Who decides when gin is gin? With the category in bloom, legal definitions are being stretched. Dan Bignold asks several distillers if there’s trouble ahead.
“I was shown a botanical list for a gin recipe recently, made at one of the UK’s biggest contract distillers, and it was 60 per cent coriander seeds. And supposedly that was one of their generic recipes.” So begins Darren Rook, head distiller for Dodd’s gin in London, in explaining why, although every gin producer should be thrilled at the category’s current boom – the British industry alone has leapt 18 per cent by value in the last two years – the growth is not without issues. The coriander-max approach is problematic because gin’s definition under EU law, and indeed its wider, cultural identification, rests not on coriander, but a different botanical: juniper. The law states that, alongside various technical requirements (such as the alcoholic strength of neutral spirit going in, the bottling strength coming out, how the flavour of the botanicals is imparted), to be gin, producers must ensure “the taste is predominantly that of juniper”. The law, you’ll notice, doesn’t state that juniper must be predominant either in terms of weight or volume, because different botanicals (and, indeed, different batches of botanicals) hold and release different quantities of essential oils, each one varying in impact, so there’s no correlation between increasing the proportion of one botanical and increasing its share of flavour.
Nevertheless, although coriander is historically one of the most common components in gin’s flavour, Rook is certain that a 60 per cent proportion by weight would make it near-impossible for the juniper flavour to come out on top. His own recipe, for example, features over 90 per cent juniper. Is there trouble ahead? Recent years have witnessed unprecedented class-action lawsuits in the States against several spirit companies; Tito’s vodka and Templeton rye whiskey were two examples in which their respective claims about being handmade or distilled in a certain state were challenged. Whether genuinely initiated through disgruntled consumers or just greedy lawyers (or bigger brands panicked by successful newcomers), the litigious landscape has just got rockier for booze. In the States, where gin’s legal definition is similar to that in the EU, could a definition-stretching producer be next? Difficulty lies in the fact that taste, of juniper or whatever, is almost impossible to measure objectively. Even if law-enforcers did measure juniper oils per litre, or even demand chromatography readings for each brand, to measure the predominance of juniper’s typical flavour-causing compounds such as terpinene or camphene (the latter, trickily, also shows up in aniseed) – none of this could, without question, confirm juniper as predominant in the mouth. “The whole question of measurement opens a Pandora’s box,” says gin historian Philip Duff. “What if gin X has almost as much juniper oils per litre as, say, a classic juniper bomb like Tanqueray, but the juniper is muted by even more powerful ingredients, or ageing, or both? What if a gin tastes sufficiently juniperous at 47 per cent abv but almost juniper-free at 40 per cent?” And that is before you even introduce the tangle of personal taste…
It’s this part that is worrying Rook. Every so often, Rook welcomes visitors to his distillery, and it was during one of these tours that a lady announced she didn’t think much of his gin. She told him it didn’t taste of juniper. He asked which gins she did like, and pulled out some different brands from the distillery’s gin library for her to try. After several sips: “Yes, that’s what I’m looking for in a gin!” Rook himself tasted the gin – an own-brand from a supermarket chain – and believes it was high on coriander, low on juniper. He also believes gins like this could be damaging the category. While he understands the lady’s enthusiasm could count positively, as evidence of less-juniperous gins bringing more people into the category, he questions whether such bridges might not taint perceptions long-term of what gin actually is. Why would the industry do that to itself? In the case of coriander, the motivation may be nothing more predictable than cost. Juniper is three times the price of coriander, on account of it not being cultivated. Rather, it has to be gathered by hand, in the wild (often in the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean) – which puts pressure on supply, especially during a gin boom.
Less predictable, as the category enjoys a renaissance, are the new brands entering the fray, each fighting to establish their identity by foregrounding ever-more attention-grabbing botanicals. “The regulation has been stretched to breaking point on both sides of the Atlantic, and every point elsewhere, too, as gin is being used by start-up distillers to create instant cash flow,” says Duff. “So we have motivated, but sadly often inexpert distillers, combined with the need to differentiate your gin from the hundreds of others, plus broad, vague definitions, which equals a perfect storm of definition-stretching.” The problem accelerates because upstarts don’t even need to make the gin themselves: contract distillers are on hand, lowering the barrier to market, ready to take whatever botanical fantasy and make it reality. A recent example was Hoxton gin, heavy on coconut, which in 2011 Simon Difford, on the Class website, critiqued as being not a gin at all, merely a “botanical spirit”, and one that was is danger of dumbing down the whole category. Difford’s concern is still shared today. “Some people are looking at other directions, to not have juniper predominant, and in my view that might be a very pleasant drink – but you need to find another name for it,” says Desmond Payne, master distiller at Beefeater. “We’re beginning to see flavoured gin. I don’t understand what that means. All gin is flavoured – so if this is an elderflower gin, you’re probably implying it’s not juniper dominant, it’s elderflower dominant.”
