Gin has been at the forefront of mixology since the cocktail trend exploded in the mid-2000s, but its newfound prominence hasn’t yet translated into major volume growth. According to Impact Databank, the gin category declined 2 percent to 9.75 million nine-liter cases last year. Volume leader Seagram’s fell 7.6 percent to 2.2 million cases, and No.-2 Tanqueray was flat at 1.35 million cases. Bacardi’s Bombay brand rose 3.4 percent to 1.06 million cases, while New Amsterdam eked out a 1.3-percent gain to 760,000 cases and Gordon’s dropped 4.1 percent to 585,000 cases. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. While other categories—such as Bourbon—have shown strong growth, gin’s success has been more subtle. Thanks to acceptance from an increasingly mainstream mixology movement, two segments of the category exert growing influence: craft and ultra-premium gins.
“I challenge the characterization that gin is stagnant,” says Tanqueray senior brand manager Keith Scott. “Gin isn’t seeing much top-line volume growth, but it’s enjoying dramatic premiumization. The resurgence of classic and craft cocktails is doing a lot for the category.”
Gin’s super-premium tier has been growing by 2 percent to 3 percent in recent years, and the ultra-premium segment has shown sustained double-digit growth, much of it driven by innovative offerings with fruit- and citrus-based flavor profiles that downplay the juniper. William Grant & Sons’ Hendrick’s ($34.99 a 750-ml. bottle), the pioneer of nontraditional gin, was up 14.5 percent to 246,000 cases in 2014. The brand has shown double-digit growth for several years, driven by the rebirth of classic cocktails. “Consumers are more knowledgeable, savvy and interested in cocktail culture than ever before, so premiumization should continue,” says Hendrick’s brand manager Kirsten Walpert. The brand’s marketing emphasizes the experiential, led by the six-city “Emporium of the Unusual” tour in 2014 and the recently launched Hendrick’s Dirigible, a cucumber-shaped airship that will visit 13 cities nationwide this summer. Sampling programs reached nearly 70,000 consumers in 2014 and showcase the brand’s flavor, which is driven by cucumber and rose rather than juniper.
Tanqueray has also found success by expanding beyond juniper. The Diageo-owned brand relaunched the ultra-premium Tanqueray No. 10 gin ($34 a 750-ml. bottle) in mid-2014, and the offering has grown by 25 percent in its first eight months, reversing several years of decline. “People who knew about No. 10 already loved it, but it didn’t have enough awareness with consumers,” Scott says, adding that the liquid is unchanged. Backed by the “Introducing the Finest Tasting Spirit” campaign, the relaunched Tanqueray No. 10 sports a new Art Deco–inspired bottle and a label that emphasizes the brand’s citrus flavors. “No. 10 brings people who think they might not like gin into the category,” Scott says, adding that the ultra-premium expression is Tanqueray’s primary focus in 2015. The core London dry expression ($24) has also been growing.
Pernod Ricard’s Beefeater brand—down 4 percent to 494,000 cases in 2014—has split its high-end efforts, targeting cocktail connoisseurs and brown spirits aficionados with two different offerings. Although it’s still a London dry gin, the ultra-premium Beefeater 24 ($24.99 a 750-ml. bottle) includes nontraditional botanicals like Chinese green tea, Japanese sencha tea and grapefruit peel, resulting in a more delicate flavor profile that appeals to mixologists. “It really helps bartenders create new and innovative cocktails,” says Juli Falkoff, brand director for gins at Pernod Ricard. Another expression, Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve ($75), combines the characteristics of gin with those of an aged spirit. Made in Beefeater founder James Burrough’s original 268-liter copper still, the barrel-finished offering is a “sipping gin” that pursues both craft spirits consumers and whisk(e)y drinkers.
