What is the difference between gin and flavoured vodka? That should be an easy question to answer.
But some of the drinks industry’s older heads have voiced concern that gin without juniper berries, or lacking in juniper character, is on the rise.
Recently we have started to see some producers marketing gins that have little or no evident connection to juniper. While botanical innovation and experimentation has long been linked to gin’s success, we believe that a small number of producers are today creating spirits that have strayed too far from what makes gin ‘gin’.
Sipsmith Gin co-founder Fairfax Hall is another distiller who has taken up the fight against gin without juniper.
Drinks Adventures caught up with Fairfax for a chat about all things gin in Sydney earlier this year.
Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Cameo Culture. You can listen to more from Cameo Culture at https://soundcloud.com/cameoculture.
Gin without juniper is flavoured vodka, says Fairfax Hall of Sipsmith: Transcript
JAMES ATKINSON: Hi, James Atkinson here and welcome to this second episode of Drinks Adventures. This week: When is a gin not a gin?
If you haven’t noticed, we’re in the midst of a global gin boom at present. London’s Sipsmith Distillery has been at the forefront of this boom, and when it launched in 2009 it was the first copper-pot distillery to open within London’s city limits in nearly two centuries.
Sipsmith began exporting to Australia in 2012 and at the time there were next to no other craft gins being distilled locally. Six years later, it’s a very different story, with well in excess of 100 distilleries operating and almost all of them making gin in some form or another.
And sales of some of these locally made gins are surging. I’ve seen recent stats showing the leading Australian brand, Four Pillars Gin grew 92 per cent last year, while Archie Rose Gin grew 122 per cent and the market for premium gin – which is defined as being more than $50 a bottle – is now double the size of the premium vodka category in Australia.
So there’s a huge amount to be positive about for gin overall. But some of the established distillers have expressed concern that a lot of the new products coming onto the market labelled as gin are not actually gin at all.
One of them is Fairfax Hall, who worked at the world’s largest spirits company Diageo prior to co-founding Sipsmith in 2009 with his childhood friend Sam Galsworthy and master distiller Jared Brown. It’s been an incredibly successful partnership, in 2016 the founders sold a controlling stake in Sipsmith to another global spirits giant, Beam Suntory.
Both Fairfax and Sam are still very active in the business. Fairfax was in Australia for the relaunch of Sipsmith under Beam Suntory earlier this year and we caught up for a chat about all things gin in a busy cafe in Sydney.
Stick around after the interview to find out how to win a Sipsmith prize. I started by asking Fairfax what’s changed in the world of gin since 2012, when Sipsmith first became available in Australia.
FAIRFAX HALL: It’s been the most amazing time, so if you think that in 2009 when Sipsmith launched in London it was the first distillery in London since 1823 to actually open, which is amazing in itself actually, frankly, that there hadn’t been a distillery for quite so long. In the last few years, over 300 distilleries have opened in the U.K. – 26 other distilleries in London alone. I mean it has just become absolutely crazy, you know, the world is going mad for gin and the same thing’s happening in different countries all over the world. Coming here to Australia, we launched on the market I guess in 2011 and there were just a handful of gins – we were certainly the first craft gin in the market. Coming back here now, it’s been amazing. Walking into just a a great average neighbourhood bar and they’ve got a list of Australian gins the entire page and then a list of international gins the entire page, and I gather there’s over 100 distilleries now in Australia alone – is that right?
JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah easily yeah.
FAIRFAX HALL: It’s absolutely amazing, I mean in one sense it’s fantastic. We like to think we helped kind of pioneer a bit of a renaissance in the gin category and lead the way in showing the way forward in terms of what you could do with craft and specifically in the gin world. But, there is a danger at the same time now that as each new distillery launches and creates another gin brand, they’re clutching at, what is going to define my gin brand, what’s going to make it different? And because there are so many other ones on the market and so many other distilleries that preceded them they’re trying to define it by putting even more weird, wonderful local botanicals that no one has ever thought of before to put in there. And then the danger is that actually that starts not to taste very much like gin. Because frankly gin should be juniper-forward, it should have a good balance. Yes, you can put other flavours in there but after all, when we walk into a bar and we want to have a gin and tonic or a gin cocktail we go in with expectations and an idea in our head roughly what that’s going to taste like. If that gin is completely off the charts in terms of flavour profile then you’re going to get a very different drink experience and you know that could be good but it also could be quite damaging for the category. I think there’s a little bit of work to do around reformulating what this category is and how to define it, because it’s not going to work to make it just on a local basis. What does ‘American gin’ or ‘Australian gin’ or frankly even just ‘English gin’ mean? It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Look at those hundreds of gins coming out of Australia; some might be very spicy, some might be very floral, some might have local botanicals, some might not have any local botanicals. They might be much more like a London Dry Gin. So I think there’s a little bit of work that needs to happen to help all of us over the coming years understand where is gin going and what is it, and certainly we see Sipsmith as squarely in the middle as that benchmark classic London Dry Gin. We had the advantage of being out there at the beginning so we didn’t have to do anything weird and wonderful. In fact Jared Brown, who you’ve met, he was insistent that when we started, we inherited 200 years of history and we damn well better make it the same way the 18th century distillers would have made it – the same style, same botanicals, nothing unusual. That effectively I think is the definition of the quintessential benchmark classic London Dry Gin. And then from that, you have then themes and variations, you might have a really lovely spicy balance to your gin. And we’ve done that ourselves, the 1915 Raffles Gin for example uses local botanicals from the Malay basin. It’s got lemongrass in there, it’s got mace, it is quite spicy. You know, these these are things that are not classic botanicals, and there’s a reason for it. But you need to know that that’s a spicy gin before you dive on into it otherwise you going to potentially be disappointed.
