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The Politics of Gin

Sipsmith still Prudence up close
Written by Gin Foundry

In a year of huge political change around the world, we felt it was time to look at the state of Gin in 2017 and the politics (or the lack thereof) playing out behind the scenes of the category. Is the Gin industry in good health? Will this continued growth crash? And which areas should experts, marketeers and you - the wider gin community - be looking at for the year ahead?

Few like to focus on the politics of the drinks industry, mainly as it’s all rather dull. There are no Frank Underwood/ West Wing-type characters to love and loathe, and much of what’s discussed misses the point of what its all about anyway, namely the social elements, the enjoyment and the end spirit being consumed.

Politics is an important aspect of the industry to push into the limelight however, as we’ve found areas where more dialogue on certain topics could ease frustration, while other parts will need some attention in the coming months. While we haven’t quoted anyone here directly, we approached several high profile individuals to talk about the ins and outs and to gain some insight into what exactly the topics du jour are.

On the surface (taking just numbers into account) life couldn’t be rosier for Ginsmiths. Category sales are growing, new markets are opening up, media interest is still transfixed and bar communities remain eager to serve it, even in the most avantgarde establishments. We’ve not read a single report that says anything to the contrary. That said, dig a little deeper & talk to those one step removed from the press office (or those unshackled by having to tow the party line) and there’s an undercurrent of concern creeping in.

These concerns are not for the already occurring contraction of SKU’s however, nor a thinning out of brands in the years to come; this is old news, inevitable and a fact that many anticipated and are already navigating. Regardless of which side of the fence they are on, neither are they particularly worried about the same old battlegrounds of small vs large companies either.

The real area of apprehension for the long term strategists who want to further the category in the decades to follow revolve around the need for cross-company consensus on Gin and it’s many styles and definitions.

It’s true that many smaller distilleries focus on how the larger players try and muscle into the areas where “small batch” and “craft” gins have forged a stronghold. Their position has merit, too. For most, their main point of umbrage is the overuse of size-related terms, and the way in which conglomerates confuse consumers about their production realities (and even geography).

Many marketers working within smaller companies have already conceded those terms and accepted their demise. They have moved on and are battling on a much larger playing field, where entire methods of communicating, messaging and interacting with consumers are being adopted by the multinationals and deliberately applied to big brands with much larger budgets.

Once, being nimble, reactive, innovative and transparent were the exclusive preserve of small players. Now it’s the Modus Operandi of new brands emerging from the likes of Bacardi, William Grant and Diageo.

With flexibility and an ear keenly bent towards their audience forming the basis of their USPs, one can understand why smaller producers are feeling intruded upon by the big boys, especially when those philosophies are not necessarily as genuine nor authentic, merely great sound bites for the latest round of campaigns.

That said, if being small is your main selling point, you’ve probably not got the best long term business plan… Moreover, while many vent their feelings about the multi-nationals being deliberately vague to the point of acting disingenuous, there are far more small producers making outrageous claims than big players taking a leaf from the “craft” arena playbook.

These age-old battlegrounds are the reason it is so hard to get a broad consensus that involves everyone when it comes to the larger topics. It also shows just how desperately the category is in need for an organisation with actual teeth to not just continue to develop ideas for regulation, but to adequately police those already in place.

Is it rule breaking or is it having freedom to create…

No one wants red tape, but having no parameters is equally unhelpful. The reality is that if there’s no self-regulation on terminology or production methods, (and if it remains a continuous free-for-all in regards to what it actually means to be a gin) it is likely there will be a consumer backlash. Consumers will – and rightly so - stop believing in the category.

So, are we in need of new rules for “Craft Gin” and how to label it? No, but they should be discussed now so that when there is a need, the groundwork has been laid from which to base decisions.

Do larger companies need to seek further legislation in order to protect what’s already law and quash competitors before they even start? No, but it’s probably time for the organisations that have long huffed and puffed about being the voice of the community to actually take those doing dubious activities to task and protect what it means to be a Gin maker.

