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Nicholas Cook - The Gin Guild

Written by Gin Foundry

The Gin landscape is a truly perilous place at times; a world of juxtapositions created by a sudden explosion in popularity and a (helpfully unhelpful) lack of regulation. Gin took off faster than anyone was ready for and went a lot further than any of us could have imagined. As it grew it mutated, become more brilliant than we ever knew, but also more monstrous. Still, all hope is not lost for some semblance of sense to take hold. The closest thing to authority on the subject is The Gin Guild, and if anybody has the power to help stop the spirit from falling into a weird abyss, it may well be them. We caught up with Director General, Nicholas Cook, and asked him to share more about who they are and what, if any, plans are in place to stop our favourite spirit from spiralling.

Hi Nicholas - how long has the Gin Guild been active, and how big is it today?

The Guild is a subsidiary of the Worshipful Company of Distillers (which has been representing distillers since its incorporation by Royal Charter in 1638), and was incorporated in 2012, reflecting the exponential growth of the Gin category. We’re currently over 300 members strong, with those in turn representing thousands working in the Gin industry in their respective companies.

The Guild was established with key support from the four major Gin distilling companies: Bacardi, Diageo, William Grant and Sons and Chivas Brothers. The Guild membership currently represents around 89% of the UK Gin market by volume.

Is there a mandate or specific aim to the Guild’s activities?

The Guild aims to represents the Gin industry as a whole, with extensive membership from the wider gin industry, including commentators, retailers and allied suppliers. Objectives include promoting the Distilled and London Gin categories across the globe, enhancing its image and widening its appeal to worldwide consumers. It also promotes and encourages commitment to excellence in Gin distillation and industry custodianship of the spirit category.

Membership of the Guild (which is by way of application, supported by industry references and at the discretion of the Guild), requires that a nominee must have had a material service or association with the Gin industry, have made a positive contribution to the management, promotion, development, production, sales, marketing or distribution of Distilled and London Gin, or have academic study and spirit industry training. Membership is peer recognised.  Networking between peers is a key benefit of membership.

We’re all seeing the 50%+ growth stats for domestic consumption emerging right now – but where are you seeing big areas of growth for Gin as a category outside of the UK?

This is a twofold issue. The first covers British Gin exports, whilst the second deals with Gin production outside of the UK. Regarding the former, these have more than doubled since 2008, when sales overseas were worth £258 million.

The USA remains the largest single importer of UK Gin, with sales worth £184 million - up almost £12 million on 2016.

By region, however, the EU is still by far the biggest destination for UK gin, with the European market seeing growth of 16% last year. Within the EU, Spain is the largest market, with £100m of gin sales. In fact, the Spanish Gin market is bigger than the next five markets (Germany, Italy, France, Greece and Belgium) combined.

And dare we bring up the ‘B’ word…?

Well, with the issue of Brexit but weeks away, who knows what impact it will have on British Gin exports, or imports of materials used by UK Gin producers (including bottles and closures, botanicals and even GNS), or even what might happen if the UK can no longer play an active part in formulating the key regulations for Gin production (currently enshrined in EU regulation, in which the UK played a key role in formulation).

UK-made Gin represented nearly three quarters of the Gin produced in the EU in 2017. Statistics published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in November 2018 showed that UK sales now account for 72% of EU gin, with UK gin manufacturers seeing sales up 267% since 2009 to around £461m last year. The UK’s Gin contribution dwarfed that of its nearest competitors, Spain (at 11%), the Netherlands (4%), France and Belgium (2% each).

Brexit certainly posts a pivotal challenge for Gin, with the industry set to have a lot of new issues to wade through. As you mention, the role the UK plays in formulating the key regulations will need consideration. Impending split from the EU aside, there’s a lot going on behind the Gin scenes, with a pointed debate on Fake Gin, juniper and the role that establishments and institutions play in moving discussions forward and policing some of the excesses. That’s only natural for a category that’s grown hugely over a short space of time. How do you think the debate is going?

The Gin Guild was not set up to police excesses and abuse of the Gin category, but the increasing abuse and bandwagon use of the term ‘Gin’ (a term clearly defined by the EU regulations), on all manner of liquid products, some of which have little or no resemblance to Gin, has meant that Guild members, frustrated at the lack of enforcement, have for some time been referring examples of abuse to the Guild, particularly the issue of product labelling and description. When a clear breach is reported, based on interpretation of the regulations, we have corresponded with enforcement bodies and brands and sought to address these issues.

The Gin regulations do however afford wide interpretation of Gin styles (albeit all technically requiring juniper to be predominant), but with so many brands vying for attention and shelf space, Gin styles have been pushed to the edge of the envelope (and in some cases far beyond the edge).

The Gin regulations, when developed and settled, reflected the Gin market as it was at that time. Market development means that many new ‘Gin’ iterations have been produced, including some brands with flavourings which many have found questionable, often completely masking juniper, but still seeking to identify, for marketing purposes, as ‘Gin.’

