Why the future of gin is looking brighter than ever

The rise in the number of gin distilleries – and drinkers – in the UK and beyond has been swift and massive, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down any time soon. We investigate the enduring appeal of the spirit of the decade

I first visited Sipsmith's distillery in Hammersmith six years, five gins and 65 employees ago. It was 2013, and I was writing a feature about the gin revolution then taking place, in large part thanks to the founders Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall and their tireless efforts to change licensing law. Their being granted a license to distill gin in small batches paved the way for hundreds of craft distilleries to set up across the UK: when Sipsmith started, there were but a handful of stills; in 2013, there were about 150. In 2018 HMRC recorded 361 distilleries across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The revolution has been standardised and, far from receding, recent figures suggest more of us are drinking more gin than ever before.

This is not just a UK phenomenon. According to last month's analysis by the International Wine and Spirits Record, the largest gain in global beverage alcohol consumption in 2018 was in the gin category, which posted a total growth of 8.3% compared to 2017.

"It has been popular for a decade – and it is not relenting in any way," says Chesca Torlot, who worked for Sipsmith when there were just four employees and who, like me, can't quite believe they're still thriving. It was Torlot who took me round their single still back in 2013: "now we've three stills and six distillers – so we still make it in the same uncompromising way we did at the beginning. We just make a lot more."

The revolution has been standardised and more of us are drinking more gin than ever before

Torlot attributes Sipsmith's success to the craft nature of its process. "You have to stay true to what you do. It's authenticity that makes for a good brand long term, and as technology takes over our lives that idea of craft will become more and more important." Yet with big distilleries, like big breweries, cottoning on to the 'craft' pound and incorporating the word into new, arms-length releases, is there a risk that true artisans will start to struggle in a saturated market, and gin will once again go to the back of the bar?

No. That's the short answer, according to five distilleries, a – well, the – tonic producer, and a trend forecaster who expects more gin not just from Britain, but from all four corners. "We have already seen creative flavours aplenty – there are gins being distilled with the likes of earl grey tea, gingerbread, lavender, you name it," says Shokofeh Hejazi, senior trend analyst at The Food People. "We will also see bottles hitting shelves from countries that aren't traditionally known for producing gin – like Japan, India and Taiwan." We'll see more gin like Manly Spirits Australian Dry Gin, or Malfy from the Amalfi Coast, which "combine gin's signature flavours while evoking the taste of the Australian coastline or Italian seaside," predicts Fever-Tree's gin genius Craig Harper. And we'll see more varied mixers, like the Fever-Tree Mediterranean tonic he recommends for the Malfy, or their Sicilian lemon tonic, which renders Sipsmith's autumnal sloe gin into a sip of summer when piled high with ice and a slice of lemon.

Sacred Spirits

Sacred Spirits are just one of the gin distilleries experimenting with flavour profiles 

And yet: a word of caution to any gin lover wondering if they should invest aunt Gertrude's legacy in a copper still: those halcyon days are numbered. "I don't think it is enough to come up with a slightly random recipe, bottle it with a nice label and expect to make it nowadays," says Ian Hart, the founder of Sacred Spirits in Highgate. "You have to be more innovative than that." For his own part, this means vacuum distillation and a library of botanicals macerated in wheat spirit that are distilled separately so he can experiment with flavour profiles. He anticipates more flavoured gins – he himself has eight – but also sees gin producers diversifying into other spirits. "We have two vodkas, a vermouth, a whisky liqueur and a rosehip cup, which is like a Campari," he tells me. The advantage of having a still is that vodka, flavoured gins and gin-based liquers are an easy transition. He doesn't see gin disappearing, but he does eventually expect "a tipping point" wherein small producers either struggle, get swept up into larger brands, or choose to confine themselves to their own local market share.

