There is no doubt whatsoever that gin continues to be one of the most buoyant categories in the UK drinks arena at present. According to combined trade sources, yearly value sales grew by nearly a third in 2017. Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) figures have revealed that 49 new distilleries started up in the UK in 2017 including 22 in England and 20 in Scotland. There are now 315 distilleries in the UK, and London alone now has 24 independent gin distilleries. Currently, (June 2018) the UK Wine & Spirits Trade Association (WSTA) estimates there are 100 different UK gin brands available with 47m bottles of gin being bought in 2017, an increase of 7m bottles compared to 2016 (HMRC).

Thus it is clear that despite recent attempts to promote rum as the new pretender to the throne, gin remains firmly entrenched in the position as the leading growth area. Moreover, manufacturers clearly remain optimistic, as in the past few months Edinburgh Gin has announced plans to invest in a new multi-million-pound distillery in Edinburgh city centre which will see production capacity increase by more than 200% in line with continued demand, whilst William Grant & Sons has spent £13m on a new Hendrick’s Gin distillery which will double its production capacity, and still allow room for further expansion.

In announcing its plans Hendrick’s noted that “one of the things that drive us forward is innovation, and to do this we need the capacity to be able to experiment.” However, ironically, it is this very innovation which is causing controversy amongst those who are seeking to protect the integrity of the spirit.

Should gin regulations be updated?

Currently, gin must be at least 37.5% abv and the botanical blend must comprise ‘predominately of juniper’. It is generally agreed that the last stipulation is widely flouted by many new generation – ‘craft’ gins, and some authorities believe that steps need to be taken to preserve the prestige and particular style of the legally specified gin definitions laid down by EU regulations. The WSTA revealed that for the past six months various interested bodies had been discussing and reviewing the definitions and regulations regarding gin and their enforcement.

Nicholas Cook, director general of the Gin Guild agrees that products of a style and profile previously unseen are increasingly appearing on the retail market, and while some are still maintaining a link – however tenuous — with the legal gin specifications, others are at least extending the descriptive borders, and some far beyond. As far as the Guild is concerned, consumers need protecting from these “rogue” products erroneously described as gin.

However, it has been pointed out that at the time the EU regulations were drawn up, with the exception of sloe gin, these new styles of gin were simply not widely known about, although apparently drinks historians note that coloured (rested/aged) gins that had been stored originally in oak barrels and fruit gins did exist in earlier times.

Within the category itself, pink gin has been identified as a major segment,  responsible for driving 27% of gin growth in 2017 according to trade sources, although this is just one of a number of new segments emerging. Gin liqueurs, too, have proved very popular with those new to gin who find the sweeter profile more acceptable, and for those looking for something different.

Some of these products really are different – from the less controversial raspberry gin to rather more mind-blowing variants such as lemon drizzle cake or even bubble gum. All of these have an abv of less than 37.5% and it is pretty clear that the predominant flavouring is not juniper.

Whilst flexibility – both of the product itself, which is designed to be versatile,  and the regulations governing the category — has been responsible for its dynamic growth, there is a widespread recognition that there needs to be some attempt at controlling the definition borders. How this is achieved is a moot question. Effectively the market is moving so quickly and the boundaries shifting so quickly that it seems almost impossible for the two to converge.

At present, the only enforcement possible is trading standards officers – and there have been some reports of officers removing aged gins from shelves, but this is only localised. Perhaps the solution is a set of voluntarily agreed regulations, that allow for a continuation of the innovation and development which have proved so important to the category, but which suggest that those products which lie firmly outside these boundaries are not permitted untrammelled freedom of entry. If it’s Gin, but not as we know it Jim, then maybe it needs to find a new name.

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