we’ve all been trained from young adulthood to pair our wines with our food, there really is no drink as gastronomically complex as Gin, which can be filled with whichever botanicals its creator desires. If there was ever going to be a spirit chefs geek out over – Gin would surely be it.

When one looks back at the rise of the modern craft gin scene, knowingly or not, the Slow Food movement was an integral part of the reason that provenance was so highly valued by local craft distillers. It wasn’t just foodies that subscribed to the local, transparent and seasonal ideals it espoused, many distillers share the same philosophies. Whether it is a conscious association with the movement or just a chance mimicking of it, the way distillers look at Gin (and what they can imbue into the spirit) and the way chefs look at food are intrinsically either linked, or at the very least, have sticking parallels.

It’s a two way attraction when it comes to today as well. Restaurants might want a custom offering for guests, but in contrast to the kind of contract to produce a supermarket own label or a major retailer’s bespoke Gin, restaurants are also the perfect fit for small distillers. The volumes they require are a nice little earner, but nothing too back breaking so as to distract from their main cause and flagship brand.

IS IT BECAUSE THE PRODUCT IS BOTH FOOD & DRINK, THEREFORE MORE THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS?

There’s no denying that a well chosen collab is also a good reputation boost for both – there’s always going to be some sort of fan cross over when it comes to local institutions; fans of a distillery would visit a restaurant to try an exclusive gin from a trusted maker, likewise fans of a restaurant would taste its gin (and, naturally, fall deeply in love with the distillery that makes it).

That was certainly part of the thinking behind the partnership between Chase and Heston Blumenthal, with the gin not only used at his restaurants, but also stocked in Waitrose. Talking about the bespoke product, James Chase points out that “Heston has been a family friend for many years. So the fit was initially right from the existing relationship. He, we believe, also understands the importance of quality ingredients from being a top global chef, and as farmers, this is incredibly important to us. His full team were also fantastic to work with, and both parties cooperated incredibly well. We both believed we could benefit from each other’s audience, but more importantly, the relationship worked.”

Perhaps it’s the fact that the brands getting involved are big names, both on the distillery and restaurant side. Following on from their Blumenthal partnership, when Chase started making gin for the Ivy we couldn’t help but snap our necks in that direction fast enough to get whiplash. It was a hallmark of quality on both sides, with enough razzle dazzle involved to guarantee a clamour or excitement.

There are many other gins like this and the increased awareness and media fanfare could well be the reason that there is such a buzz around bespoke spirits for restaurants. For as much as distillers are like rockstars to us booze fans, the simple truth is that outside of enthusiast circles, other than the big brand names no-one really knows who they are. We’d venture one further and say that 99% of drinkers couldn’t name the head distiller or owners of their favourite gin. Chefs and restaurants are different. There is a genuinely deeper knowledge base about famous names, as well as their acclaimed restaurants.

A example of this is simple. How many know who Howard Davis and Angus Lugsdin are? By contrast, how many know someone like Monica Galetti, Michael Caines or Mark Hix? The former duo own Salcombe Distillery, the latter three have all made gins in collaboration with it as part of their Voyager series.

AN ADDED MEDIA ANGLE

There are more writers dedicated to covering a chef’s work and reviewing their food, more airtime for them on TV (there are entire channels dedicated to food) and more books about both what they cook and them as individuals. It stands to reason that when a chef launches a gin, it will probably have more impact (or be given more of an opportunity to make one), than almost any other channel outside of the major retailers as they have a more established route / name / presence to peak the interest of journalists.

Even if it isn’t the enhanced awareness around culinary stars or the vastly bigger opportunities for editorial about their work, lives and views – let’s put it another way that also contributes to why there is added media around a restauranteurs gin; Relevance.

It’s not that food journalists don’t want to write about a gin,  it’s that often it has not got a relevant angle to feature in their food focussed coverage. There needs to be a hook, an excuse if you will – something to unlock the door. A chef’s association grants the editors a valid reason to look further into the story and make a call on whether or not it is of interest. Without it, there isn’t even a tenuous reason.

To use those same examples above, a pitch to that starts with “we’ve made a gin by the sea” will be ignored by a dedicated food publication. Another that says Mark Hix has made a gin… Well, you catch our drift. “A guy who knows about flavour launches a straight-up, no nonsense gin” would also immediately be deleted from many an inbox with the a small sigh of yet another. However, “MasterChef: The Professionals finalist and restaurant owner Dean Banks has launched a new…” etc – well that gets opened by those involved in food. The pitch and the personalities involved matter if you want to secure coverage.

ALTERNATIVELY, IS IT ALL ABOUT FLAVOUR?

Pizazz and celebrity aside, the fact that chefs are being brought in to help make these gins is reason enough to get excited. There really is no other group of people better versed in the relationships between different flavour groups than chefs. Like distillers and perfumiers, these are the people who know what works and why – how certain flavours perform on the nose and tongue, and how the marriage between two different tastes can transform something entirely.

York Gin is a great example of this; the distillery’s collaboration with local, Michelin-starred restaurant Star Inn, Harome, and its patrol chef Andrew Pern was a huge success. The team worked hard to create a flavoursome, juniper-forward Old Tom Gin that was botanically intense and richly sweet. Pern’s part in this was to make a sugar syrup infused with dog rose grown in the kitchen garden, as well as pink peppercorns, star anise, angelica and bronze fennel. The resulting spirit was one of the most delicious Old Tom’s we’ve had the good fortune to try.

Likewise, Southwestern Distillery – home of the collaboration – has seen huge success with its Rick Stein x Tarquin’s Gin. As the name might suggest, Rick Stein Gin was made in collaboration with the famous chef’s brand in mind. It was created with his son, Charlie (himself a chef, too – the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree), as something of a tribute to a living legend. It’s more than that, though; it’s a collaboration with Cornwall itself, with coastal ingredients and huge swathes of wild chamomile giving it a unique accent.

Over in Australia, both Four Pillars Gin and Noosa Heads Distillery make gins in collaboration with restaurants (Kisumé and Sum Yung Guys respectively), creating a fusion of gin and the respective restaurant’s house style. Up in Scotland Oro Distilling make a gin for the Intercontinental Hotel’s Printing Press restaurant, leaning it towards lavender and violets as per the restaurant’s request. Slake Spirits have made a gin using vernal grass for the Paddock Restaurant at Sussex Racecourse (that has a golden hue to boot), and there are dozens of others that we could mention here that are also in production and based on the flavour directions and identities of the restaurants they are made for.

One of the most headline grabbing collaborations of late has been that between The Ginstitute – home of Portobello Gin – and Wright Brothers, a seafood restaurant chain that splashes around in several of London’s boroughs. This partnership sees leftover Carlingford oyster shells cold macerated in neutral spirit and then distilled alongside a handful of Gin botanicals.

The oyster shell flavours are balanced with kelp, juniper, pink peppercorn and Amalfi lemon, resulting in an in incredibly umami gin that, when served up in a Martini, is the perfect accompaniment to seafood dishes. At the time of release, Wright Brothers co-founder Robin Hancock explained the lean towards spirits:

“Our Wright Brothers Bloody Mary, which comes garnished with an oyster, is synonymous with our restaurants. Our guests have always enjoyed pairing oysters with drinks, so this feels like a natural progression. We’d thought about creating our own wine, but we feel Gin, especially this gin, reflects both our restaurants and the city we call home.”

We so admire the boldness behind it – seafood is tricky business, especially in spirit form. It’s representative of so much – a distillery willing to bruise its reputation with an idea exciting enough to be potentially catastrophic, and a restaurant with a bar team curious enough to follow their nose and wise enough to understanding just how hand in hand these two things are. Does it get any more elegant than an oyster and martini pairing? Does it get any better than red snappers and sea food? This has incredible written all over it.

MORE THAN JUST AUGMENTED FAME AND FLAVOUR DIRECTION, RESTAURANT PARTNERSHIPS CAN ECHHO A SHARED ETHOS…

There are the gins like the Anty Gin, made by Cambridge Distillery for Noma, and the caviar-infused gin created by Slingsby for Leeds restaurant The Man Behind the Curtain. These are spirits unbound by any rules or requirements – rather than capturing a specific set of flavours or matching to a menu, they were designed to reflect a restaurant’s ethos.

The latter in particular caught our attention in a big way – with caviar and plankton in the line-up the gin promised to be extraordinary right off the bat. It was incredibly beautiful as a bottle, too, clad in a porcelain bottle that positively screams to be repurposed, but more than that it reflected the courage of the restaurant’s founder, Michael O’Hare, who eccentric culinary style could well have driven punters away in droves. Instead, his restaurant is one people would duel for a table at, earning a Michelin star within a year of opening its doors.

While distilleries have a lot to gain from their inclusion in famous restaurants – an association with quality, right off the bat, an increase in sales, too, but there is also a leap in reputation and savoir-fair. Restaurants are typically far better at projecting a vision of what they are about than the majority of gin makers, and the combined reputational enhancement and messaging boost that tells the gin’s story / the synergies with the distillery is one of the huge bonuses that working in this arena gives.

Tappers Gin, a small, cold-compound, one-man-band kind of distillery based in West Kirby has been trucking along quite nicely over the last few years, making interesting seasonal gins alongside its flagship Darkside Gin. A collaboration with Machine House Restaurant in Rosset, Wales, however, showed just how much of a contender this tiny little producer could be.

Machine House Gin, crammed full of Marsh Samphire, was a huge success for both teams, and led to Tappers being commissioned to create gins for others – including the Blind Pig speakeasy in Dublin. It was one of the first steps towards international success taken by Tappers, and the beginning of a much more confident bespoke service and understanding of brand projection.

IT’S NOT ALL A ROSE TINTED LOVE IN HOWEVER…

Success brings its own set of pros and cons, which can be neatly boiled down into two core arguments:

Sometimes, as with Wrecking Coast Gin, a collaboration goes so well that the gin becomes an integral part of a distillery’s core range. Cornerstone Rare Cornish Gin, created in collaboration with Hackney restaurant, was so immensely popular that it is now a Wrecking Coast staple – it’s added another string to their bow and given fans of the distillery greater choice.

Wrecking Coast founder Craig Penn talks about the gin’s transition to core item: “Tom Brown showcases Cornish produce and balances flavours while allowing the main star ingredient to shine through on each of his dishes. When he approached us to create a gin for his new restaurant launch it ticked all the right boxes: A gin created with a purpose, showcasing local ingredients and allows the main star ingredient to shine.

“It was only going to be available in his restaurant and for the first 14 months that was the case. With so many requests from customers to buy it, though, Tom eventually agreed to a wider release.”

At other times, and we shan’t name these distilleries because hey, we’re all friends here, the collaborative gin causes something of a problem for the Ginsmith at hand by cannibalising sales of the core range. There’s nothing quite so humbling as being told by the money rolling through the till that while you’re good at what you do, some ideas are just better than others… Moreover, that some people are just much better at selling than others and when motivated and trained, teams up-sell, recommend and push products in ways that just another gin on the back bar would never get.

This is truer still when the broader restaurant team are involved in the process, not just the head chef. We’ve seen it time and again where a bar with a custom made gin, or a restaurant with a bespoke product ensure that the message is filtered down to guests, and often it becomes a top seller as a result. If that distillery’s other offerings were selling well before, that will obviously mean sales of those expressions are cannibalised.

It really depends on if the gin is made as a partnership with equal billing or if it’s made anonymously as for the latter, the distillery gains nothing other than a contract order every so often.

It’s a strange oxymoron, as having one product that becomes the sales lead should equate to more sales, it merely changes the item that you are selling off one gin and onto another. The reality however, is that if you are on the menu across a range of drinks for different expressions / categories, the anecdotal feedback we consistently hear is that it almost always ends up not being true.

For example, if a bar or restaurant are pushing the collaborative product and brand, they will also want diversity for guests outside of that serve. To do that, they will often change the other drinks to be made using products from different distilleries. You might be included in more G&T’s the bartender is slinging out, but if you’ve just lost your place in the vodka, the rum, the liqueur section etc… the overall impact is a decrease in sales for your distillery.

A SPECTACULAR CLASH

We think the benefits far outweigh the cons and even if it did impact sales in that one location – the reputational enhancement and increased understanding of your unique sales point made elsewhere is far greater.

James Chase agrees: “We don’t believe these bespoke gins cannibalized sales. If anything they helped support and strengthen our message and partnership. With our collaborations, we make sure we got to know the broader teams in businesses to make sure everyone involved knew about Chase’s unique field to bottle approach, and this helped them get behind our mission to bring the farmer to the front of the conversation. Something that we think has been lost in the spirits industry.”

Bespoke gins have been doing the rounds for a good few years now, but expect to hear a lot more about the restaurant collaborations rather than bars or hotels in years to come. Drink continually climbs higher and higher on the list of things that are important to those going for dinner, while that’s been the preserve of wine menus up until now, spirits are now a key part of that conversation.

While these places aren’t famed for booze, they’re famed for flavours. There are minds that have been honed to look at contrasts, textures and processes in completely different ways, there are darker corners of flavour combinations to scurry through, unique culinary journeys to be planned,  pairings and rituals of serve not explored yet. These are all areas those who report, write and broadcast about it are keen to cover more of too.

The collaborative process these two industries are bringing together with these custom gins showcase that when merged, more often than not the liquid made will not be forgotten by anyone who experiences it anytime soon.

 

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