06 July 2020, 09:38 AM
  • The artisan world of British spirits and mixers has never been more diverse or exciting. Natasha Lovell-Smith of Great British Food reports on a sector that continues to innovate despite challenges
Liquid Assets: why British spirits are looking robust in 2020

The British spirit boom has undoubtedly been one of the biggest success stories for UK food and drink in the last five years. Record-breaking statistics speak for themselves: distilleries in the UK have more than doubled from 184 to at least 441 in 2019, massively aided by the so-called ‘ginaissance’. 80 new distilleries opened last year, up by 22%. And according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA)’s latest insights, over 83 million bottles of gin were sold in the UK during 2019, a market worth around £2.6 billion, with gin sales almost doubling in value in just two years.

Despite the impact of Covid-19 on the hospitality sector and sales of spirits, the British public have unsurprisingly embraced the trend for drinking at home with gusto. Latest reports from the WSTA show gin as the best-selling spirit for online shopping since March, and Fever-Tree reported strong off-trade sales of its premium mixers during lockdown, rising 24% in April. 

The interest in British gin has also helped to fund new forays into spirit-making, with high-quality English and Welsh whisky and rums launched in recent times. “The gin market has become quite fragmented as it continually reinvents itself to stay interesting,” says Paul Sullivan head of sales and marketing at LBW Drinks Ltd, a producer that makes drinks under the Lyme Bay Winery and Jack Ratt brands. “But while demand is probably levelling out for gin, it has introduced a lot more people to spirits, providing opportunities for other categories to grow, such as rum,” he adds.

Has the gin bubble burst?
While demand for British gin is unlikely to continue to skyrocket at its current rate, the market is still enormous. Craft Gin Club, the UK’s biggest gin subscription service with over 90,000 members, report a 70% increase in membership over the past year. “Elevating the at-home drinking experience has been our mission from day one and it’s never resonated more with consumers,” says John Burke, commercial director and co-founder. “We’ve been selling the equivalent of one G&T every 1.5 seconds!” As a trend, I think at-home drinking is here to stay. A lot of people discovered it as a necessity during lockdown, but I expect many will continue to enjoy drinks from the comfort of their own homes.”

With new products being launched practically every month, where should retailers start when putting their selections together? “Never sell anything you wouldn’t drink yourself and always talk to your customers about their experience and how it can be improved. Our approach has always been to offer a curated experience. There are so many gin brands out there that it’s become difficult for consumers to find quality spirits that they truly love, so it’s up to you to guide them,” adds John.

Story-telling in a bottle
Across the board, producers report local lines, especially those with a unique story, sell well in the regions they are made; luckily for retailers there are barely any corners of the UK without a craft distillery. Multi award-winning spirit makers The Orkney Gin Company, use high quality hand-picked, home-grown and carefully-sourced seasonal ingredients, “inspired by local traditions, folklore and the unique botanicals which would have been used in local family recipes for many generations,” explains co-owner Gary Watt. The Orkney Gin Company is particularly renowned for its two seasonal gins: Johnsmas (meaning ‘mid summer’ in old Orcadian) and Mikkelmas (a spiced, silky smooth autumnal gin inspired by harvest time).

When it comes to boosting sales of any spirit, Gary believes having a varied selection of attractive varieties and passionate, knowledgeable staff is key. “Source a completely unique selection and position it next to your local products. Looks are incredibly important too and can be a real conversation starter, so I’d always suggest bringing in a few interesting-looking bottles alongside your core range. I truly believe if the shop assistant really loves the product and knows their stuff it helps sales, so educate staff about the products, particularly the local ones.”

He continues: “Ensure you have a variety of fruity, juniper-led, herbal, spiced, floral and citrusy gins. It’s always nice to get in some seasonal ones too, even if you’re only ordering a few of each to gauge how they will sell. Most small producers are very happy to send small quantities of say 6-12 units, which is very handy for cash flow,” he adds.

When it comes to sourcing local, some retailers are taking the next step by creating their own bespoke gins. Inspired by their shop’s popular gin club, Mark and Sue Billington at Scottish deli Billington’s of Lenzie developed Lenzie Gin - a London Dry made with botanicals inspired by the local landscape. “After exploring and researching the area we found that cranberry and bilberry both grow wild on local moss, so these become the leading botanicals in our gin,” explains co-owner Mark Billington. The gin has gone on to win several prestigious awards, including Scottish Gin of the Year 2019 at the Scottish Gin Awards.