This last one is already happening. Much is made of gin's debt to craft beer, and the latter has firmly gone in the local direction (as my allegiance to Hammerton N1 is testament to). Now brands like East London Liquor Company, Marylebone Gin and – outside of London – Psychopomp distillery in Bristol are putting their stakes in the ground when it comes to local markets. "Regionality is a big thing. People feel patriotic to the city or region they live in – and then when people travel, they want something that reflects the area they are visiting," observes Psychopomp's Danny Walker. He has no aspirations of national influence: "we are happy as a small independent in our little distillery on the hill."

With local sway comes regular buyers, drinkers and feedback. "I think the biggest lessons the gin industry's taken from craft beer is to focus on provenance and your local market first and foremost. People want to go to their local brewery or distillery and enjoy something made in their backyard that they can see being made," says Tom Hills of East London Liquor Company.

Then there's the advantage of what Walker calls "drink tourism": "Historically people would go to another city and drink local beer, local wine – now they drink local gin. They visit distilleries and meet the distillers. The people are part of the story," he enthuses, "and drinkers want to get inside it."

The founders of East London Liquor Company

"I think the big thing that has helped gin's growth is the knowledge base of gin drinkers," Hills agrees. Like breweries, some distilleries have been going – or should it be exploring? – the extra mile to reflect their locality, using botanicals that are locally foraged and distilled in situ. The Botanist is a prime example, distilled from 22 types of berries, barks, seeds and peels found on the Isle of Islay in Scotland. Down in Dartmoor Distillery, the Devon Artisan Gin is distilled from botanicals found among the ponies on the windswept moors.

The popularity of these and international gins like the aforementioned Malfy suggest there's an appetite for this not only among the distillery's surrounding population, but among those who, on a wet day in London, quite fancy a hit of Amalfi lemons and wild Italian juniper; who, like my dad, dream of the Scottish Highlands after an hour on the Metropolitan line. They divide opinion, but Harper of Fever-Tree argues gin will increasingly be "not just about London Drys and juniper heavy flavours – people are now looking for brands whose liquid reflects terroir and surrounding culture." Like wine, gin has the power to transport the drinker simply through the powers of taste and smell.

London Drys, particularly those London Drys made in London (they don't have to be) have nothing to fear in this, says Hart. Theirs is an increasingly international market. "Since 2016 a third of Sacred's sales have been exports. We have importers and distributors across Europe, and in Canada, Thailand, Cuba, Zanzibar and Japan." Sure, these countries are increasingly experimenting with their own distilleries, but "we've an advantage being British, and from London in particular." "Globally I think the idea that London Dry gin must be rooted in London has more power than it does here," agrees Torlot. "It's why Sipsmith are so proud of bringing craft gin back to London." Like France with sparkling wine, Italy with pasta or Scotland with whisky, "we'll always be at the forefront of the world's gin production." There's a whisky producer in almost every country in the world, Walker points out, "but Scotch will always be Scotch."

For his part and the part of Psychopomp distillery, it is not exporting gin but importing new botanicals that's exciting. For some years now they've been producing bespoke gins for restaurants in Bristol and further afield, to "tell the story of their restaurant, and together with their music and lighting help evoke the atmosphere they want to create." They produced a gin for a local Indian restaurant recently, distilled with characteristic spices. "Sometimes we design to pair with the food, sometimes it's an aperitif to serve on arrival." Their biggest job, which they designed for Honest Burgers, was gin with botanicals of grapefruit, dill and cucumber: a perfect precursor to their famous patties laden with housemade pickles and relish.

One of the reasons craft gin has proved so robust, argues Walker, is because it's quick and easy to tweak and tailor. "There isn't really another spirit category in which you can commission your own product so easily. With gin, it's a matter of days before it can be on the market" – enabling experimentation, make your own gin experiences and bespoke offerings for anything from hotels and restaurants to events.

