Irish Gin will Need More than Interesting Botanicals for its Success Story to Continue
Last month the Irish Spirits Association (ISA) officially confirmed what the even the most casual drinker has known for some time now: that in the last few years the popularity of gin in Ireland has gone gangbusters.
This welcome – though not exactly surprising – information came via the ISA’s first-ever industry and market report on Irish spirits, “Ireland’s Spirit Industry”. It showed that gin is the fastest-growing spirits category among Irish consumers, growing by 31.6% year-on-year in 2016, with strong growth noted for the first half of 2017 too.
Tucked away on the ISA website is another incredible – but again not unbelieveable – fact that there are now over 30 Irish gin brands available commercially. A quick peek on the shelves and websites of retailers such as Celtic Whiskey Shop and O’Briens Wine would attest readily to this fact.
Such is the exponential growth of the sector that the ISA established in August an Irish gin ‘working group’ to provide a unified voice for the rapidly-growing sector. Chaired by Pat Rigney, Managing Director of The Shed Distillery (known for its Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin), the group agreed that their number one priority was to support the creation of a legally-recognised standard for Irish gin, in addition to issues such as taxation, regulation, and more.
The Devil in the Details
Though obviously this news is very welcome, a deeper dive into the figures reveals that the celebration is not without a few caveats.
In terms of Irish gin alone, the increase in sales in 2016 was 29.26% versus 2015. However, when 2016 is compared to 2012 – the earliest data in the report – the increase is only 8.4%.
Both 2013 and 2014 saw a decrease in gin sales versus the previous year, before finally resigning with 2012 levels in 2015, and from there taking off exponentially in 2016 to deliver the headline-grabbing percentages we see today.
On a similar note, in 2012 the share of market was almost exactly equally split between Irish and international gin brands, but by 2016 foreign labels sold 68% more gin than domestic ones, shifting the share to a little over 60/40 in their favour.
Of course, international brands have huge economies of scale, established supply chains and aggressive pricing tactics on their side, so a more dominant position in any market is to be expected. But for Irish brands to go from equal footing before the craft distilling boom, to lagging behind despite massive interest in home-grown spirits, is a curious situation.
Given the report was released a few days before going to press, I haven’t been able to find out the reasoning behind the two statistical oddities above. But whatever way you cut the figures, you cannot hide that it’s a good time to be an Irish gin brand – just don’t let the topline numbers lull us into a false sense of security: there’s still much work to be done for Irish gin yet.
Deeper Into the Rabbit Hole
It seems like only a couple of years ago when locally-foraged botanicals were the height of sophistication and the cutting-edge of Irish gins. In a market where international brands were touting their exotic ingredients from far-flung destinations, the likes of Glendalough, Dingle, Blackwater, and others made a point of difference by opting for mostly home-grown botanicals often sourced from within a few kilometres of the distillery (with the exception of course of those ingredients not readily available in Ireland, such as juniper berries, orris root, etc.).
But with the rapid rise of the popularity of gin, so too came the need for a unique selling proposition (USP).
Perhaps the most eye-catching new entrant to the gin world in recent years is Bertha’s Revenge, a Cork gin with a base distilled from milk whey and finished with “lovely spices like cardamom and cumin and cloves”. Normally the base spirit for gins is made from grains, usually barley and wheat, but given gin’s lax definition it could be made from almost anything, as Bertha’s Revenge proves. You can read our profile on Ballyvolane House Spirits Company and their Bertha’s Revenge Gin.
Other producers have also made unusual base spirits their calling card, most notably Highbank’s Organic Crystal Irish Gin which uses organic apples from their farm in Kilkenny, but also Cork’s St Patrick’s Gin which distills potatoes for its spirit.
There is also a burgeoning trend for what I might call ‘spotlight ingredient’ gins. Simple examples of these are those infused with common local Irish fruit, such as Blackwater Distillery’s Wexford Strawberry and ‘Hedgerow’ Gins, with the latter consisting of a blend of sloes, damsons, crab apples and blackberries. County Down distillery Copeland Spirits has made these ‘ginfusions’ their calling card, with Raspberry & Mint and “Rhuberry” two of their offerings.
There are more offbeat expressions too: take, for example, Glendalough Distillery’s Beech Leaf Gin, or indeed their even more weird Dillisk Gin which is made with the eponymous seaweed found extensively on Ireland’s coast, and it’s also an ingredient included in the new Galway Gin.
But if that’s not Irish enough for you, then pick up a bottle of The Exiles, which is “uniquely infused with shamrock”, no less, as well as “red clover flowers, honeysuckle flowers, rowan berries and bog myrtle.” Begorrah!