There’s no need for alarm bells just yet and we’re not suggesting they employ a Malcolm Tucker’esque character to eviscerate an outlandish proposal, we’re just calling for greater proactivity in defending existing, widely accepted rules.

Another area raising trepidation within our panel of industry insiders is that of who is operating in this relatively unregulated, creative industry. Clearly, there will always be wolves in the midst - it’s a multi billion dollar industry and it would be naïve to think that only those pure of heart and dedicated to the creation of artisan, craft spirits are involved in ginsmithery.

For many, a concern for the longterm prosperity of Gin therefore revolves around not letting the standard of new entries drop. Does the world need another gin given that there are over 3000? Only if it’s good, but this is a matter that should only really be decided by drinkers.

Ethics and a code of conduct…

Another matter is of third party producers and distilleries looking to expand their turnover by providing a gin-making service for someone else, in addition to their own brands. We know from first hand experience that as long as the money talks loudly enough, many will create just about anything they are requested to, despite holding reservations about it from concept to end spirit.

We believe that it shouldn’t be this way (and nor does it need to be). We’d implore both the third  party specialists and those small distilleries taking on the challenge of creating for someone else to look at themselves as gatekeepers and standard bearers and not to provide a service for just anyone.

Third-party makers facilitate people entering our community and they should be asking a lot more questions. Not just about the liquid they are looking to make, but also about how what they create will be presented and communicated. We’re not suggesting they have any say in a brand they do not own, nor on someone else’s marketing, but that their decision to proceed in the first place should be made only when they have an idea of the package as a whole and the intentions of a client.

They should be making a call as to whether or not a gin they make on behalf of someone else adds to the wider scene in a positive way and is likely to be beyond basic ethical and moral contentions. Third party manufacturing should not exempt the makers, big or small, from contentious ethics and third party producers have a responsibility to be the first line of defence against less honourable brand owners looking to get into Gin.

So why should you care about a drop in standards and unscrupulous owners joining the Gin racket?

Well, this is not about existing owners and makers stifling new entries, rather it’s about the fatigue the high amounts of new entries will cause to consumers. Once boredom sets in, it’ll be a downhill fall, as enthusiasm in learning more about producers and their stories drops and gin slips slowly back towards the doldrums of the early 80’s.

As many of these key influencers raising their concerns have told us, the only way to combat this fatigue is to keep the standard sky-high and beyond reproach, both morally and from a flavour perspective. It is a discussion that will no doubt play out and divide many in the months to come.

What next…

The politics of Gin is not all about avoiding impending doom, though. The majority of those we approached for input into this essay brought up more reasons to be optimistic than fearful about the landscape and the politics playing out in Gin. So many fantastic producers have joined the fray in the last 12 months, while existing makers have expertly extended their portfolios.

There have been many journeys where brands have reinvented themselves, rekindled the public’s affection and found a new lease of life and there have been a lot of clever, exciting and authentic ideas stemming from a place of passion and of genuine love for the category.

There have also been more collaborations between distilleries than ever before and a continued belief amongst small producers that there’s no need for an entrenched competitor status to bed in. Rather, there’s a belief that a rising tide will float all ships and that continuing the wider growth of the category will benefit everyone.

The consensus is that Gin’s future seems bright and exciting, but for its rise to continue and for the now thousands of producers to keep enjoying a buoyant category, it is time to act. The writing is on the wall (and now online too), that unless we remain proactively promoting best practice and continuously raising the standards, a malaise will creep in so stealthily that it will be hard to remedy.

Look at the wider geopolitical context and the carcasses of political careers now in tatters if you need an example of what happens when an undercurrent is left unrepresented and ignored for too long – crazy things like Brexit or Donald Trump occur. It is much easier to fix things before they get to a stage where there is actually a problem and the wider population wants revolution.

More importantly, it is much easier to set a constructive pathway when everyone is getting along and willing to work together. Becoming a political animal may not sound like the most inviting of calls to action, but we feel it is vital that it is the responsibility of those who love Gin – both makers and drinkers alike – to protect the industry.