As you mentioned, you weren’t set up with the intention of becoming the Juniper Police, but everyone is trying to find workable solutions with regards to its predominance. Could you share some insight into what you have been doing in this area?

The issue as to whether juniper is indeed discernible as a leading botanical is of course subjective. The Guild, as part of its commitment to excellence in Gin distillation and industry custodianship of the spirit category, is currently providing funding to assist high level academic research into juniper predominance. Specifically, this work involves identification of the common compounds across juniper berries (Juniper communis l.) from multiple geographically distinct locations, identification of the flavour active compounds in juniper berries under standard distillation conditions, determination of the flavour threshold and perception of the flavour active compounds associated with juniper within both simple and complex gin recipes.

We hope that the juniper work will be informative and that it will help the industry and enforcement agencies to address the issue of products that do not comply with the regulations. This is key to protect the category from those who seek, solely for marketing gain, to claim their product is a gin when it is not a compliant product, and will help ensure that consumers are not mislead.

But in principle, are you quite happy for more classically styled Gins to sit alongside the more contemporary offerings (to a certain extent, anyway)?

For the avoidance of doubt, the Guild, reflecting industry development and consumer demand, has no objection to new (and indeed often imaginative products) variants of traditional Gin expressions which comply with the regulations and which remain true to the category. There is ample room for both traditional and compliant contemporary expressions.

Many brands have, for example, successfully addressed the new flavours and yet managed to retain the ‘juniper’ edge, illustrating that challenging botanicals and content can, where carefully deployed, still ensure category compliance.

Is the liqueur category an issue onto its own? Does it need to be considered a separate area alongside the fruit infusions?

Gins with a fruit input (some made with fresh fruit, some not) and coloured Gins have of course become commonplace, as has in my view the questionable practice of placing some products in the liqueur category, thus enabling the use of a lower ABV while still dressing a product as Gin.

There are a number of examples of these sweet, low ABV products - deliberately marketed with the word ‘Gin’ in the description or prominently including ‘Gin’ in the brand name - which as a result pose a real risk of misleading consumers as to what they are actually purchasing.

The market for Gin has changed, particularly in the last 18 months or so. This is evidenced by the statistics that 2018 was a record year for sales of coloured and flavoured Gins. Despite those expressions only making up one fifth of total sales, Flavoured Gin drove over half of all growth in Gin in the UK in 2018.  Three quarters of the growth in flavoured Gin can be attributed to Pink Gin alone. Pink is not to everyone’s taste, but it clearly appeals to many and brings new consumers to the category, who may very well grow to seek out more traditional Gins as a result.

So where does this leave us? Do you think there’s much appetite to see the discussions move through to a conclusion in which the flavour profile of Gin is better protected (or ever actually enforced)?

The Guild believes that it is probably unrealistic to expect any early amendment to the EU Gin regulations and that A) in the UK we are not likely to be well placed to influence any such amendments – whether or not Brexit goes ahead, and B) like the tide, given the volumes of variants, pushing back to an entirely stripped down Gin profile, back to what one might describe as ‘traditional’ heavily juniper-led gin profiles, would not be successful (nor acceptable to the industry and consumers alike).

The Guild does however feel that there are abuses in a number of brands descriptors and that there are products which are falsely flying the flag and masquerading as ‘Gin’. Consumers are as a result in some cases being misled, and such extreme or non-compliant products create the risk that the key point of Gin (the juniper core), is lost, resulting in the category becoming tarnished.

With this in mind, what kind of strategy are you working towards to help the category self-regulate and to help educate the consumers?

In December 2018, as part one of its strategy to aid and to guide Gin consumers, the Guild launched Gin-Note™, allowing Gin brands to create a consistent simple graphic representation of their flavour categorisation. Guild members are already starting to deploy that graphic and the early adopters can already be seen on the brand pages of the Guild web site.

The second part of the Guild strategy to protect the Gin market is development, with industry help, of a Gin lexicon, for which approval by the core/majority of UK Gin brands will be sought, providing key Gin descriptions beyond those laid down by regulation to guide consumers and enforcement bodies. This important work is scheduled for implementation in 2019. This is intended to ensure that there is consistency in product description.

And finally – to end on a slight tangent – we wanted to ask about the annual seminar and workshop day, Ginposium, which takes place each June. What can guests expect this time around, are you setting a theme or will it be a mix of talks?

The 2019 Ginposium (the Gin Industry Annual Seminar) is set for 7th June (the day prior to World Gin Day (and Junipalooza). It will again be held in London at the RSA. Tickets and full details will be available at www.ginposium.com from the end of January.

As ever there will be a mix of content, including an update on the botanical trade (close to every distillers heart), the importance (in a very crowded market), of bottle design and presentation to secure consumer interest, a guide to distillery start-ups, the ever popular ‘what’s new’ Gin tasting session,  the importance of the base spirit and aroma and flavour profiles and related sensory training, top city law firm advice on protection of a brands IP against lookalikes and infringers, innovation and educators v. imitators and disruptors, the rules and regulations around alcohol marketing in the UK, and a Gin view (with samples), from Australia!

The Gin Guild, Guild, London Guild,