Gin, Artisan Spirit

Innovation and careful attention to ingredients, particularly among craft distillers, are reshaping gin’s image.

Locally foraged wild botanicals are essential to gin production at Ireland’s Glendalough Distillery (forager Geraldine Kavanagh above).
Locally foraged wild botanicals are essential to gin production at Ireland’s Glendalough Distillery (forager Geraldine Kavanagh above).

At Glendalough Distillery in County Wicklow, Ireland, the flagship Wild gin contains over 30 botanicals, picked from the surrounding hillsides by the distillery’s forager, Geraldine Kavanagh, whose name and signature are on every bottle. “Foraging is who we are—it’s at the core of the brand,” says Glendalough co-founder and marketing director Gary McLoughlin.

Glendalough isn’t alone in this intensive attention to detail. In recent years, scores of craft distillers have launched gin expressions touting unique origin stories and botanical compositions of their own. While many of them have seen success in European markets like the UK and Spain, the U.S. has been tougher to penetrate. Gin consumption in the U.S. has fallen steadily since 1975, when depletions stood at 18.43 million cases, according to Impact Databank. Last year, the market stood at half that volume level at 9.28 million cases. But the tide may be turning, as bartenders increasingly champion gin in cities across the country and the number of innovative expressions continues to rise, from both stalwarts and craft distillers.

Glendalough debuted Wild gin in the U.S. in June 2017. “The wild botanicals we use are in our still within hours of being picked, and that captures flavor,” McLoughlin says. “The vast majority of gins are made with dried botanicals, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, our gin has an earthier, fresher flavor as a result of our distillation process.” That emphasis on fresh botanicals is most acutely highlighted in one-off, experimental releases, such as strawberry gin, seaweed gin, and beach leaf gin, among countless others. The distillery has also created a recurring series of seasonal labels, made with botanicals that reflect a specific growing season. Just 2,000 bottles of each seasonal gin are produced.

While its ultra-small-batch gins are limited in scope, Glendalough launched one new expression—Rose gin ($30-$35 a 750-ml.)—stateside earlier this year, marking the first permanent line extension to the brand. The new release features the same 30-plus botanicals as the distillery’s flagship, albeit in different proportions, as well as three distinct additions: wild, heritage, and damask roses. “Two-thirds of growth for the overall gin category has been driven by pink gin—it’s on fire,” notes McLoughlin. “We’re hoping to be a major player in the pink gin sphere in the U.S., though, for us, it’s more about making a rose gin that just so happens to be pink.”

Pink gin has gained steam in recent years, riding the rosé wine wave. Last summer, super-premium Italian gin brand Malfy launched Rosa ($30 a 750-ml.), a deep pink gin infused with Sicilian pink grapefruit and rhubarb. Malfy has amassed volume of around 100,000 cases worldwide in the three years since its launch, driven by four core expressions: Originale, made with Italian juniper, coriander, and five other botanicals and cut with Italian spring water; Con Limone, infused with Amalfi Coast lemons and five additional botanicals; Con Arancia, a Sicilian blood orange-infused expression made with six other botanicals; and Rosa. This past April, Pernod Ricard acquired Malfy from craft player Biggar & Leith for an undisclosed sum.

Glendalough Distillery’s flagship Wild gin features over 30 handpicked botanicals (co-founder and marketing director Gary McLoughlin above).
Glendalough Distillery’s flagship Wild gin features over 30 handpicked botanicals (co-founder and marketing director Gary McLoughlin above).

Steady Stalwarts

Pernod Ricard’s The Gin Hub unit also added to the burgeoning pink gin category earlier this year with the launch of Beefeater Pink, a strawberry-forward expression that’s part of the Beefeater lineup. The new gin is infused with natural strawberry flavors, citrus, and juniper botanicals, and Pernod sees potential for the offshoot as a growth driver among the millennial demographic. Sales for the flagship Beefeater have declined by single digits in recent years, with overall volume slipping by 5.1% last year to 443,000 cases in the U.S.