Gin without juniper
JAMES ATKINSON: And is it that extreme that you’re seeing some of the gins that are on the market now that actually doesn’t really taste like gin?
FAIRFAX HALL: Absolutely. And I think that is where the category itself is in danger potentially of getting a little bit lost you know as the market explodes and as it proliferates. There’s a great place like The Barber Shop, I think they said last night they’ve got something like 700-odd gins. I mean that’s incredible isn’t it? You know, they might have been if not the number one in the world, the number two in the world. I think there might have been some place in Singapore that had over a thousand different gins. I mean how do you navigate that? As I say, you can’t do that just by kind of going, hey you know I’m going to pick pick a South African one or an English one or an Australian one? You kind of want to know what you’re getting into. Are you going for a floral one, are you going for a traditional classic one? What is it? If this carries on, and it is wonderful that we get all the choice for the consumers, it’s fantastic. You get more choice, you get wonderful craft distilleries opening all over the place. But there needs to be some kind of holding on to what actually ‘gin’ means. Otherwise it’s going to end up just like flavoured vodka. Look at the whisky category, for example you know the single malts. There are a myriad of different flavours out there within the single malt category from the super peaty kind of Laphroiag to the softer Speysides, there’s tons of difference within the category and people understand it because they can kind of navigate around it. Now within that there might be good ones and bad ones, and to a degree that’s subjective obviously, but they still have a kind of reason to exist. So I think as long as gin holds on to its roots and remembers that it’s gin for a reason, that comes with it a certain responsibility to make it with juniper as the leading ingredient then I think you know the category can expand and have floral, spicy, different kind of flavours that you can experiment with. It’s like theme, and variations off that theme.
JAMES ATKINSON: You’ve mentioned the number of gins that are on the market in Australia now and obviously Sipsmith’s relaunching. What do you see as being the place in the market for Sipsmith now that there’s so much other competition if you will?
FAIRFAX HALL: We played that sort of role of the Renaissance brand, you know bringing gin back and then I suppose the pioneer helping drive the category forward and I think now really our role is to kind of help define this category and be that benchmark gin because gin, of all categories of spirits, is unusual and potentially even unique in that you can actually define a time in history a place in history and a specific set of botanicals and flavour profile where gin was born. You know it was London in the 1700s with the botanicals that are well documented that were used then and a production methodology and that’s kind of very much what we brought back with Sipsmith. So effectively we represent that benchmark of True North of like, that is classic gin. And then from that if people understand that then that’s awesome because then they can go, ‘and now I want to try a really spicy one’. It happens to come from Australia, great, but also they might want to try a really spicy one that happens to come from Spain or from South Africa or they might want to try a really floral one that comes from Australia. Or they might want to try a kind of Australian iteration on that central classic theme of a London Dry Gin. And that’s great. But I think the role for Sipsmith is to help people both in the bar trade and just consumers to understand how to navigate the gin category.
JAMES ATKINSON: Did that benchmark of a true classic London Dry Gin already exists though with some of the mainstream established brands that were around at the time when Sipsmith launched?
FAIRFAX HALL: It really didn’t actually. And that was very much Jared’s insistence when we launched, he was like ‘right guys, you know I’m only getting involved if that’s what we’re going to do’, because we’re inheriting 200 years of history and there were no distilleries doing it in London in the birthplace of gin in the way that it was made with the sweeter botanicals that wouldn’t have been a surprise to the 18th century distillers, so it was very much, let’s bring that back and let’s remember that that’s what we really represent and then yeah we can have some fun we can do a crazy VJOP Gin you know like I said – like running naked through a pine forest, that’s quite fun. Let’s have our sloe gin, we’ve got the London Cup you know, fantastic. But the key thing is to actually have that kind of benchmark gin.
