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Gin is having its Icarus moment

Written by Gin Foundry

In last year’s Gin Annual, as we looked ahead to 2018 and typed up thoughts for a first draft of the conclusion, we wrote that gin was dangerously close to having it’s Icarus moment. That “ left to soar and spurred on by those who can’t see or don’t care about the the danger this presents, hubris would eventually be the category’s downfall”. 

It was a little gloomy to conclude a celebration of gin… so it was promptly binned and we went with a slightly more appropriate quote from Orwell’s 1984. Yes. We know, but despite being just as sinister, we felt that at least, it was more attuned for the times and our nod to Fake News and the battle between trust and hypocrisy in today’s media landscape.

It was a forewarning that we would enter an era in which any old claptrap would do, pleading for there to be some form of relent in this race to the bottom and for there to be some sense of morality to remain in the industry.

We said “You don’t have to be that well connected or au fait with current affairs to see that we live in decidedly Orwellian times, and one only has to read 1984’s definition of doublethink to see that the hypocrisy on show in Orwell’s dystopian society is all around us, even in the Gin world: Doublethink - “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it… They forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again.”

Dear readers and gin enthusiasts, we are with the deepest of regrets, well and truly there.

Droves of brand owners are aggressively moaning about the Jonny-come-lately’s jumping on the bandwagon, seemingly forgetting that over 60% of the gin makers in the Uk have yet to celebrate their 3rd Birthday’s. There are those who claim authenticity over their provenance, irrespective of flavour reality or facts about their production, while others release gimmicks in specific channels while pointing to another expression to lay claim on “true heritage”, as if no one would notice.

It is now as undeniable a mess as Brexit, and no matter where you stood on the subject of either debate (in our case for gin it has been juniper dosages, calling a liqueur a liqueur and not a gin, fake provenance, pretend distilling and general gimmicks) it’s impossible for anyone to be blind to the issues emerging or the identity crisis that has ensued.

There is a lurid sea of colourful yet insipid infusions out there and put aside the fundamental debate over whether they are gin or not (most are unequivocally not!), there are far too many that are simply utter rubbish. 

It is not a new issue, mind, but the rate at which they are now being slung out onto the market is killing the category. Crappy gins have always existed and were always being launched, but proportionately, they were closer to one in ten back in 2015. In 2018, our opinion is that that’s much closer to one in every five, almost as if the rate at which they are launched is directly related to the lack of time spent really developing something truly brilliant. 

More importantly, there are now too many of them to simply weave around or to simply be fortunate enough never to have to come accross… There’s too much for the system to contend with and a critical mass has now been reached. It is much like the when Thames Water need to obliterate a “fatberg” of lard in the sewers that’s blocked the entirety of Soho. Gin’s version is merely sugar laden rather than the dozens of kitchens discharging the cooking waste of Soho’s deep-fried offerings… 

Don’t believe us? Have you not tasted Puertos de Indias (there is a long list that could be reeled off here so purely the most obvious example)? Serving it is the equivalent of inviting your friends round for an Italian feast and plating up Alphabetti Spaghetti, amusing at first until you realise you actually have to consume it. It is but one of the hundreds of artificial tasting, non-gins out there.

Unfortunately too few of these exotic sounding products, pink’ed up spirits and “handcrafted infusions” are neither Gin nor imbued with the slightest form of good taste. In her Imbibe Magazine article Jane Ryan called them “absolute dross” but in our opinion, she was being kind as some of the travesties that have crossed our desk here ought to be confined to educational purposes only, served to distilling students as a benchmark for what something tastes like when everything - from concept through to implementation - has completely gone to shit.

So what can be done? Can we reverse this tide? Are we as a category confined to the increasingly fractious and polarised opinions that plague decent inclusive debate? Should we expect even more dregs and even fewer world class gins going forward? How much hypocrisy can occur before the vulgar hilarity of what is going on stops being funny and lands its final blow, swiftly killing off the good the bad and the ugly with undiscriminating venom? After all, the average consumer can only take so much before simply giving up having been presented with a category so clearly transfixed with making garbage. There are already a substantial number who are close to that turning point and if we’re not careful, it’ll happen sooner that you think.

The descent into madness is easy to leave unchallenged. More problematically, facilitated by G&T flavoured lube (an actual product) there are too many unscrupulous retailers that will gladly make a dime by selling anything that shifts (ideally pink, glittery and sweet for the summer) or  gin-trify everything they have to ride on the category’s coattails (hello Gin Fun Buns, Yogurt or Crisps).

Because of this, it can be a little frustrating to say the least, especially as they will not stop unless something dramatic changes. It’s not their future in that balance, nor is it they who are at the whim of the public’s perception of gin as a category. They will just move on when interest wanes and so too will the consumer, once something else picks up the “cool” cachée. 

History repeats itself and perhaps just as when the focus was on flavoured vodka once (and we all laughed at the very idea “bubblegum flavour” and derided it for its existence), we will move on from gin (and laugh / cry about it for also having a bubble gum flavoured expression) and discover whisky en masse.

It’ll be proper whisky at first, then “candied rosé whisky” no doubt so that the cycle can continue. Maybe it’ll be a “New Eastern” Agave that will become the talk of the town? Regardless of who or where - we’ll all look on, as another category’s commentator laments the lack of effort going into some of the new creations, the fact that retailers are slapping it on the side of everything possible. They will also surely observe the slow erosion of their category’s heritage and credibility, which systematically debase it to new lows. 

As fans and drinkers, it’s a shame to see but it is the distillers who will eventually suffer the most though, especially those who were doing all the right things but didn’t make it big enough before the “bubble” burst. Those who are taking the royal piss know full-well that what they are doing will probably crash it eventually, and are deliberately looking for a fast in and out. No one sets out to make a bullshit product and be there in 20 years time. No, it’s about capitalising on the quick return based on someone else’s hard fought groundwork. 

But is it inevitable? No, it doesn’t have to be this way. There doesn’t need to be a bubble at all and to return to our opening metaphor, Gin can be diverted from its current flight path before it’s too late.

It is actually possible to continue building off what came before and nurture what was good about what so many people have achieved, not just stick out a begging hand and latching on, killing Gin’s momentum in the desire for a couple of quid.

We live in hope that new makers and those looking to launch a new releases can see how they can continue to add to the category, not just clog it. When you meet the distillers or owners and see what they are doing - it’s obvious that there are a majority out there trying to do just that and they deserve continued advocacy and celebration. It’s obvious they also need a helping hand too, and for some protection against those making nonsense and labelling it Gin…

And so, we live in the knowledge that the unstoppable force that is causing our Icarian hero to soar too close to the sun can be met with an immoveable anchor keeping it true.

There are thousands of gin enthusiasts and hundreds of world class makers still fighting the good fight. So long as that’s still going on, those wings won’t melt just yet…