On March 1 buyers from across the UK are invited to the second annual Think Gin event, hosted by Off Licence News and our sister titles Harpers Wine & Spirit and Drinks International.

A long time has passed since gin shook off its mother’s ruin tag and emerged from the wilderness to become the hottest drinks category in Britain.

But sales show no signs of slowing – gin enjoyed a resounding 2015
and was the star performer over Christmas, as value sales grew £14.2 million to £121 million (Nielsen, 12 weeks to 2/1/16, versus the same period a year ago).

It seems all anyone can think about is gin. Dry January has finally fallen on its miserable little sword and people are merrily guzzling bucketloads of the stuff. One restaurant even recently put a sign outside its door saying: “Soup of the day – gin”.

But, just in case anyone isn’t thinking about gin – dreaming about it and drooling a la Homer Simpson thinking about nachos – we are dedicating an entire day not just to thinking about it, but drinking it, talking about it, learning about it, selling it and buying it.

Think Gin is designed to help retailers and their on-trade counterparts capitalise on the burgeoning category and the day will feature 25 suppliers showing off more than 35 of the world’s most exciting brands.

Retailers should head to the morning session, where OLN and Harpers will lead a panel debate titled: Maximising Returns from your Gin Portfolio.

One key topic we will examine
is the role big brands can play alongside the wealth of wonderful small-batch gins sprouting up every other nanosecond. As a little taster, we asked a few industry insiders for their opinions.

Nicholas Cook, director general at the Gin Guild, says: “This is the most exciting time for the gin industry
in living memory. Becoming a craft gin distiller is a dream job that many people seem to be turning into a reality, so there has been
an explosion of craft products. Encouragingly, this means there’s an array of quality gins on the market. However, it can be confusing for retailers to know how to choose what to stock.

“We would encourage retailers to stock a variety of gins, including some from regional distilleries, alongside the key brands from well-known producers, to cater for consumers’ insatiable appetites and interest in the spirit. Many artisan distillers produce award-winning gins that are ideal for consumers who enjoy the element of discovery.

“But there will always be consumers who prefer the assurance of quality from household name brands, which are, of course, created with no less craftsmanship and skill. It is also a nice idea, where possible, for independent retailers to research and stock a gin created locally – so long as they’re happy with the quality.”

That is music to the ears of Sarah Thompson, owner of Sussex-based Blackdown Artisan Spirits. She has secured listings across London

and the south east for her Sussex dry gin, and she believes hand- crafted, small-batch gins have a role to play on shelves alongside big brands, because they can excite shoppers and push boundaries by experimenting with flavours.

She says: “Our gin has sold well in independent merchants, alongside the big brands, and the retailers tell us that shoppers are looking for craft products from the local area.

“It’s funny when people talk about a trend for craft and local produce, because in the part of Sussex I’m from that’s all I’ve ever known.”

Sussex gin uses ingredients sourced from local producers and showcases a blend of 11 botanicals, including juniper, cinnamon bark, angelica root, liquorice and Sussex silver birch sap.

The distillery is surrounded
by 16ha of silver birch trees, and Thompson is limited in terms of how much gin she can make because here is only a small amount of silver birch sap around.

She says she would never want to see her gin mass-produced and is happy to count herself among the growing number of distillers producing small-batch gins across the UK.

It seems a gin brand is launched every week, but Thompson believes this could soon end. “I have a
feeling a lot of people want to
make English whisky so they are setting up distilleries. Whisky can
be more lucrative than gin, but it needs at least three years to age,
and producers don’t want to not
be earning anything in that time,
so they are releasing gins. I can see them switching their focus to whisky when they have the aged spirit.”

The two biggest dogs in the yard
– Diageo and Pernod Ricard – also acknowledge the vital role artisan gins can play in continuing the upward sales trend for this category, but warn that retailers should not ignore the big names.

JC Iglesias, global brand director for English gins at Chivas Brothers, says: “While newer, smaller brands have a place, the large established brands are the backbone of the category and keep it running, so their place on-shelf is essential. The top four gin brands constituted more than 75% of the UK gin category volume in 2014, according to IWSR. It takes dozens of smaller brands to make up the balance in the category.

“Large established brands will always have built-in recognition, which provides a sense of security. Consumers know what they are getting and for good reason – established brands such as Beefeater focus on delivering a consistent, quality product.

“For retailers, established brands provide solid commercial results as they usually invest more in driving awareness, understanding and, ultimately, sales. These brands also have a longevity which retailers value, as they can be counted on to continue their strong category position and support retailer efforts.”

Tanqueray brand ambassador Tim Homewood adds: “Gin is really enjoying the limelight – it’s one of the most talked-about spirits as consumers are discovering and experimenting with different styles. There are so many new, niche brands getting lots of attention, but the market for well-loved brands will always thrive because consumers want quality brands they trust.”

*Think Gin will run from 9.30am-6pm at the Hospital Club in London’s Covent Garden on March 1. To register email helen.heppell@ agilemedia.co.uk