JAMES ATKINSON: What would have been the difference between those existing brands that were on the market and what Sipsmith brought to market in terms of their approach to London Dry Gin?
FAIRFAX HALL: Two main things; one, location and that is a little emotional thing. So with the proliferation of gins in the 1700s the government then cracked down on it and they took all the little distilleries and forced all that whole industry into the hands of a few big players. Those big players then as a result became so successful that they left London seeking lower ground rent. So all the big distilleries with the exception of one of them were gone, so no longer in the birthplace of gin. From a flavour profile and the style they’d also become so successful they were selling millions of cases and they had decided or landed on a new method of production that, rather than putting the amount of botanicals they need into their still, distilling it and then bottling it as gin, they were putting a supercharged amount of botanicals into the still, creating a gin concentrate and then blending that gin concentrate with neutral alcohol – that makes it much more operationally effective, but it’s different to the way it would have originally been made. And I think that production method was one of the things that really defines Sipsmith is bringing it back and now it’s something that a lot of the other craft gins are doing as well because it does give you a little difference in terms of the intensity of flavour and the smoothness and the character of the liquid. It’s much more difficult to make it consistent from batch to batch but you know what? That’s why you buy a craft gin, and we celebrate that. You can still tell it’s a Sipsmith Gin but if you’ve got a great palate like I’m sure you do, you try one from a batch in the winter and you try one for a batch in the summer. They’re going to have little nuances and we celebrate that character by putting the batch number on the back of every bottle to say, ‘hey look, we’re proud of the character in each bottle’.
JAMES ATKINSON: Do you adjust the recipe at all to account for seasonality of ingredients and that sort of stuff?
FAIRFAX HALL: No, no. We rely on the skill of the distillers and actually that’s why we have a team of seven distillers for only four stills and that’s probably more distillers than some of the biggest brands on the market in the world that use computers and automation. We believe in people, you know we like to think our guys can taste, sniff, check the juniper each season, select the right stuff that has the right balance of oils – not too big, not too oily, not too small and pebbly. You know you need that right amount of oil and the right flavour profile, so take selecting the ingredients very carefully, very seriously and then every single batch is still cut by hand. So the guys stand in front of the stills at the magic moment nosing it, tasting it checking when to cut and like I say you know when the distillery is minus five degrees celsius like it is at the moment in the UK with the ‘Beast from the East’, the botanicals are sitting in the still macerating for probably an hour longer than they would be in the summer when it’s 36 degrees in the distillery. So you simply can’t use a pre-prescribed timeframe, you have to stand there and go ‘wow, okay it’s coming over already. Is now the moment to cut or is it not? How long do I leave it? And that is just done by taste.
JAMES ATKINSON: Are you seeing any bars going down that road of segmenting their gin lists around their attributes, be they spicy, floral, sweet? Is that something that can be done at the point of service?
FAIRFAX HALL: I think it definitely could. I haven’t actually seen it yet but I think I think it will – I hope that’s where it will end up. If you look at the wine list these days, some of the best wine lists, the ones which are the easiest to navigate are the ones that tell you like a sommelier would, do you want a robust rich red? Do you want a light fruity red? What are you after? And you go, ‘yeah actually I’m in the mood for something quite light or I’m in the mood for something classic’. Just telling you it’s a French red or an Australian red is not going to necessarily help you out, is it?
At the moment it feels to me like, because it’s still relatively new and it’s boomed so quickly, the bars are still actually segmenting by geography. But as I say, I’m not sure that’s actually adding much to the consumers experience in terms of understanding what that actually means. There’s a huge job then for the bartenders to do to then explain within that list what those flavour profiles are and that that can only become more challenging for them as more gins come onto the market. So yeah I reckon a logical next step is to actually start segmenting the list by classicism or spice or fruit or…
JAMES ATKINSON: Is a sustainable do you think, the number of distillery openings that you’re seeing in the UK at the moment?
FAIRFAX HALL: I think it totally depends what the aspiration of the guys opening the distillery is. If someone is opening a new distillery this year and their aspiration is to make a few hundred cases and sell it in their local area and have a very strong local play, could they make that work? Absolutely, I’m sure they could and there’s a great rationale for that. If they’re opening that distillery thinking that in two years’ time they’re going to be selling it in all four corners of the world, I think they’re probably mistaken because in all four corners of the world, there’s hundreds of guys opening their own little distilleries and what is giving that new distillery the right to cut through and export? So I think yes, we’ll carry on seeing a massive proliferation of distilleries, and I think that’s great in a certain sense. But will those new distilleries make it beyond on a certain scale? I very much doubt it.
