Should I gin or should I go?

Recently I had an interesting conversation with a wine and spirit merchant recently over general whisky happenings and they commented on the pressure of rising gin sales. Whilst any growth is good news for any seller, particularly one such as gin, which is attracting new buyers to stores. It was at the cost of whisky shelf space and to some degree highlighted limitations in the knowledge of consumers.

Gin is an immediate cash crop. I’ve observed one of the enjoyable Edinburgh gin distillery experiences where you can sit down and select your botanicals, then distil your own bespoke gin. Literally an hour or so later you’re walking out of the distillery with your own exclusive bottle of gin. In a society and world today that demands things immediately and exclusively, it does possess a certain attraction.
For producers of course the buoyant market is one they can tap into fairly quickly. Whisky has a formidable rule set that includes a specific period of maturation before it can be labelled as a whisky. Earlier this week Waitrose, the upper end supermarket, revealed that gin sales have grown by 17% and their top selling trio of spirits are all gin products.
Speaking to the Scotsman newspaper, John Vine, Spirits Buyer for Waitrose, stated that: “Customers are discovering that gin lends itself to being shaken up with more than just tonic. In fact, there are more classic cocktails made with gin than with any other spirit thanks to the vast diversity of flavours available. The innovation happening in the gin world, especially with artisanal distilleries, makes is a very exciting time for gin lovers.”  
I can concur with this sentiment given my recent visit to the Isle of Harris distillery, where their distinctively packaged and flavoured gin was literally flying off the shelves. Colleagues at work had politely asked if I could bring home a few bottles of gin, given its scarcity and growing popularity. Normally I’m a whisky mule for myself and not a gin carrier for friends. More proof of gin’s unstoppable growth?
Despite being a more premium priced gin, customers were willing to pay £35 for a bottle on Harris, some walking out with a box of six. Then there are spinoffs for a retailer with mixers, cocktail gimmicks and flavour enhancers all falling into the gin experience. In Edinburgh alone there are gin tours including one on a barge that allow you to behold the splendour of mother’s ruin, and gin bars; an unthinkable thing a couple of years ago.
All of this takes me back somewhat to the sudden tidal wave of vodkas, whether they were flavoured or more premium distillate. The market was flooded and eventually became saturated with products of every conceivable type trying to find their own niche. You can still see the remnants on shelves today with only the strongest surviving. Undoubtedly vodka will be facing the same pressures as whisky for space and consumers given this fashionable newcomer.  
Part of the gin boom has been fanned by the boom in new Scottish whisky distilleries. Eighteen months ago I was informed there were around 37 in various phases of completion. I’ve not seen a figure since, but I do know there are still distilleries planned for several years to come and I do fear for some of these new arrivals long term. Part of their business plan outside of whisky, tours and a café is the ability to produce gin. Once you’ve decided upon your botanicals, it’s literally a simple step with all the equipment in place to start production and shipping to market.
The Isle of Harris distillery has been very successful with their concept utilising local ingredients and have already smashed their sales target for 2016. With the assistance of Stranger & Stranger, a company who specialist in packaging design and branding for the alcohol sector, they’ve won various awards and the ability to be selective with their distribution.

Even today Harris distillery announced that they are running out of the distinctive glass bottles due to a furnace upgrade at their supplier. Gin is being rationed! It’s a short-term measure but shows how popular it has become in such a short space of time.

Whilst I’m not a gin drinker whatsoever, I do appreciate the design competition that unfolds in retailers. Bottles of all shapes and sizes, complete with visually stunning labels all jockeying for prominence. In comparison the whisky section looks a little drab and aged; you really have to engage and handle the bottles to find out what you need to know before purchasing your whisky. Most whisky bottles don’t scream come over here and look at me compared to rival gin offerings.
That’s where whisky education comes into the equation. When I started with whisky it was very much trial and error. You often learned the hard way and made mistakes whilst searching for your own tipple of choice. There is a whisky for everyone and I’m sure the same applies to gin. However for the uneducated they often revert to pricing or familiar names. That’s blends and relevant price points. This is where my retailer friend highlighted the importance of store assistant knowledge. That’s certainly the case in retailers that can support such a feature whereas supermarkets you’re left to gauge these spirit conundrums for yourself.
For many consumers it’ll boil down to satisfaction and a bottle of gin – even a slightly premium offering – will come in at the lower end of an official single malt release, arguably without an age statement. Gin after all sounds more fun and offers exotic flavours whereas official tasting notes on whisky bottles are often a little lacking and seem concocted from the same phrase book across the board.
The future for gin currently is bright however like vodka, sales will eventually level and lesser products will fall away from public consciousness. At the moment with sales increasing across retailers and space at a premium, we the loyal whisky enthusiast may have to step away from our supermarket haunts and pay more regular attention to local independents or specialist stores.  
The question could be what comes next? There are plenty of other spirits out there that can offer an experience and a more attractive price than whisky. Rum for instance seems a logical destination but only time will tell. As long as this growth continues and keeps our fledgling distilleries healthy with a revenue stream I’ll be happy.  

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