Premiumization can also extend beyond a product line. Bacardi’s Bombay brand is already well-positioned in the ultra-premium tier thanks to Bombay Sapphire ($31.99 a 750-ml. bottle), which was first introduced in 1987, and Bombay Sapphire East ($29.99), a London dry gin infused with Thai lemongrass and Vietnamese peppercorns. Bacardi’s recent efforts have focused on marketing programs that introduce gin to new consumers and cultivate an upscale image. Partnerships with New York City events like the Luckyrice Asian culinary festival and the Tribeca Film Festival, as well as the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series, have focused on connecting with people’s passions, including art, food, technology and design, says Bombay Sapphire senior brand manager Victoria Perez. In addition, the company’s new distillery and visitors center—opened last year in Laverstoke, England—emphasizes the botanicals used in Bombay Sapphire and the brand’s commitment to design and sustainability.
Craft producers individually don’t have the clout of the major players, but as a group they exert a big influence on the category. Brands like Monkey 47 gin emphasize hands-on, artisanal production. Made with 47 botanicals in the Black Forest region of Germany and based on a British soldier’s 1950s-era recipe, Monkey 47 gin ($44.99 a 375-ml. bottle) debuted in Europe in 2010. “At that time, industrial-type production dominated the market,” says founder Alexander Stein. “I have the full production chain in-house.” The gin draws on the long history of eau-de-vie distillation in the region and uses local botanicals whenever possible. “I was told during development that you can’t drink gin neat,” Stein says. “That’s not really a compliment to the products that are out there. If you can’t drink it neat, how’s it supposed to be good in a drink? Monkey 47 is made for Martinis or a Gin and Tonic, but it’s also good on its own.” The brand, which Sidney Frank Importing Co. brought to the U.S. market last year, will remain at niche volumes, but it has won a passionate, affluent fan base.
The move away from juniper is extending to all tiers of the category. “We’re seeing the continued rise of gin styles like New Amsterdam that emphasize different fruit and floral botanicals,” says Gerard Thoukis, senior marketing director for E&J Gallo’s New Amsterdam Spirits. “The experimentation with flavors is attracting new consumers both at the bar and at home.” He adds that New Amsterdam gin ($13.99 a 750-ml. bottle) does particularly well with the millennial demographic.
The category leader, Seagram’s gin ($11.99 a 750-ml. bottle), updated its packaging in 2014, and the new look aims to premiumize the brand and its range of flavors. “The pack is much sleeker and more contemporary, but it still has the familiar bumps on the bottle,” Pernod’s Falkoff explains. “That tactile element is so important for the brand.” Recent awards at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and an appearance on the television show “Mad Men” have helped bolster the brand’s quality credentials. Seagram’s is also unique because of its flavored Twisted range, which includes Melon Twisted, Red Berry Twisted and Pineapple Twisted extensions. The flavored variants are designed for use in simple, easy-to-mix cocktails that consumers can prepare at home.
Craft and nontraditional offerings are getting all the attention, but London dry gin still plays the starring role. “I see the gin category growing into two segments: your grandparents’ traditional London dry ‘pine tree’ style for the seasoned gin fans and the newer, more approachable gin with different botanicals,” says Mark Roy, spirits marketing specialist at the New Hampshire Liquor Commission (NHLC). At the NHLC, the five top-selling gins in 2014 were classic London dry gins. Tanqueray ($34.99 a 1.75-liter bottle), Bombay Sapphire ($36.99) and Beefeater ($31.99) led the pack, followed by Gordon’s ($14.99) and Gilbey’s ($14.49). Only the No.-6 gin, Hendrick’s ($33.99 a 750-ml. bottle), is a different style.
Gin sales at the NHLC have remained flat overall, although ultra-premium and craft brands are growing. Roy adds that the state’s stores have substantially increased their gin sections in the past few years and now carry 40 to 50 SKUs at most locations, with craft gins driving the increased selection. “Craft gins are usually in the super-premium and ultra-premium price tiers, which are the segments showing growth,” Roy notes.