JAMES ATKINSON: How has the on-premise changed in the time Sipsmith has been in existence, just in terms of the styles of venues and the sort of drinks that they’re making?
FAIRFAX HALL: We’ve certainly seen a reversion to what you might call classicism, so stripping out some of the faff – you know, making it much more simple. Removing the number of different ingredients. Jared loves to talk about a fantastic woman Audrey Saunders who is one of the real mavens of the cocktail scene in New York, who used to set her bartenders a challenge. When they came up with a new drink, she would never let them have more than four ingredients. When they had their four ingredients and they presented the drink to her, she’d say ‘right, now take one of them out and make it for me again’. And that was the challenge, you know had to be able to kind of make that drink really well with just three ingredients, even though it was meant to be made with four. And I think that’s one of the things that we’re definitely seeing. Stripping it down, making it classic, just really good strong options.
JAMES ATKINSON: You mentioned earlier some of the innovation that Sipmith’s had with some of the special products. Maybe you could just talk about the maple and the strawberries and cream and where you see those types of products fitting within the broader gin category?
FAIRFAX HALL: I think we definitely see it as a bit of fun and something for our distilling team led by Jared and Olly to express their creativity and as I say, cater to a frankly very small group of consumers who are what you might call ‘super gin aficionados’. We very much hang onto the fact that our London Dry is our core product and frankly something like 90 something per cent of everything that we sell is just our classic London Dry. Because actually, the vast, vast majority of people who are drinking gin. They just want a great gin experience and that is not too weird and wacky and wonderful. It’s just a really great classic London Dry Gin. But, there are a few super gin aficionados who want different experiences that you can’t get out of that classic London Dry Gin and our creative distilling team love coming up with new weird and wonderful wacky ideas. So we have a gin subscription club at the moment uniquely in the UK called the Sipping Society. People sign up, we’ve got about somewhere between 500 and 1000 members I think. They pay an annual subscription and every couple of months they get two bespoke gins that are uniquely available through that sipping society. In the last one we had a Black Maple Gin liqueur to go for pancake day – that was absolutely fantastic. Last summer we had a Strawberries and Cream Gin for Wimbledon – absolutely knock out. Every now and again, and it’s happened to us once so far, we had a product that the society then felt so strongly about they begged us to make more and release it. We had this Lemon Drizzle Gin and it was so successful that they just really really wanted more, so we ended up making a limited edition 50cl bottle and bringing it out for sale through supermarkets in the UK and it’s been staggeringly successful, but tricky to make.
JAMES ATKINSON: With what we were talking about before about making sure that the category is well-defined, how do those products work with that? Is it about the way that you label them and the way that you tell the story of those products versus your core range?
FAIRFAX HALL: That’s it, exactly. It works for us because it’s in what you might call a closely held environment. So it’s catering to a very small, very well-informed group of people who have very specifically signed up to a subscription society that they’re looking for weird, wonderful flavour profiles but these are super sophisticated gin users, they already absolutely get what gin is, where that ‘true north’ is they understand London Dry and the gin category and they understand that they’re branching away from that. On the flipside, if you go down to somewhere like Spain where there’s this proliferation of gin lists with crazy flavours, loads of different tonics and mixers you get someone who says ‘hey I really like gin and tonic’. Well they don’t actually necessary like a gin and tonic. They think they do, but what they’re drinking is a Raspberry Gin Liqueur with a sweet lemonade and it’s being called a gin and tonic. So then they come to another market and go, ‘oh hey I’ll have a gin and tonic’ and they get a classic gin and tonic and it’s nothing like the drink they’ve been drinking and I think that’s the danger.
JAMES ATKINSON: That was Fairfax Hall from Sipsmith and I apologise at the somewhat abrupt ending to that interview, which was recorded before I had conceived the idea of this podcast.
As mentioned last week, I’d really love it if you could leave an honest review and a rating for the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, which is really important to moving us up the rankings.
This will in turn help me make more great content and get it out to more people. I’ve got another prize for the ‘review of the week’ – a bottle of Sipsmith London Dry Gin thanks to Beam Suntory.
I believe that in the case of Stitcher you can’t actually leave a review via the app, you’ll have to go to stitcher.com and search for Drinks Adventures and you’ll be able to leave a review on the podcast page.
Thanks for joining me this week, I’ll be back with another episode next Thursday.
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