Difford, by his own admission in that same thread, is a traditionalist. Others in the business are not so sure there’s a problem. Chris Hayman has been distilling gin for over 45 years (his family used to own Beefeater, until it was sold in 1987), but together with his children James and Miranda, is now building the family’s own brand, Hayman’s. “To be in the gin trade at the moment is one of the most exciting times I can remember,” he says. James agrees: “Yes, there are one or two that have stirred debate, but my overall view is this isn’t a bad thing. The more people talking about gin the better.” Furthermore, Nik Fordham, the master distiller at Bombay Sapphire, reckons the debate helps the category evolve. “One of the things I like about gin is that it facilitates this conversation,” Fordham says. “We have a framework, but if we don’t stretch these boundaries, we don’t have innovation.” Bombay itself is often characterised as a pioneer, genre-busting away the juniper monopoly when it launched in 1987. Fordham, who joined the brand in 2013, says that’s not quite right. “Did Bombay have some resistance about the levels of juniper? Not from consumers. Just from other major producers, and only once the volumes started to grow!” Nearly 30 years later, with Bombay firmly established within the top three global brands in the category, clearly the market has answered.
Who will step up next? Perhaps not any of the coconut gins, pink gins, or gins that change colour when you add tonic currently produced in the UK – “This is their sales pitch: ‘I have found a gimmick!’,” says Rook – but a gin from outside the British heartland altogether. American and European distillers are now entering the gin space with alacrity, often casting themselves as an alternative to the juniper-forward habits of the British. In the US, Aviation gin founders House Spirits even coined the name “New Western”, to promote an American identity in gin. “I think Monkey 47, from Germany, is another good example of the extreme,” says Rook. “It’s super complex – cranberries, almond – and I think it’s a fantastic spirit. I love the brand, the packaging. I like the fact it makes me think, Can a gin be this? But, to a certain extent, it’s not technically a gin.”
Monkey 47’s founder, Alexander Stein, disagrees: “It’s very subjective. Sensorially, there is a very strong juniper taste. And by volume it’s the largest ingredient. But the way we produce our gin is a composition based on juniper. So, I say, ‘Yes, it is’.” Stein also takes a historical perspective, questioning whether the law can actually control a category like gin. “The law assumes there is something called ‘the gin’. But ‘the gin’ doesn’t exist. Gin has always been the most dynamic spirit. From the 17th century when alcohol production was very poor – lots of tails, lots of methanol, fusels – juniper was used to hide the flavour of bad alcohol. Then through colonisation, the East India Company had access to different exotic plants and herbs, and gin became synonymous with any white spirit flavoured with juniper and other botanicals. Gin evolved over time. So whenever someone says ‘This is not gin’, it’s just stupid. ‘The gin’ does not exist.”
Stein also argues that juniper levels have inevitably relaxed as the quality of neutral alcohol has improved. Chris Hayman testifies that distillers today are working with different boundaries: “The quality of prime spirit has improved enormously in 40-plus years. Back 50 years you had to buy in the neutral spirit and rectify it again. That is not the case today.” Better quality raw spirit takes the strain off juniper’s masking duties, granting more freedom to experiment with lighter profiles, ones where other botanicals shine. Going back to those Bombay Sapphire accusations, Fordham explains that the recipe is based on the juniper-forward Bombay Original, just with the addition of two botanicals. “So it’s not what is taken away, but what is augmented. Think about the volatility of major flavours: juniper comes quite quickly in your sensory perception. But then if you blend and balance it with other flavours, it’s no longer necessarily a striking big hitter.” Stein puts it even more simply: “We’re not riding horse carriages anymore. We have access to a better grade of ingredients. So it’s a different thing. It’s about taste. And Monkey 47 is my simple interpretation of what embodies the perfect gin. If you don’t like it, fine.”
Debating the gin-ness of his gin aside, Rook shares much with Stein: both are producers who devised their own recipes, built their own distilleries, and who distance themselves from brands who don’t make their own spirit. “I think they have already damaged the category,” says Rook. “In the on-trade, bartenders are already rolling their eyes when I come in to introduce my gin. I have to educate people about not using a third party producer.” But Stein is more sanguine: “A lot of people with no knowledge or competency come to the market with stupid ideas. But I think you’re only able to compete if quality is your unique selling proposition. Nowadays you can go to contract distillers and say, ‘I want a gin with dragonfruit’, and you can get it. But these people pop up; they come, and they go.”
The consensus, then: the brands which stick around will be the ones successfully judged by a consumer, not a law court – and that maybe tastes in New York, Madrid, Berlin or London vary more than the laws that govern them. “At the end of the day it’s the consumer who decides,” says Bombay’s Fordham. Duff agrees: “I am a great fan of the market. I am not sure I want to see more regulation.” But as long as gin is in bloom, expect more brands, and more botanicals, to come challenging the juniper orthodoxy. The smart ones might just be the gins that don’t lose sight of it altogether. “If they want to make a new gin, it’s because gin is fashionable,” says Beefeater’s Payne. “They want to be individual, go beyond the crowd. But they are still trying to be gin – because that’s the opportunity.”