Why Gin is Fashionable Again
Gin is back in vogue, but beware those barmy botanicals
Long-neglected British gin is back and I, for one, couldn’t be more thrilled. Every week bushy-tailed distillers send me new bottles accompanied by charming descriptions of why rose petals, seaweed or “hand-foraged gorse flowers” are the fresh, cool ingredients for today.
When I first started writing about gin in 2010, I wondered if it would prove just another drinks fad, but here we are six years later with double the number of distilleries - 233 at last count. This boom is far from a Home Counties phenomenon either. There are boutique gin makers in every picturesque corner of the country. Along rural lanes in Cardiganshire, Islay and Cornwall little distilleries are hard at work. Nearly every county can now boast its own local tipple. Britain is punchdrunk with new ginshops.
It was not so long ago, however, that this wonderful drink was in the doldrums. In the 60s it lost its privileged position in Britain’s cocktail cabinets. A spirit that had been in fashion since the Glorious Revolution was for the first time spurned for more exotic intoxicants. While gin may have been glamorous to Roaring Twenties debutantes and verandah-dwelling colonials, the postwar generation had moved on. Vodka, rum and “New World” wines were the fuel for their soirees.
In the 70s and 80s aperitifs across the board were in overall decline. Alongside Cinzano, Martini, Campari and Dubonnet, gin became embarrassingly outdated.
When Michelin-starred chef Nico Ladenis opened his first restaurant in 1975, he allegedly declared that Chez Nico was not for gin-and-tonic drinkers, as they were the kind of people who also enjoyed other washed-up delights such as the “prawn cocktail, grilled Dover sole, Melba toast and Black Forest gateau”.
It was not until 1999 that Hendrick’s and Martin Miller’s tentatively led the boutique gin phenomenon that reversed this image problem. They were harbingers of the eclectic distilleries that we, and the rest of the world, now enjoy with such relish.
Just a handful of British newcomers revitalised the whole industry, helped by a marked improvement in Britain’s cocktail bars. This in turn perked up our venerable gin brands. Of the classics, Plymouth was the first. To save money, it had watered its gin down. But the company then took the gamble of putting the alcohol back up to 41.2 per cent and very deliberately labelling it Plymouth Original Strength. From producing 3,000 cases in 1996, sales rose to 150,000 just seven years later.
This snowballing confidence in gin has improved our tonics, too. Canny punters who invested in Fever Tree when it floated 18 months ago will have already made enough to keep them in Martinis for a lifetime.
A word of caution, though. While the current craze has improved the G&T immeasurably, distillers who want longevity should remember gin’s defining feature. It is the juniper berry that gives gin its refreshing, pine-scented quality. New distillers who forsake it for the flavours of quirkier botanicals do so at their peril.
Gin is once again the perfect tonic, but let’s not lose sight of the berry that made it king in the first place.
* Olivia Williams’s book Gin, Glorious Gin is published by Headline.
— The Daily Telegraph