SPIRITS | SECTOR INSIGHT
Why gin needs stricter definition rules - and fast
Against a backdrop of booming sales, the gin category has succeeded in jumping on the trend bandwagon. However, spirits category commentator Richard Woodard can see a problem looming for gin - a problem that needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.
Some of the reaction to the recent announcement that Scotch whisky producers will now be allowed to use a wider range of casks for maturation has been predictably knee-jerk: "Why your single malt might soon taste like Tequila" was one particularly ill-informed headline.
What makes the change so newsworthy is its rarity. Scotch's production regulations are notoriously strict, so what might be dismissed as inconsequential tinkering with another spirits category assumes seismic force when applied to Scotch. That stubborn resistance to change might frustrate some - particularly those who fear that Scotch is losing ground to more innovative rival product categories - but it's rooted in the conviction that, once you've secured a distinctive identity for your product, you don't want to sacrifice that on the altar of change for change's sake.
In this area of regulation, gin is the antithesis of Scotch: What definition exists is woolly at best, with its insistence on the subjective recognition of the flavour of juniper in the final product. The definition also fails even to acknowledge the existence of the segment that is currently driving the gin boom onto even greater heights: so-called 'flavoured' gin.
Flavoured gin sales soar but regulations loom
In the gin hotspot of the UK, overall gin sales rose 11% in value terms to May this year, according to Kantar Worldpanel figures. Flavoured gin sales, meanwhile, soared by 300% over the same timescale, adding an extra £127m ($161m) of sales.
In particular, pink-hued gin has moved from a minor niche, pioneered by the likes of Edgerton and Pinkster, to the mainstream, embraced by marquee names including Gordon's and Beefeater. This entry of trusted brands has only boosted growth further.
There's little doubt that innovation is aided by loose regulation
From the early efforts of Hendrick's to the surge in craft gins, and on to the current tide of flavours, innovation has been key to gin's renewed success, and there's little doubt that innovation is aided by loose regulation. The downside is lack of control; what begins as the freedom to think outside the box can all too easily descend into anarchy, with unintended consequences.
The further you travel away from your core offering to chase fast-moving consumer trends, the further you dilute your essential identity.
Now, there are signs of change. The UK's Wine & Spirit Trade Association is actively looking at the definitions for gin and flavoured gin. The move reflects a shift in attitudes among brand owners over the past few years, from revelling in the fun of creating new things to fears that gin's identity might be compromised, and as such is in need of protection.
Recalling the boom and bust of flavoured vodka
Talking about tightening the rules is one thing; securing industry-wide consensus for change is quite another. Even if - or when - that consensus arrives, it's likely to be several years before legislation is enacted.
And, who knows where flavoured gin will be by that time? There are already signs that its stratospheric growth, in the UK at least, is beginning to slow - in the year to November 2018, flavoured boasted value growth of 750%. Compare that to the 300% figure to May, quoted by Kantar. Anecdotally too, UK retailers are starting to detect early evidence of softening in the flavoured gin market, with rivals in the flavoured rum and flavoured whisky segments beginning to muscle in on flavoured gin's success.
If that's right, and things continue to develop in the same fashion over the next couple of years, then it's all going to look depressingly familiar for those of us who recall the flavoured vodka boom and bust in the US from a few years back.
Kantar reckons 43% of all gin shoppers in the UK only buy unflavoured gin, but another 21% or so only buy flavours
There are two ways of looking at the role of flavoured gin - or indeed that of flavoured rum or whisky. The glass-half-full view is that the segment brings new consumers into the category that gin would otherwise miss. Offering evidence to support that theory, Kantar reckons 43% of all gin shoppers in the UK only buy unflavoured gin, but another 21% or so only buy flavours.
I'm not sure we should be too encouraged by those figures. To me, it implies that consumers of flavoured gin are perfectly happy quaffing Gordon's Pink without feeling the need to move on to the core, unflavoured product. Why would they, when they can migrate over to some other spirit or liqueur offering the same flavour experience?
Retrofitted rules may be too little, too late
In embracing the apparent freedom offered by flavoured gin's lack of regulation, distillers risk basing future growth on a product type that is all too easily copied by rival spirits, who will happily soak up flavoured gin fans happy to move on to the next big thing.
Put another way, is it really gin that's making people buy these products in the first place, or is it the quasi-alcopop combination of colour, sweetness and flavour? If the latter, none of these attributes are exclusive to gin.
Trying to retrofit category rules at this stage may be a case of too little, too late
I also have a problem with the name 'flavoured gin'. To me, it's a bit like 'natural wine' - the implication being that all other gin doesn't have flavour (or all other wine is somehow unnatural). 'Flavoured vodka' only works because of the relative neutrality of the core product.
Gin has been an incredible success story, but it's worthwhile remembering some of the things that created that success story in the first place: premiumisation, the role of craft, millennial-friendly marketing, not to mention the customisation, personalisation and theatre offered by new tonics, garnishes, glassware and serves.
The rise of flavoured gin risks neglecting and even forgetting these vital qualities. If that comes to pass, the category's lack of meaningful regulation will have to accept its share of the blame. Trying to retrofit category rules at this stage may be a case of too little, too late.
This article originally appeared on just-drinks.