London dry gin merits its place at the bar, notes Leo Robitschek, bar director at The NoMad in New York City. “Our list always includes at least two cocktails made with London dry gin,” he says. “The base spirit is the focal point of our cocktails, and London dry tends to be a more distinguishable backbone.” Both of the bar’s top-selling gin cocktails are made with London dry—the All Betz Are Off ($16), made with Beefeater, black pepper, Demerara syrup, celery bitters and grapefruit bitters, and the English Heat ($16), made with Tanqueray No. 10, Chambéry dry vermouth, Tuaca liqueur, jalapeño-infused agave nectar and lemon. “American-style gins are fantastic, but they can be more difficult to use in cocktails,” Robitschek explains. “A lot of the newer gins have very distinguishable aromatics that can overpower a cocktail. These offerings can be great base spirits for creating new drinks, but they aren’t perfect substitutions for London dry in classic cocktails.”
Modern gin mixology is a divided discipline. Classic cocktails, obscure historical drinks and newly developed signature creations all vie for attention—often at the same bar. At Amsterdam Bar & Hall, a restaurant, bar and music venue in St. Paul, Minnesota, the most popular signature drinks are The Rotterdam ($8), made with Boomsma Jonge genever, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, cranberry and lime juice, and Prohibition-era cocktail The Last Word ($9), comprising Prairie Organic gin, Green Chartreuse liqueur, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and lime juice. “It’s gin’s time,” says owner Jon Oulman. “It’s the ultimate mixing spirit.”
Amsterdam Bar & Hall offers several dozen gins from England, Scotland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States—any of which can be used in The Classic cocktail (price varies), which is a Gin and Tonic made with the customer’s choice of gin. In addition to cocktails, Amsterdam offers four regionally focused tasting flights (each $13), which feature 1-ounce pours of three different gins served neat or with an ice cube. The most popular is the Dutch flight, consisting of Bols genever, Bols Barrel-Aged genever and Boomsma Oude genever.
Depending on whom you ask, genever is either the oldest form of gin or an entirely different spirit that the English later transformed into gin. Either way, it’s enjoying a revival. “Genever is a malt wine–based spirit distilled with a juniper blend, another botanical blend and the master distiller’s secret ingredient blend,” explains Jaron Berkhemer, marketing director for Lucas Bols USA. “It’s essentially a white whiskey with gin-like botanicals. Genever is very complex and blends nicely in cocktails.” The historic spirit was well known in the 19th century, but disappeared from the U.S. market for decades. Bols reintroduced its genever ($34.99 a 750-ml. bottle) in 2008.
“When we started in 2008, hardly anybody knew what genever was,” Berkhemer explains, adding that the spirit’s malty flavor doesn’t work well in some popular gin cocktails like the Gin and Tonic. “At first, mixologists went back to the classic cocktails—genever Negronis and Old Fashioneds. A few years later, the trend started to evolve. Bartenders are getting playful with genever and using it in citrusy drinks, mixing it with fruit and making tiki cocktails. They aren’t slavishly copying recipes from the past.” At The NoMad, the Forbidden Dance ($16) exemplifies the trend. Made with Bols genever, aquavit, amontillado Sherry, velvet falernum, vanilla, orgeat, pineapple, lime and nutmeg, the drink is served over crushed ice in a tiki mug. “Upscale bars are reaching a larger audience than ever before, and they’re having much more fun with their cocktails,” Berkhemer says. “They’re taking classic spirits like genever and creating their own modern interpretation.”
The popularity of so many styles of gin—from 16th-century genever to 21st-century craft gins—doesn’t surprise Pernod’s Falkoff. “Consumers don’t necessarily know a lot about gin, but as they start to experiment with it, they fall in love,” she says. “They’re interested in spirits that have a complex taste profile. Gin fits into that beautifully. It’s always been sophisticated and a step up from more mainstream spirits. I think gin is in a really good place right now.”