Other super-premium mainstream brands are faring better, with steady innovation spurring growth. William Grant & Sons’ cucumber- and rose-infused Hendrick’s—the market’s seventh-largest label at 440,000 cases—has invested in the higher end in recent months with two new limited-edition line extensions: Orbium and Midsummer Solstice. Infused with quinine, wormwood, and lotus blossom, Orbium is aimed mainly at upscale bar accounts as a specialty cocktail gin, while Midsummer Solstice ($35 a 750-ml.) marks the first release in Hendrick’s master distiller Lesley Gracie’s Cabinet of Curiosities. “Midsummer is a lighter, crisper take on the typical Hendrick’s house style,” notes Paige Parness, Hendrick’s senior brand manager. The new expression is a small-batch, limited release that will be available through summer; Orbium will be available through 2019. Hendrick’s posted gains of 18.9% last year, the highest of any major gin brand. Much of the brand’s growth has been spurred by the on-premise, as bartenders and consumers across the country have adopted the gin as one of the driving forces behind the cocktail revolution, according to Parness.

At nearly 1.39 million cases, Diageo-owned Tanqueray ranks No. 2 by volume in the U.S., behind Seagram’s gin from Pernod Ricard. Tanqueray eked out a slight gain of 0.7% last year, with volume driven primarily by its core London Dry expression, which accounts for 94% of the total and is the No.-1 gin brand in the U.S. priced between $15-$25 a 750-ml. In addition to Tanqueray Rangpur—which has grown at low single-digit rates in recent years—and Tanqueray No. Ten, the brand reintroduced its Malacca gin to the U.S. market in 2018. Malacca has a spicier flavor profile that de-emphasizes the juniper notes found in a typical London Dry expression.

Following a slight downturn in 2017, Bacardi USA’s Bombay brand also managed an uptick, growing 1.3% last year to 1.13 million cases in the U.S. Bombay, which includes the popular Sapphire offshoot ($27 a 750-ml.) as well as the Original expression ($23), has long been a stalwart in the gin category; the entire lineup ranks third by volume in the U.S., while Bombay Sapphire is the No.-2 gin priced at $15-$25 a 750-ml. Looking ahead, Bombay Sapphire brand director Tom Spaven is bullish on the label’s potential. “Gin is experiencing a renaissance led by the premium and super-premium segments,” he says. “We’re seeing more and more millennials entering the gin category as they seek to explore spirits with more flavor and character. Bombay Sapphire continues to see success in North America, growing market share against our key competitors.”

In the U.S., gin is seeing the most action at upscale bar and restaurant accounts, where mixologists have enthusiastically embraced the spirit as a high-end cocktail ingredient (Liquid Productions’ Lulu Martinez pictured above, mixing a Drumshanbo-based cocktail).
In the U.S., gin is seeing the most action at upscale bar and restaurant accounts, where mixologists have enthusiastically embraced the spirit as a high-end cocktail ingredient (Liquid Productions’ Lulu Martinez pictured above, mixing a Drumshanbo-based cocktail).

Provenance And Production

While Pernod Ricard’s gin portfolio primarily focuses on mainstream, volume-driven brands, the company has also been active in craft gin through its Irish Distillers unit, which debuted Method and Madness Irish Micro Distilled gin in February. The release—the first offering from Irish Distillers’ newly opened micro-distillery at the Midleton Distillery in County Cork—stems from an exploration into historic gin recipes from 1798 that have been preserved at Midleton. Made in Ireland’s oldest gin still, Method and Madness is a blend of 16 botanicals, with black lemon and Irish gorse leading the flavor profile. Though the gin is currently only available overseas, it’s set to launch in the U.S. later this year.

A unique still is also key to Caorunn ($31-$37 a 750-ml.), a Scottish Highlands gin imported by 375 Park Avenue Spirits. The spirit is infused with botanicals inside two copper “berry chambers” during production. A number of Caorunn’s 11 botanicals are foraged either on site or within a couple miles of the Speyside-based distillery, including rowan berry, bog myrtle, heather, Coul Blush apple, and dandelion leaf. According to 375 Park Avenue CEO Jason Schladenhauffen, Caorunn has grown by 30% in each of the past three years. Later this year, the brand is set to roll out the first permanent extension to its portfolio, Caorunn Highland Strength, a higher-proof expression that Schladenhauffen says will shine more strongly in classic cocktails like the Negroni.

The 375 Park Avenue gin portfolio also includes Scapegrace, a New Zealand gin brand from Rogue Society Distilling Co. that offers two expressions: Classic ($37 a 750-ml.) and the more upscale Gold ($60). Although Scapegrace’s botanicals aren’t foraged, Schladenhauffen notes that provenance plays a similarly important role in the brand’s identity. “New Zealand is known for the purity of its water,” he says. “The water that’s used in Scapegrace takes 70 years to trickle down through the Southern Alps and into the aquifer that we then source from.”

