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Published:  23 July, 2008

Are two gin-themed recent openings in London part of a new willingness to take mother's ruin seriously as a premium spirit? Or is the gin sector still more about commodity than connoisseurship? David Williams reports on the latest gin developments

Opened last year, Steam, the bar at the Hilton-owned Great Western Hotel in Paddington station, is in many ways your identikit London style bar. You know the kind of place: design budget the size of a small Third World country's GDP; clientele with more money than sense; soundtrack of contemporary lounge' Muzak. Indeed, this English-themed' style bar would be indistinguishable from countless other tersely-named wannabe bars dotted around the capital and other cities across the UK, and hardly worth disturbing a page with, were it not for its one, unexpected point of difference: its focus on gin. While wine bars, vodka bars and even whisky bars are now commonplace around the UK, it's not since the heady' days of the Dickensian gin palaces that a London bar of any kind, let alone a would-be style bar, has chosen to specialise in mother's ruin. It's easy to see why. Having been the scourge of the Victorian poor, then the shameful secret of the alcoholic 1960s' and 1970s' housewife, gin has been saddled with a succession of negative images over the years, and has struggled to carve out a niche for itself as a quality' product. Certainly, with the exception of a brief flirtation with fashionability in Prohibition-era America, it has never been the kind of product to attract the young smart set that Steam is after. So, are the people behind the bar - which lists more than 20 different premium' gins, as well as several genevers and flavoured gins, and which uses gin in 95% of its cocktails - mad? Or are they simply tapping into a new-found British willingness to take gin seriously? Jason Fendick, director of the Gorgeous Group, the hospitality consultancy which first developed Steam's list, is certainly a gin fan. As mixologists, gin is our spirit of choice, and it has always been a personal favourite. It's a very versatile spirit,' says Fendick. I think it's surprising that it's never really been emphasised by bars before, because gin has always been the number two top-selling spirit in the on-trade.' Fendick, whose company was also responsible for developing the Bourbon-focused list at Rockwell, in another Hilton-owned hotel, the Trafalgar in London's Trafalgar Square, says that a big part of what the Gorgeous Group is trying to do at Steam is something that we like to do at all the bars we open: educate. In the case of gin, it's an attempt to break down both the ridiculous belief that gin is a depressant for alcoholics and the "I don't drink gin" perception held by the majority of the next generation of serious spirit drinkers, who probably grew up on vodka and have never really tried gin.' The successful (according to Steam assistant manager, Adriano Proia) first year of Steam suggests that those beliefs are already well on the way to being broken down in west London. But evidence of gin's rising reputation is emerging from other parts of the capital, too. Over in Southwark, for example, gin is now playing a starring role at Vinopolis, in the shape of the Bombay Sapphire Experience, which opened last October. The Experience', which is included in the ticket price for the standard Vinopolis tour, gives visitors information on how gin (specifically, Bombay Sapphire) is made, explaining the process of distillation and the infusing of the botanicals, before finishing up with the offer of a free gin cocktail. It is possible, if a little churlish, to view the Experience' as little more than a walk-through ad for the self-proclaimed UK's fastest-growing premium spirit'. But whatever the commercial gains for brand owner Bacardi-Martini, the experience undeniably places gin in a context devoted to the idea of connoisseurship, something which can only help the gin industry in general in its bid to establish its premium' credentials. Whether or not this kind of activity is having a major impact on gin sales is a moot point, however. Some, such as Huw Pennell, marketing director at MaxxiuM UK, which markets and distributes Plymouth Gin for Coates & Co, think the market is definitely skewing towards the upper end, with both established gin drinkers and premium spirit drinkers having an effect. We are definitely seeing what you might call the premium-isation of the gin category at the moment, with growth coming at the premium end,' says Pennell. You've got people coming from standard gin who are trading up, and then you've got people who drink premium spirits per se, and if they're going to choose a gin they look for a premium product.' Henry Stephenson, spirits buyer at Sainsbury's, agrees with Pennell's assessment, at least in the stores under his control. What's more, he suggests, the move must continue if gin is to survive as a category. Yes, there is a move towards premium in our stores, and our premium brands such as Bombay Sapphire, Plymouth and Tanqueray are showing very good growth, ahead of the rest of the market,' says Stephenson. I think the premiums are doing a good job in getting younger drinkers to trade into the category. If you take the age profile of Bombay Sapphire, for example, it's much younger than the average age of a gin consumer. That's very important, because a lot of what you might call "heavy" gin drinkers are coming to the end of their life; a lot of serious drinkers are dropping off the end.' For Edwin Atkinson, director general of the Gin & Vodka