Is it Gin?

Undeniably the most dynamic and fastest growing local spirits category at the moment, GIN continues to enjoy huge popularity. A 2018 report by Euromonitor International found craft spirits in SA were set for healthy growth in years to come – even if ‘increasingly obscure and radical botanical tinctures’ risked overcrowding the segment. So it’s here to stay for a long long time to come so we better start being able to identify what is gin as well as what a simple botanical spirit is.

SA distillers have definitely adopted a more disruptive unconventional approach without respecting gin’s identity as a juniper flavoured spirit which does mean the category is flooded with inferior products which are not juniper forward; and therefore not gin. Producers have to remember that gin by definition has to have a strong juniper character. No juniper character means no gin character.

We have recently tasted a number of products here in SA which call themselves gin but are actually flavoured vodkas. A neutral spirit which has either been distilled or compounded (blended) with a flavour essence or if we are lucky, actual botanicals but there is not enough juniper in the spirit to deem it worthy of being a gin. No juniper character means no gin character. I say it again!

In the UK, gin sales surged by 41 per cent last year (2018) to a record 66 million bottles, worth more than £1.9 billion. More than half the increase was due to gin laced with the taste of foodstuffs including raspberry, rhubarb, salted caramel and chocolate. But EU regulations state the main flavour must be juniper berries.

James Hayman, MD of 150-year-old gin makers Hayman’s of London, said some flavoured ones were “misleading consumers by blurring boundaries”. His firm has launched a campaign entitled: Call Time on Fake Gin. “A lot of these products are good but they’re not gin. They should be labelled as a ‘spirit drink’.” And the campaign for real gin said fake gins risked undermining the value of the drink, which must contain juniper as the prominent botanical. The Wine and Spirit Trade Association said the flavoured gin market rose 751 per cent from 2016 to 2018, driven by under-45s sales.

If you want to be able to identify good gins, you need to know what juniper tastes like. Both Pick n Pay and Woolworths now stock juniper in the spice section. I suggest you buy some and chew a few dried berries. It’s a very recognizable and identifiable flavour… sweet, piney and unmistakably juniper. This is the taste we are looking for when we taste gin. If you don’t get that taste when you try new gins, then it’s not a gin. The other botanicals (floral, spice, citrus, etc.) should be subtle- there but very much in the background. Juniper should dominate as the king of the spirit with the ‘loyal flavour profile soldiers’ honouring him subtly on the sides. That is gin!

So you lovely enthusiastic gin lovers, PLEASE educate yourselves. And if you are fortunate enough to meet a company selling a gin, ask for transparency – ask where the gin is distilled; how was it distilled; what ingredients are in the gin – it’s your money and your body so you have a right to know what you are paying for and what you are swallowing (literally and figuratively). Learn to define good gin from flavoured vodka. I am the first to agree that there is place for yummy fake tasting flavoured vodkas with tonic water. I used to have shares in those Breeze’s and Coolers when I was a young adult. It felt like a cool drink but left you with a buzz – BONUS. BUT some of these new spirits are just that – and definitely not GIN. Me thinks this is a classic case of brands capitalising on the category just because it is enjoying popularity. But it does not mean that these bottles should be named gin or featured on the same shelf as their juniper forward counterparts.
Lecture over … CHEERS!