Spirits

Gin in Whisky Land

Single malts are no longer the only game in town as the international juniper spirit wave washes across Scotland

A collage of Botanist gin bottles
Photo courtesy of the Botanist.

Most spirits consumers with at least a passing knowledge of Scotch whisky recognize Bruichladdich as one of the classic Islay-based single-malt producers. What they might not know is that there’s actually more gin than whisky coming off its stills.

In 2017 the 136-year-old distillery—acquired by Remy Cointreau five years ago—will release about 1.5 million bottles of The Botanist, the gin brand it launched in 2010. That’s 100,000 or so more bottles than the distillery expects to sell of its entire whisky range. And it’s no fluke. This volume reflects the global upswing in gin production and consumption, a trend to which not even iconic whisky makers like the Scots are immune.

“Scotland is obviously famous for whisky and has some very large stills to make it, but the difficulty with whisky, of course, is that you need to sit around and watch it,” says Nicholas Cook, the director general of the U.K.-based Gin Guild. “Then the pesky angels come around and drink some of it, and basically after three years or more you might have a product that you can sell. The attractiveness of gin is that you can make it and sell it, which is great for cash flow.”

It’s also, in Cook’s view, attractive to a much more inclusive cross section of society. “Gin has a wider market,” he points out. “Frankly, if you profiled most Scotch whisky drinkers, they’d probably be 40-plus. Here in the U.K., the drinking age is 18, so you’ve got 22 years of people wanting to drink spirits, but they’re not going to drink whisky because it’s too unusual for them. The vodka and gin markets are really what appeal to them.”

Although Scotch whisky remains a larger category than gin across the U.K., its per capita consumption and share of the country’s total spirits market have declined in recent years. In 2016, per capita consumption was 0.81 liters, down from 0.89 in 2012, according to International Wine & Spirits Research (IWSR). Scotch’s share of the U.K. spirits market fell to 18 percent in 2016, from 20.7 percent in 2012.

The reverse phenomenon has been playing out for gin in the U.K. Per capita consumption of gin reached 0.53 liters in 2016, up from 0.39 liters in 2012. Its share of total U.K. spirits, according to IWSR, rose to 11.7 percent in 2016, a gain of 2.6 share points from 9.1 percent in 2012.

Worldwide Surge

Global gin volume jumped nearly 15 percent between 2011 and 2016, according to market research firm Euromonitor, reaching 632.2 million liters last year. Euromonitor estimates that overall U.K. gin volume grew nearly 24 percent in that same time period, to just over 38 million liters. About 70 percent of all gin produced in the U.K. is made in Scotland, according to Stephen White, founder of the Scottish Gin Society. (Much of that large percentage is accounted for by the fact that Diageo moved production of Gordon’s, one of the world’s top-selling gin brands, to Scotland from England nearly 20 years ago. Another high-volume brand, William Grant & SonsHendrick’s, is also produced in Scotland.)

But the team at Bruichladdich didn’t foresee the current gin explosion when they unveiled The Botanist. Carl Reavey, the distillery’s head of communications, says the timing was largely serendipitous. Bruichladdich had been mothballed for several years before an investment group under the name Bruichladdich Distillery Company acquired the operation in 2000. Much of the distillery was falling apart, and the owners were cash-strapped for most of the next several years. They were able to procure some equipment from a distillery that had shuttered in 2005, and among the scrap was a modular Lomond still better suited for producing gin than whisky.

“This was long before gin became trendy,” Reavey says. “[The Botanist] actually took five years to develop, from the time the still arrived to the time it first appeared, in 2010, which was still ahead of the curve in relation to this tsunami of interest that’s swept the world in terms of artisanal gin.”

Three years later the Scottish gin resurgence began in earnest. By 2015 there were about 15 distilleries making the spirit in Scotland. Now there are nearly 40, according to White, as well as another 29 whose products are contract-distilled.

And while most stay within the confines of the traditional, juniper-forward London dry style, many—like The Botanist—have a discernible Scottish accent.

A Forager’s Culture

When Bruichladdich’s now-retired master distiller, Jim McEwan, was developing the gin’s recipe, he enlisted the help of a couple of Islay botanists—hence the eventual name—to help identify some local flora that could go into the formula.  

Eventually they settled on a combination of 22 foraged local ingredients and nine traditional gin botanicals (juniper, coriander seed, orange peel, and so on).

Caorunn, another brand born in a whisky distillery—in this case, a Speyside producer, Balmenach—followed a similar forage-to-glass path, incorporating a handful of local plants and fruits. Among them are dandelion, bog myrtle, heather, and the product’s namesake, rowan berry (“caorunn” in Gaelic).

Another producer whose name often comes up when the conversation turns to Scottish distilling innovation is Edinburgh Gin, based in that city. In addition to a more traditional flagship and a Navy-strength version that the producer has dubbed Cannonball, its portfolio includes a maritime curiosity called Seaside, whose initial batches included hand-picked botanicals like scurvy grass, ground ivy, and bladderwrack from Scotland’s southeastern coastline, about 25 miles outside the distillery’s home city (the distillery now uses dried botanicals in Seaside for consistency reasons). The company developed it in partnership with Heriot-Watt University’s distilling and brewing program.

“Seaside gin is fresh and herbal, [with] a very slight saline tang but also sweet flavors derived from the use of bladderwrack seaweed,” says Edinburgh Gin’s head distiller, David Wilkinson.

An Upward Trajectory  

Edinburgh Gin has a bit more room for such experimentation, as the distillery expanded to a second site last year, in Leith, the city’s northern harborside district. All production of the flagship Edinburgh Gin moved to the new facility, while all the seasonals and smaller-batch releases continue to be made in the original location, in the basement of the Rutland Hotel. Founders and owners Alex and Jane Nicol opened that facility in 2014 after outsourcing to a contract distiller for the previous three years. The two locations now make it easier to manage the constantly rising demand.

Trying to keep up with such a surge is not a bad problem to have, most gin distillers would agree. The folks at Bruichladdich certainly aren’t complaining. Less than a decade ago, when they were still working out the recipe for The Botanist on scavenged equipment, they could never have foreseen such an exploding gin market in the heart of whisky country—not to mention one in which they get to produce a brand that’s growing 50 percent a year.

“The stars were in alignment,” Reavey muses. “We were in exactly the right place with exactly the right liquid, in a beautiful bottle.”   

As the current trend continues, such success stories will likely become more and more common. And that’s music to the ears of the Gin Guild’s Cook.

“So many gins,” he beams, “so little time.”

Jeff Cioletti is the author of the books The Year of Drinking Adventurously, Beer FAQ, and the upcoming The Drinkable Globe. He is the founder of the beverage travel video site The Drinkable Globe and a frequent contributor to a number of publications, including FSR Magazine and Beverage Media. Jeff is a Certified Sake Adviser and the winner of two North American Guild of Beer Writers awards.

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