The drinks list at 214 Bermondsey offers 100 gins, including artisanal gems like The Little Bird, Half Hitch, Dodd’s and Slingsby. Thanks to its vast gin range, this underground bar in London’s Southwark neighborhood has gained a reputation as a new age gin palace—one of many taking the United Kingdom by storm.
The tonic served with the gins is equally artisanal. Proprietor Nick Crispini blends his own vermouths for Gin Martinis and also makes his own tonic, called BTW. It’s derived from raw quinine bark that he imports himself from Peru. BTW, which is yellow in color, is available not just in the U.K., but also Italy, Germany and Hong Kong.
Crispini is currently seeking a U.S. distributor for his tonic, as are most of the new gins that have flooded the British Isles. From 2014 to 2015, some 56 distilleries opened in the U.K.—virtually all of them producing gin. Gin sales are up 21 percent in the U.K. over the past two years, according to the International Wine & Spirit Centre in London, which has designed a London Gin Trail for tourists with a dozen stops spread between Beefeater’s visitors center and the East London Liquor Co. Amid worries that the domestic market can’t accommodate all these new distilleries, there’s a rush to export: Nearly 12 million cases of English gin were shipped overseas last year. Exports to the United States are up five-fold in the past decade.
“It’s the second coming of gin,” says Miles Beale, the CEO of the Spirit Centre, noting that Gin and Tonics were the genteel drink of the grandparents of the numerous millennials who are now leading the gin charge. “But this time the gin trend is being built around boutique distilleries. The speed of this growth has been extraordinary.”
The City of London Distillery, a combination bar and distillery in London’s financial district, has been producing gin since 2012. Founder Jonathan Clark formerly owned snooker parlors and hotels before learning the art of distilling. He produced 5,000 cases in 2015 and expects that to double to 10,000 cases this year. His Christopher Wren label has won international awards from critics and is already being exported to Canada, where it retails for C$71 ($54). He hopes to land a deal with a U.S. importer soon. “Right now I’m exporting about 10 percent of what I make,” Clark says. “I want to get that ratio to 70 percent or more.”
City of London and most other new upstarts hope to emulate the export model pioneered by Sipsmith, the craft distiller that got its start in 2009 in the western district of Chiswick as London’s first new distillery to open in two centuries. Sipsmith began exporting to the United States in 2013 through Wilson Daniels. Its 41.6-percent abv London dry gin retails at about $40 and is now available in 30 states. The U.S. market accounts for 6 percent of its total sales.
“Gin hasn’t fully taken hold in the United States like it has in England, but when it does, we want to be part of the movement,” says Sipsmith cofounder Sam Galsworthy, who expects to spend 20 weeks in the United States this year working on marketing the brand. “Right now, the light has never shone so brightly on gin. It’s captured the imagination and palates of consumers.”
This fact is evident in the standing room–only crowds during cocktail hour at the City of London Distillery and 214 Bermondsey. At Gerry’s Wines & Spirits in London’s West End, general manager Allen Daly recalls that his shop carried 25 gin labels two decades ago. Today he’s got nearly 200 and wishes he had room for more. Daly traces the gin renaissance to the rise of the Bombay Sapphire and Hendrick’s brands around 2000, with eye-catching bottle designs and easy-sipping taste profiles that appeal to young women. “Vodka is still a big seller, but our gin sales are up 60 percent in the past 10 years,” says Daly, who cites Jensen’s, Sacred and Portobello Road as growth labels.
Ann Brock became a partner and distiller at Jensen’s gin in 2013 after working as a bartender while getting a Ph.D. in chemistry from Oxford University. She noticed that other students were ordering Sipsmith and becoming very particular about the recipes for gin-based cocktails. Jensen’s has been making its own gin since August 2014 and produced 5,000 cases last year. The company plans to begin exporting nearly half its production to the United States through Park Street Imports this year. Jensen’s gin will retail around $30 a 750-ml. and initially be available in New York, California and Texas.
Many distillery owners are concerned about an oversaturation of new gin labels on the market, but Brock isn’t. “The number of gins now being produced isn’t a problem,” she says. “So many people are still being introduced to gin for the first time that we don’t know how big the market can become yet.”
Still, many entrepreneurs seek an edge that gives them a leg up on rivals in a crowded marketplace. Helen Chesshire launched Brighton Spirits Co. two years ago after a career promoting wine. She uses all organic British wheat grains for her spirit and sources her botanicals as locally as possible. Coriander seeds come from a farmer 15 miles away, and both the angelica and milk thistle also are also grown nearby.
Chesshire needs more distilling capacity and automatic labeling equipment, so she’s trying to raise up to £250,000 through crowd-funding for expansion. If she can raise enough capital, she also plans to get bottle approvals in the United States and begin marketing her product in New York. “Sipsmith has opened the door in America for boutique English gin,” Chesshire says. “We think there’s room for more gin brands from England.”
Nicholas Cook, the director general of the Gin Guild in London, believes that the spread of upscale tonic brands like Fever Tree, 1724 and Fentimans have helped smooth the way for the comeback of the gin and tonic. More boutique brands, such as BTW tonic from 214 Bermondsey, are waiting in the wings and could fuel still another round of interest in gin. Cook points to the success of Sipsmith. “They’re an inspiration for the entire industry,” he says.
But how big can the London gin category become? Nobody expects 56 more distilleries in the next two years. “Some of these brands won’t make enough money to stay in business,” Cook says. “It helps to have a story to tell—a marketing approach that so many craft distillers are good at.”