Another brand with provenance as a key selling point is Radico Khaitan’s Jaisalmer Indian craft gin ($50 a 750-ml.). New to the U.S. this year, Jaisalmer features 11 different botanicals, seven of which are sourced from across India by master blender Anup Barik, among them coriander and vetiver from the north; orange peel from central India; cubeb pepper berries and lemongrass from the south; Darjeeling green tea leaves from the east; and lemon peel from the west. According to Radico Khaitan president Sanjeev Banga, Jaisalmer’s Indian heritage will easily separate it from other gins on the market, enticing adventurous consumers and millennials.

While Brooklyn, New York-based Greenhook Ginsmiths doesn’t use locally foraged botanicals, the distillery offers a unique story through its use of vacuum distillation. “Our 300-liter copper pot still works under a vacuum, which allows the gin to be distilled at a very low temperature by manipulating the amount of air pressure in the still,” says founder Steven DeAngelo. “That prevents a lot of the more delicate botanicals from being cooked and stewed with excessive heat, and creates a gin that’s bright, fragrant, and nuanced.” Greenhook’s flagship American Dry gin ($34 a 750-ml.) features nine botanicals, including orris root, elderflower, and dried chamomile. The distillery also offers a Beach Plum gin liqueur ($50), featuring a base of American dry gin that’s re-distilled with whole, locally sourced beach plums, as well as an Old Tom gin ($46), which is pot-distilled, cycled through a Bourbon barrel solera system, and finished in oloroso Sherry casks. Across all three expressions, the Greenhook portfolio—which came under the TD Artisan Spirits umbrella in 2017—depleted around 8,000 cases in 2018.

In Drumshanbo, Ireland, The Shed Distillery’s Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish gin ($35 a 750-ml.) similarly uses a combination of sourced botanicals and uncommon distillation practices in its messaging. “There are 12 botanicals in Drumshanbo, and eight of them go into the medieval copper pot still we use, which is solely dedicated to gin production—it’s a very important part of the day-to-day brand,” says Pat Rigney, founder and managing director at Drumshanbo. “We place major emphasis on the combination of our global botanicals and on how we actually distill.” Among the botanicals slow-distilled in the copper pot stills are meadowsweet from Drumshanbo; cardamom and caraway seed from India; juniper berries from Macedonia; coriander seed from Romania; angelica root from Germany; orris root from Morocco; and star anise from China. Four additional botanicals—gunpowder tea and Chinese lemon from China, oriental grapefruit from Indonesia, and kaffir lime from Cambodia—are vapor-infused. Palm Bay International added Drumshanbo to its artisanal spirits portfolio in September 2017.

At Sipsmith Distillery in London, founders (above, from left) Jared Brown, Sam Galsworthy, and Fairfax Hall have found success through their fresh approach to the gin category, which includes innovating on the basic Gin & Tonic formula.
At Sipsmith Distillery in London, founders (above, from left) Jared Brown, Sam Galsworthy, and Fairfax Hall have found success through their fresh approach to the gin category, which includes innovating on the basic Gin & Tonic formula.

Cocktails Court Consumers

No matter the size of the brand, many gin labels are benefiting from exposure in cocktail bars, as appreciation from mixologists shows no signs of slowing. In recent years, a number of brands have positioned themselves as cocktail-exclusive gins in an effort to capitalize on this trend. One such label operating under the cocktail gin moniker is Fords, which rebranded itself—and became its own company, The Fords Gin Co.—earlier this year after separating from The 86 Co. portfolio. “From the very beginning, we created our gin with the input of bartenders, so we could offer an expression that would work well in classic cocktails,” says Fords Gin founder and CEO Simon Ford. “We’ve developed a gin that’s made to put behind the bar. Our belief is that when it comes to gin, the end product isn’t what’s in the bottle—it’s the drink that the bartender makes with it.” Earlier this year, Fords launched Officers’ Reserve, a small-batch gin made for inclusion in specialty cocktails that has an initial run of 2,000 cases. Officers’ Reserve joins the flagship London Dry gin, which, according to Ford, has seen consistent year-on-year growth since its launch in 2013 and now stands at almost 31,000 cases.

Elsewhere, Greenhook Ginsmiths’ DeAngelo created the distillery’s Old Tom gin with the Martinez cocktail—a gin-based Manhattan—in mind, with about 80% of the expression’s business in restaurant and bar accounts. “This gin is perfect in a lot of pre-Prohibition cocktails,” DeAngelo says. “It’s nice in Old Fashioneds, and it goes well in warm weather drinks.” He adds that the distillery’s Beach Plum gin liqueur works well in sour-style drinks like Gimlets, though the offering’s on- and off-premise distribution is more evenly split than that of the Old Tom.

Greenhook is particularly bullish on the classic Gin & Tonic cocktail; to that end, DeAngelo recently innovated in the RTD sphere with a line of canned Gin & Tonics ($21 a 4-pack of 200-ml. cans), which rolled across the distillery’s distribution footprint this past spring. “I decided to launch our Gin & Tonic because, as an American gin producer and consumer, I was frustrated with the quality of Gin & Tonic cocktails here, especially when 90% of gin in the world is consumed with tonic,” DeAngelo says, pointing to the subpar, flat tonics often used in stateside iterations of the drink. “If you go to England and order a Gin & Tonic at any pub, you’re going to get a high-quality, consistently carbonated tonic, which is what we need here.”

Beam Suntory acquired a controlling stake in Sipsmith (distillery above) in 2016, gaining global distribution of the brand's portfolio.
Beam Suntory acquired a controlling stake in Sipsmith (distillery above) in 2016, gaining global distribution of the brand's portfolio.

The Greenhook Gin & Tonic comprises one part American Dry gin and two parts proprietary tonic developed by DeAngelo. Instead of solely carbonating the tonic, Greenhook carbonates the gin and tonic together in a pressure tank, which, according to DeAngelo, results in 26% more carbonation than a typical Gin & Tonic. Eventually, Greenhook may offer its tonic as a stand-alone product as well.

DeAngelo isn’t alone in championing the Gin & Tonic—and especially high-quality tonic—as a way of reaching a wider consumer base in the U.S. In Alberta, Canada’s Turner Valley, Eau Claire Distillery has also created its own tonic. “We’re not going to sacrifice our gin with a lower-quality tonic water or soda,” says Eau Claire brand ambassador Colin Stiles. “The tonic we came up with has about 72% less sugar than Fever-Tree, which itself has around 70% less sugar than mass-market tonic brands. Our tonic was designed to pair perfectly with our Parlour Gin, and we’ve made a high-quality RTD Gin & Tonic as well.” While the Eau Claire Gin & Tonic is not currently available in the U.S., Stiles notes that the distillery is in talks with retailers in the U.S. looking to label a similar product under their own brand. Eau Claire’s Parlour Gin ($48 a 750-ml.) is a lemon-forward dry gin that features 15 different botanicals, many of which are sourced from the distillery’s own nearby farm.

In London, Sipsmith has also innovated extensively in the Gin & Tonic sphere, launching flavored syrups designed specifically for seasonal Gin & Tonic creations and marketing its flagship London Dry gin as key to high-quality Gin & Tonic iterations. Sipsmith co-founder Sam Galsworthy notes that the entire lineup excels behind the bar. “We use our London Dry offering to bring sophisticated moments to consumers looking for a special Gin & Tonic, Martini, or other classic cocktail,” he says. “Our other expressions play a supporting role to London Dry—our Sloe gin, for example, is a premium alternative expression in mixologists’ hands.” Beam Suntory acquired a controlling stake in Sipsmith in 2016, gaining global distribution of the brand’s portfolio, which includes the flagship London Dry gin ($33 a 750-ml.), Sloe gin ($40), the 57.5% abv V.J.O.P., or “Very Junipery Over Proof” ($48), and, more recently, the limited-edition Lemon Drizzle gin ($40).

Even at retail, the prowess of gin as a cocktail ingredient is evident. “People are finally trying Negronis, Aviations, and their gin-based ilk at the bar,” says Kirstyn Litchfield, owner of The Austin Shaker in Austin, Texas. “Then, they’re coming in at the retail level and looking to recreate those drinks at home, and that often leads into a conversation about all of these other gin cocktails that they can try.” The Austin Shaker offers around 80 gin brands, with such labels as The Botanist, Martin Miller’s, and St. George Spirits among the top sellers.

While U.S. gin volumes remain in decline, the super-premium-and-above tiers—led by innovative craft entrants—are attracting attention from coast to coast. “We’re seeing more complex and unfamiliar expressions of gin being bottled,” Galsworthy says. “New sub-categories of gin are being formed all the time with the advent of flavored variants. This is ultimately driven by consumer curiosity for this ever-changing category, and their willingness to experiment.”