Is the saturated gin market in a 'race to the bottom'? 

Gin
Is there too much gin?  Credit: Getty 

In October Amanda and Simon Duncan launched Ealing Gin. After more than two years of painstaking research and development, involving almost 30 recipes and countless hours of tinkering, they were finally ready to launch their product. 

"I'm from Durham, and Durham Gin launched about five years ago," says Amanda, explaining why the couple gave up their jobs – Amanda in PR, Simon in web development – to become gin distillers. "We get a constant stream of Geordies coming to stay, and we kept getting bottles. It just struck us that people want to do something meaningful as a gift, something from their hometown, that they identify with. We thought that mentality would work in Ealing." 

It's a familiar tale, reflecting the hyper-locality of the current craft gin market. Gin has become the UK's second-largest spirits category, according to Jonny Peacock, customer development, strategy and planning director for Pernod Ricard UK. There are now over 300 gin distilleries in the UK and, while we're not quite consuming 10 litres per person annually as we did in the 1700s, the market is booming. 

Perhaps this is best reflected by the number of gin events across the country. Eventbrite, an event management website, reports 1,600 festivals, courses, tastings and other gin-related gatherings this year. Since 2015, it has sold 600,000 tickets to such get-togethers. "There's a huge appetite among Brits for participating in live experiences that play directly into their personal passions, gin being a prime example," argues Eventbrite's head of marketing, Paul McCrudden. 

Yet are there signs that, for the first time since gin's meteoric 21st-century rise, the market is becoming saturated? McCrudden explains that the number of gin events on Eventbrite is actually down on 2018, the first drop since 2015. And, last month, Peacock told a spirits convention in London: "With so many new entrants recently, I can see a shake-out coming in craft gin. The category has to organise itself, otherwise it's just going to be a race to the bottom. The barriers to entry in gin are low. The problem is, the barriers to exit are equally low." 

There's no doubt among experts that the quality of gin has increased monumentally this century. "It's a wonderful time to be a consumer," says John Burke, co-founder of the Craft Gin Club. "You've got all these gins trying to make a name for themselves. Larger companies should keep an eye out and defend their market position." 

But Peacock argues there is only so much space the spirit can occupy, on shop shelves, behind the bar, or in our homes. Bartenders won't tolerate hundreds of half-empty bottles; grocers can't solely stock gin. Thus the weaker brands will get weeded out. Peacock sees four categories of brands that will stand the test of time: household names, "exciting" premium flavoured gins, premium gins "with substance" and super premium gins "with a unique selling point." 

There are many factors behind the gin boom. In 2009 craft gin brand Sipsmith, after negotiating for 18 months with the British government, were finally permitted to open the first London copper-pot distillery in more than 200 years; gin had been hampered by legislation due to over-consumption in the 18th century. This paved the way for the boom in small distillers. The current global gin craze arguably kicked off in Spain a few years previously, and with millions of Britons visiting each year, the trend influenced drinkers back home. For Susy Atkins, the Sunday Telegraph's drinks writer, the fashion for local provenance has helped – "British gin, like craft ales and local ciders, became much more in vogue." 

Others point to the propensity for gin-based cocktails in popular Nineties and Noughties TV shows. Martinis and negronis were ubiquitous in programmes like Mad Men. That the entry to gin-making is relatively low, and results come quickly – a matter of hours rather years like whisky – also helps. Joel Harrison, co-author of The World Atlas of Gin, believes there are two overriding factors: "It's tasty, people like gin. And it's versatile." 

Clearly, there's a lot of gin about. But is it all good? The general consensus says no. William Lowe, master distiller and founder of Cambridge Distillery, likens it to the French wine industry. "I think it's a defensible statement to say France makes some of the best wine in the world, and some of the worst as well. It's a pyramid, as you'd find in any industry. It's easier now to get poor gin, but it's also easier to get very good gin." Lowe says there are "a vast number of products I could and won't name and shame." 

Harrison agrees: "A rising tide lifts all boats, but there's a lot of driftwood, lots of rubbish in tin cans. Those are the ones that will not survive. The best ones will still be around in five to 10 years time." 

Amanda and Simon Duncan, founders of Ealing Gin

The fastest growing category within gin is for flavoured and coloured products. Pink gin, often dyed with bitters, was fashionable in the 19th century, and is ubiquitous on Instagram today. Burke says some of it is "wonderful". Flavoured gins are a little more frowned upon, yet it's clear people like their sweetened, spiced tastes and aromas. Rhubarb, elderflower, vanilla, strawberries and cream – there's nothing that can't be added to gin. 

The problem, for some gin lovers, is that 'gin' is not always an accurate description. Lowe has no issue with these sweet drinks existing, though they're not to his palate. "They're not reducing the quality of gin, because they're not gin. My one problem is with the word 'gin' on the bottle. If it's not predominantly juniper, it's not gin; rather, it's a gin-based liqueur. We make an elderflower liqueur, but don't call it elderflower gin, because there's no such thing." 

Abe Lubelsky, a spirits expert at The Whisky World, an online retailer, points out that there has been a significant rise in the popularity of "different gin offerings, with customers looking to try more exotic flavours as they explore the spirit. Whilst we don't expect a decline in the success of flavoured gin, there is a risk of decline in quality gins. If the gins themselves are being created to match brand personalities, instead of showcasing the skills and innovation of the distilleries, we run the risk of losing the authenticity of the spirit." 

Harrison is less concerned by the threat. "I think they're great if they get people exploring the category. The industry has pooh-poohed pink gins and flavoured gins, but it's the fastest growing sector among consumers. The industry should listen more to customers and their needs. People like sweet things, and as long as it's a quality product, it's a fine thing to drink." However, Harrison does agree that if juniper isn't the overriding taste, it shouldn't be labeled a gin. 

Dawn Davies, head buyer at The Whisky Exchange and Speciality Drinks, offers another perspective. Davies explains that, while gin is still growing as a category, certain brands' sales are dropping. "Brands are attempting to combat this by releasing brand extension lines in the form of flavoured products, but this I believe is having a detrimental effect on both the brand and the category, and is a short-term stop-gap to a wider problem." Davies believes gin fatigue may already be creeping in, and says The Whisky Exchange is "delisting gins more rapidly than buying in new ones." 

With so many gins available, it can often be tricky for a bartender to know what to stock. Drew Gray is the head bartender at The Finnieston in Glasgow. Gray says customers are increasingly willing to explore, and this means everyone has their favourite boutique gin; but a bar cannot cater for all tastes. Gray believes the issue isn't a lack of quality, rather that manufacturers need a unique story to sell to the customer to "emerge through the murkiness of the craft gin movement. The strong brands will stick about, like Brookie's Gin or Arbikie Kirsty's, but the gins just here to follow trends will fizzle out, to be replaced by the next trend." 

Using Spain as an indicator for future gin growth, Peacock explains that the Spanish gin market hasn't collapsed; it stabilised at about a third of all spirit consumption. "Following this logic, we have two more years of 30 per cent plus growth to reach the same sort of share of consumption." However, at some point, it will inevitably slow down; when that comes, the four aforementioned categories will survive. 

"Gin isn't going anywhere," Harrison maintains. "People are emotionally invested in it, they like the flavour." Atkins agrees: "Very strong premium gins are very good, competition won't kill them off." 

That'll be music to the ears of the Duncans, starting out in the world of craft gin. Ealing's a big borough with 340,000 inhabitants. "We know there's a population big enough to sustain us. We'd like to go further than Ealing but, if we didn't, hopefully there's enough of a market here to do OK. We're not in it to make millions, we're in it to run a business that would be fun to run – we chose gin because we love it."