Far and Away
As venerable as these ultra-Irish gins are, there is perhaps the risk of and the market becoming insular and over-crowded; thus there has been a perceptible pivot away from Irish ingredients while still maintaining a very local flavour.
Most notable is The Shed Distillery’s distinctive Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin, which marked its arrival on the increasingly navel-gazing Irish scene with a distinctly exotic proposition. It marked itself out from the offset, resplendent in a vibrant blue, corrugated bottled, with Chinese lettering on the label alongside the mythical “jackalope” creature.
It’s made using ‘oriental’ botanicals such as Chinese lemon, kaffir lime, cardamom, star anise, and more – as well as the namesake gunpowder tea – and apart from being distilled in Leitrim and including the single local ingredient of meadowsweet, it’s quite a turn away from the localised gins we’ve become used to.
The Shed have extended this concept into their more recently-released Von Hallers Gin. Though the Oriental botanicals of Drumshanbo may not be new in the world of gin, Von Hallers is a somewhat more unusual German-Irish collaboration, with ginger, lemon verbena and halleria coming from the Old Botanical Garden of Göttingen University in Germany (the project is more than a nod to the famous Monkey 47).
So could the next wave of gins be Irish takes on foreign ingredients? Are we looking at Irish ‘fusion’ gins?
The Next Big Thing
It’s a dangerous thing to try and predict any trend, but nevertheless I thought I’d put Gary McLoughlin, Sales & Marketing Director at Glendalough Distillery, on the spot and pick his brain about where the gin market might be going in Ireland.
“The recent explosion of interest in Irish gin has been fantastic. There are now 33 brands on Irish shelves and pretty much every one is run by very passionate people who may have given up everything to pursue their dream of making the perfect gin. This has lead to the wide array of specialised and niche gins on our shelves. Innovation is always so important and so every new and interesting gin is a worthwhile addition.”
However, he points out that “these gins are usually in the super premium category and very much for gin connoisseurs. Commercially, the bulk of the market is still with the Friday night G&T-drinkers who now demand premium gins, but not necessarily with weird or niche flavours. It’s this consumer which will drive the market in Ireland”
Gary roughly compares the gin market today with the Irish whiskey market, who for 50 years or so used only ex-Bourbon barrels in their finish. Now, of course, their is a wide array of finishes, from Port and Sherry to Bordeaux wine barrels. These specialised expressions are welcome and necessary, but pop into any bar on a Friday and Saturday night and the whiskeys poured the most will not be ultra-premium slow sippers.
As such, gin is going through a similar period of experimentation and innovation. Gary in particular pointed out British distiller Warner Edwards and their range of gins: Harrington’s Honeybee Gin, Victoria’s Rhubarb Gin, and Harrington’s Elderflower Gin amongst more prosaic expressions. Perhaps this is the direction the market is going?
And as for Glendalough Distillery themselves – any exciting new gin on the way? “If we let Geraldine [their forager] and Roddy [their stillman] have their way, we’d have a new gin every week! But Geraldine had one expression in particular she always wanted to try: Blackberry & Wild Heather. I’m glad to say we’ve almost finalised the final recipe and it will be on shelves in the first half of next year.”
Glendalough Wild Botanical Gin
From €37 – Available at O’Brien’s, Mitchell & Son, Celtic Whiskey Shop, WineOnline
Unashamedly my favourite Irish gin – or even my favourite gin full stop, given its unbeatable price-quality ratio. It never disappoints with its hedonistic, ultra-fresh, balanced and expressive wild Irish foraged botanicals. The price is a winner too, punching above its weight and easily beating others €10+ more expensive.
Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin
From €49 – Available at O’Brien’s, Mitchell & Son, Celtic Whiskey Shop
Very distinct, with a smokiness attributable to the gunpowder tea overlaid with exotic cardamom, star anise and caraway seed flavours.
€50 – Available at O’Brien’s, Mitchell & Son, Celtic Whiskey Shop
Maybe a sop, this one, given it’s made almost within sight of my family home in Cork. But in a market that’s seeing gins becoming more outlandish for the sake of it, Bertha’s Revenge is genuinely a worthwhile curiosity.
The milk-based spirit really does provide a creaminess to the end product, which is offset by pleasingly refreshing citrus and some spicy notes.
When not writing for TheTaste.ie, Richie Magnier blogs at themotleycru.com and shares his thoughts via @RichieMagnier on Twitter. Don’t ask him what his favourite wine is though – that’s like asking what his favourite song is (although the latter would most likely involve U2).
Richie is also an avid food lover willing to give an opportunity to all cuisines: instead of getting carried away by trends or gimmicks, he cares about real food, that’s tasty and made with pride. Richie has been involved in the wine industry since 2008 and is currently studying the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines & Spirits.