One of the reasons craft gin has proved so robust is because it's quick and easy to tweak and tailor

For Hejazi, the trends analyst, experimentation is where the future lies. "Distilleries will continue to experiment with distillation techniques and barrel ageing, for instance, to increase depth of flavour. They will also get more and more creative with the flavours and botanicals they use, to create new and unexpected flavour profiles" – something distilleries have barely scraped the surface of, Hart explains. "Gin is essentially a method of carrying botanicals into your palate. It is as dramatically broad and at least as wide as the whole gastronomical universe – more interesting than wine," he continues boldly. "There are only about ten or 15 major grape types, with hundreds of sub varieties, which you get from the soil. There are, roughly speaking, half a million known botanicals out there." That's before you get to barrel ageing – something that the East London Liquor company are pioneers of, with their gins aged in ex-sherry and bourbon barrels – and techniques like vacuum distillation and using rotary evaporators to extract botanicals rather than the traditional pot still.

If wine can evolve and remain relevant and interesting over the course of millennia, then we shouldn't worry about gin, seems to be Hart's message – and the statistics support him. The most recent report, from the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, revealed a record 73 million bottles of the drink were sold in 2018. Though some put it down to the endless summer and its obligatory roll of picnics and barbecues, in the run up to Christmas sales of gin were up by 40% in comparison to 2017. "It's that versatility piece," says Torlot. "If you like dry, you can get dry. If you want sweet you can have sweet. And there are so many ways to drink it, these days" – be it in a gin-based cocktail, straight up, or paired one of Fever-Tree's flavoured mixers which – quite unlike wine – provide an entry point for gin-sceptics. "It's hard not to sound like we're blowing our own trumpet here," jokes Harper, "but the role [of Fever-Tree in gin's resurgence] really has been key."

"Some look at Fever-Tree and say, lucky timing – but they were part and parcel of it," says Walker. "They made it accessible." Their range and quality of mixers combined with a growing variety of gin flavour profiles means almost everyone has been able to find 'their' gin. "What's been so interesting about gin's growth is that it's been in every demographic: age, gender, financial status – every category is seeing growth upon growth," he continues. "There was a point when gin was gendered and aged, but that has gone completely out the window." This is down to societal change, he acknowledges – after all, 'brosé' is a thing and far more women drink pints now – but it's also because "gin is so wildly varied. You have juniper-forward, strong gins served with Indian tonic for a hardcore option, but someone who might previously go for alcopops could order elderflower tonic and a pink strawberry gin."

Were craft gin to continue to follow in craft beer's footsteps, we could expect to see a slowing down of new openings, continued innovation in flavours and ages, and a greater drive toward sustainable production, a la Toast and Four Pure. There are signs of the latter, with renewable power, heat recovery systems, zero-waste drives and community ventures marking many distilleries in Scotland and, most famously, in Southwold with Adnams distillery, but they are a way off matching brewers in that league. I wonder if gin pairing menus are on the horizon: this, after all, is something brewers (and beer-loving chefs) have pioneered in recent years, but Hart is sceptical. "I think culturally it will be an uphill struggle to serve gin in a classic meal time setting. People are accustomed to wine and beer with their roast lamb – though I have been distilling with fresh garden mint recently, which I think is complimentary!"

There's the odd gin pairing supper club – courtesy of Sipsmith, largely, who have in the past teamed up with restaurants Gymkhana and Peyton and Byrne – but gin pairing menus remain very much the exception. What such events highlight, however, is the incredible experiential value of gin. As well as supper clubs, Sipsmith have a subscription club, whereby some 1,000 members provide feedback on potential new flavours. Distilleries across the country do distillery tours and tasting events, harnessing the allure of potion making and the shimmering beauty of a copper still.

"Gin isn't going anywhere," says Harper. "That's not to say we're resting on our laurels here at Fever-Tree. We believe long, mixed drinks are the future across the spirits industry, not just gin, and recently released a tonic in collaboration with Patron tequila." But when it comes to a drink that can be made in your hometown and you can watch being made in your hometown, yet which can, through myriad botanicals, evoke anywhere from your local field to the Philippines, Holland's liquid courage and our mother's ruin – that's truly unique.