Mixers matter too
And with the new flux of quality gins to the market, demand for artisan mixers has inevitably followed. “We have also noticed a huge increase in flavours from the big players as well as new artisan companies popping up,” says Mark at Billington’s of Lenzie. “I would recommend gaining a good understanding and don’t be tempted to list all the mixer flavours from all the manufacturers - unlike spirits they do have an expiry date,” he adds.

Northern supermarket chain Booths recently introduced a whole new range of mixers across their stores. Soft drinks buyer Andrew McDermott says: “We have just carried out a full range review across 500 soft drinks, including 100 mixers, of which 40% will be brand new in store.” Exciting new lines include Jeffrey’s, a small Cheshire supplier. “Rather than traditional mixers they have a range of hand crafted 200ml syrups which can be mixed with sparkling water, or sodas to create your own personalised tonic mixer.”

He continues: “Whilst mixers for gin remains the biggest category, we are seeing growth on ginger mixers that work well with dark spirits. Health remains a key driver as we see more customers choose to move into ‘lighter’ options with reduced calories, zero calories and natural ingredients.”

Rising rum
Although it has yet to reach the dizzy heights of gin, British-made rum is ‘one to watch’, according to Paul Sullivan at LBW, a distributor that also owns Lyme Bay Winery and its Lugger Rum. “Rum is growing in popularity and has huge potential as it is so versatile – it can be mixed with plenty of other drinks and is a great base in cocktails. It’s also much more varied than gin and has more of a connoisseur market, much like whisky, as it can be aged.”

For avid rum fan Darren Nugent it was the sight and smell of cane being crushed while on holiday in Cuba that set in motion a dream to build Northern Ireland’s first rum still. Darren’s Íon Distillery in County Tyrone opened in 2018. It sits on a natural spring, which provides the water to dilute black strap molasses – the flavoursome yield of a third boil of the cane juice – shipped over from the Caribbean.

“We use the best quality molasses you can get, almost 70% pure sugar,” Darren explains. “It smells divine – of burnt toffee, maple and coffee.” The distillery’s name means ‘pure’ in Irish Gaelic, so quality of ingredients and integrity of process are a source of great pride. “The most important thing was to build a still with the sole purpose of making rum,” he explains. “It’s not a general purpose still for making different types of spirit - it was built by hand, by us, to be a speciality rum still.”

Considering the complexity of making rum from scratch, many British distilleries - such as Lyme Bay Winery - opt to buy in Caribbean rum to age and flavour to their own specifications. “Most commercial spiced rums tend to be defined by an overpowering vanilla flavour. With our Lugger Rum we wanted to offer a full profile of spices instead and so we’ve aged Caribbean rum in bourbon-charred oak barrels in Devon before spicing it with nutmeg, orange-peel and cloves, as well as vanilla,” explains Paul Sullivan, at LBW.

Stand out from the crowd
One of the more unusual spirits to enter the market is Orkney Distillery’s intriguing Akvavit. “It’s the first of its kind made in Scotland,” explains co-owner Gary Watt. “Orkney used to belong to Scandinavia for many years, and Akvavit is a traditional Scandinavian drink which we came to love for its unique and complex caraway/dill flavour. We decided to take our experience in making gin to create an incredibly smooth caraway-led, zesty and herbaceous Akvavit. It’s very special to us.”

But how to market such an unusual product? “I’d have to admit that it is a concept we are not so familiar with, as it’s totally different from anything else,” continues Mark. “We like to highlight that it is like a gin, but instead of juniper it is caraway-led. Although traditionally drunk alone or with a beer in the other hand, we also really enjoy it with tonic or ginger ale, so you can really see how it would appeal to a gin drinker looking for something special. I think also you can market it to those who are interested in Orkney, Viking and Scandinavian culture,” he adds.

Paul Sullivan at LBW says POS merchandising explaining flavours and how more unusual spirits can be used is crucial. “It gives shoppers the confidence to buy a whole bottle,” he adds. “Another option is to offer miniatures – it makes it easy for customers to try before they commit to a full size bottle. Finally, sell mixers and garnishes in close proximity to the spirit - don’t just sell product, upsell product!”

The Great British Food Awards are championing the very best food and drink hailing from the UK, and entries are open until 13th July. To find out more, click here.

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