Association, the picture is a little more complicated, however. Certainly in PR terms it would be true to say that there has been a move towards premium, but in strict volume terms, maybe not,' says Atkinson. He points out that, in the off-trade, where gin is currently growing at 4% year on year, own-label continues to dominate, taking up just under half the market, and currently growing at 10% year on year, according to AC Nielsen (MAT volume, 28 December 2002). He also stresses that, while the brands that Stephenson singled out are showing good growth (Bombay Sapphire at 37%, Tanqueray at 20% and Plymouth at 13% in GB total trade, according to AC Nielsen), other premium brands are declining and some cheap' brands are growing strongly'. Nonetheless, Atkinson continues, What is absolutely true is that there have been a lot of additional premium brands with good PR coming into the market'. And these have undoubtedly helped push gin's image upmarket. One of the most high-profile of these launches last year was imagin, from the Swedish company Facile & Co, which was responsible for that other ellipse-ical release, seriously According to James Roberton, the UK managing director of Facile & Co, imagin is specifically designed to appeal to young premium spirits drinkers. Quite simply, we saw a gap in the market,' Roberton explains. Ninety per cent of gin is targeted at older, ageing consumers, and it's incumbent on all of these gins to look after these older consumers. But because we're starting from scratch we don't have to do that. imagin is not a product that your dad will know.' With 11 botanicals, Roberton also reckons that imagin has a broader' taste profile than other gins, something that gives it special appeal for bartenders looking to substitute gin for vodka in cocktails. If you look across the spectrum of gins, even at the premium end, there's a very narrow flavour profile,' says Roberton. Essentially, they're just alcoholic juniper juice, which limits their use to gin and tonic. But younger consumers are looking for a broader range of drinks,' he argues, and that's where imagin fits in.' With imagin's release still confined to the on-trade, it's still early days for the brand, although Roberton says its 40% ABV (high enough to keep the citric botanicals, low enough to keep production costs down) takes it out of the super-super premium, one-case-a-year' category, and an off-trade release should follow in 12 months' time. Hendricks, another of last year's premium gin releases, is unlikely to move into the multiples, however. The 44% ABV brand, which was first launched in the US and is now being drip-fed into the top end of the UK on-trade by Polstar, is being marketed as the Martini gin for gin aficionados', according to a spokesperson, and with its cucumber and rose-petal botanicals it's also, as the spokesperson continues, an unusual gin'. For the established premium gins, however, this year has been a case of repackaging, and education. The bottles of both Greenall's and Plymouth have been through design studios for a tweaking, with both looking to perform the high-wire balancing act of keeping their existing consumers while generating more interest from the young 'uns. Meanwhile, Plymouth, Greenall's, Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray have all been actively cultivating bartenders and consumers alike with sampling programmes, and Allied Domecq even has a specialist sales division created specifically to develop style bar sales. But no matter how much gin producers like to think or suggest that the zeitgeist is moving upmarket, where margins are higher, the standard sector remains vital for an industry which accounts for more than 108,000 hectolitres of alcohol sold in the UK each year. For the leading brand in the sector, Gordon's, it's been a mixed year. The brand continues to dominate, with 38% of the total GB gin market, according to AC Nielsen. It's also managing to grow from its very big base, albeit at around 1%. But these successes have been clouded by the expensive, and ultimately disastrous, launch of the brand's RTD spin-off, Gordon's Edge. Diageo spent 8 million on the new brand, launched in May last year, including 3.5 million on a TV, press and poster ad campaign, and 4.5 million on promotional activity. But even all that marketing muscle failed to hold up a brand which is in the process of being withdrawn as this issue of Harpers goes to press. Ailish Hanley, brand PR manager at Diageo, admits that, Sales of Gordon's Edge have been disappointing. We launched it into a crowded marketplace at a time of uncertainty, due to the duty-driven RTD price increases. Since that time Gordon's Edge has not been distinctive enough versus other recent RTD innovations to meet the high rate-of-sale expectations set by Diageo. Therefore we have decided to cease production of Gordon's Edge.' Hanley insists that the parent' brand has not suffered as a result, however, and Diageo's foray into gin NPD (new product development) doesn't seem to have deterred its chief rival, Allied, from having a go itself with a Beefeater range extension - Wet by Beefeater. The new distillate is a pear-infused gin priced at a premium to the regular Beefeater, and designed specifically to give a new lease of life to its parent brand, with younger drinkers very much in mind. So far, Wet by Beefeater's launch has been confined to the more cosmopolitan cities of the US, but plans for a European and possibly a UK launch have apparently been made. When, or if, it does make it across the pond it should have at least one bar prepared to use it in a cocktail. Anyone for a Wet Steamy Beefeater?