The latest in gin and vodka - analysis

From brands stripping back ingredients to ramping up flavour – and even gin brands taking on vodka making – the landscapes in gin and vodka continue to broaden. Millie Milliken reports

The UK’s most popular clear spirits – gin and vodka – never, it seems, rest on their laurels. 2022 has already seen some shifts in the market. Gin brands are starting to make vodkas, vodka brands are doubling down on creating “characterful” and “flavoursome” liquids, and gin brands are either stripping back on their botanicals and flavours or leaning into them. 

What’s driving these changes? For some it’s flexing their creative distilling muscles, for others it’s sustainability to meet the demands of post-Covid, ethically-minded consumers. So, what’s new in the worlds of vodka and gin?

NEW IDENTITIES

In April this year, east London’s 58 Gin rebranded to 58 & Co to coincide with its gaining B-Corp status and to announce a new range of products, including a triple-distilled vodka. “We have been working towards this moment for the past two years,” says founder Carmen O’Neill.

“We’re delighted to now be in a position which enables us to move forward with NPD, especially with the expansion into different spirit categories. At our core we have always been a gin distillery so the addition of our Triple Distilled Vodka is a significant moment in time for us, opening our product range to a wider market.”

O’Neill believes the industry’s shift towards premium craft spirits with a focus on provenance puts 58 & Co in a good position to enter the vodka market.

For Jake Burger, co-founder of Portobello Road Distillery, the move into vodka in 2021 was prompted by a flip-flopping gin and vodka market. “There were a few reasons we moved into vodka production,” he says. “I think one of the reasons behind the gin boom of the last decade was that it was, of sorts, a rejection of vodka... brands back in that era whose flavours had perhaps become a little too synthetic and who were relying too much on additives to smooth out their products.

“London Dry gin, with its guarantees of natural flavouring and with its strict regulations, was a safe refuge from that. But ironically, the popularity of London Dry gin, and then the move some gins made towards being sweeter and more overwhelmingly flavoured, did in some ways prime the general public for a return to vodka, but this time vodka made with the same ethos and attributes that we had seen in London Dry gin.”

During Covid, Burger and his team discovered a supplier making a high-quality potato spirit, which inspired Portobello’s Potato Vodka. “For us, it’s an opportunity to work with single flavours rather than the complex multi-flavour recipes we have grown used to in gin,” says Burger.

FULL OF CHARACTER

Moves towards more characterful vodkas – like Portobello’s new Asparagus Vodka and Colwith Farm’s Rosemary & Bay – are certainly ramping up. Andy Braithwaite, managing director of Ellers Farm Distillery in North Yorkshire, was keen to release a flavoursome vodka with sustainable credentials as part of its Dutch Barn range.

In March it released Orchard Vodka, which is already listed in 223 Waitrose stores and is part of Asda’s Nurture programme to showcase emerging brands.

“We started Ellers Farm Distillery in September 2020 based on a principle of wanting to create the best vodka that we can in the most sustainable way possible,” Braithwaite says. The idea of using apples came about from playing around with cider as well as utilising the skills of distiller Jamie Baggott (previously of Chase Distillery).

Ellers Farm is certified carbon neutral and has B-Corp status pending, and more consumers seeking ethical or sustainable products led Braithwaite to vodka.

“Rather than looking at vodka as a commodity [for just providing alcohol] we believe there is a gap for a vodka brand that represents the values of today’s consumers,” he says. “Environmental responsibility and ethical values are becoming higher in consumer brand choices, so we looked across the category and didn’t see anyone talking with authority in that space.”

Burger agrees that an appreciation for vodka beyond just being a source of alcohol has shifted the balance. “I think a better understanding of spirits is a part of it,” he says. “People are understanding that vodka isn’t just the fuel to provide alcohol in a drink but that it can have complexities and subtleties as well.”

LESS AND MORE

When it comes to gin, there seems to be an all-or-nothing trend emerging. Gordon’s has just released a Morello Cherry expression, while Whitley Neill is maximising on the popularity of tropical flavours by adding Peach and Pineapple expressions to its range. Meanwhile, Bombay Sapphire is dabbling in cocktail-inspired liquids with the launch of its Citron Pressé based on the Tom Collins.

By contrast, Edinburgh Holyrood Distillery’s Height of Arrows (which launched at the end of 2021 and won The Whisky Exchange’s Gin of the Year) is moving away from flavoured expressions and stripping back to concise and considered botanicals – it only uses juniper with the addition of beeswax and salt for more texture.

“As whisky makers, we were fascinated by the idea that the myriad flavours we work with every day, and which define whisky, come from a handful of elemental ingredients,” explains distillery and operations manager Marc Watson. “What if this simple idea could be applied to gin? What if we rejected the idea of continually adding and instead focused on the essential botanical that literally defines the category – juniper – and how the experience of that one thing can be amplified and maximised?”

At Portobello, Burger was also keen to move away from heavily flavoured gins. “At a time when many were going ever sweeter and ever pinker, we launched our Savoury Mediterranean Gin – which does indeed have a savoury and saline dimension to it. I like to think we were among the pioneers in that respect.”

Its new limited-edition Special Reserve 101 builds on that notion with the use of Vichy Catalan mineral water in the process which adds salinity, minerality and acidity to the product. Is ‘new gin’ starting to mature as a category perhaps?

Related articles: