Gin has emerged as the absolute star performer in the UK drinks trade, leaving dynamic categories like Prosecco, craft lager and fruit cider in its shade.

Value sales grew by 32% in the off-trade and 23% in the on-trade in 2017 (Nielsen and CGA) and the average price continues to spiral.

Research shows that gin is increasingly the drink of choice for the ABC1 demographic and consumers are becoming more educated and curious than ever before.

It is therefore vital to work hard at impressing these educated consumers, and this will be a hot topic when we converge for Think Gin on April 30 at Smith and Wolensky in London.

This year we have brought in Olivier Ward of The Gin Foundry as co-chairman of the event and we caught up with him to assess this key issue ahead of the big day.

Gin drinkers are increasingly educated and curious, so how can retailers and bartenders continue to impress them in the years ahead?

Show that innovation isn’t at the expense of heritage and show how both the producers you are selling as well as yourselves have added something new to the scene, not just cashed in on a hot category. What impresses people, no matter who, not matter where and no matter when, is that you know what you are talking about and you’ve made it contemporary and relevant to the here and now. As retailers and bar owners, the onus is on us to show that we aren’t just seeking out the new for the sake of it nor regurgitating the past, but fusing both because of an implicit understanding of gin’s use and by having a finger on where the trend is today. 

Do you see any key opportunities for the trade to boost sales within this dynamic category and maintain the momentum that has seen it grow exponentially in recent years?

The numbers are growing at such a rate right now, it’s never going to remain like that forever and it will inevitably plateau. To keep the momentum and keep gin buoyant and dynamic as a category however, I think curation is now vital.  Specifically, curation combined with relevant, informed explanations as to how and why the choices have been made. Sommeliers and wine retailers have known this for years – the big bible like approach to stocking everything and having exhaustive collections on the shelf or on a menu stops being an asset when there’s just so much out there and consumers are growing in too much info and too many choices. Showing leadership through curation based around well thought out and well-articulated reasons will be key in driving sales in bricks and mortar establishments – exactly as it has with wine offerings in the on-trade. Namely, it says two things, and says them loudly: a, I’ve done the homework and b, this is why these gins in front of you now are the ones we are excited about and so should you. It forces everyone to sharpen their game and improve their pitch, from the brands selling in, to the trade selling on.

How important is it for the trade to gather at events like Think Gin to share best practice, increase their knowledge, form a community and taste the latest offerings?

Tasting and staying up to date is essential for everyone. It’s not just to taste the latest offering either (be they from new distilleries or existing ones who have added to their range), it’s important to constantly challenge your assumptions. I come across so many who were given a specific impression by one or two brands, or came to a conclusion from a moment in time when a fad was rife, or a specific gin that happens to have been big they never looked past it. The category constantly shifts and changes and many things that were understood to be absolute truths two years ago have been broken down and challenged as new techniques, new research and new players who have all helped increase and improve what we know today. You can’t get that info unless you are constantly curious and constantly looking to learn and explore, as well as exchange your knowledge with others. All of this is embodied in events like Think Gin, Ginposium and Junipalooza.

What can the on- and off-trade learn from one another to help grow the gin category?

There’s a lot to learn! The two easy ones are trends going on in bars that will be relevant to the off-trade, and vice versa, brands that are flying off the shelves in the shops that would do the same if they were on a menu. The other add on I’d like to mention is that both could really help each other too, not just learn from each other to progress their own causes.

The off-trade has a big role to popularise cocktails at home, as well as ensure that drinkers don’t just go to the bar and think gin equals G&T, while not exploringe the potential of other serves made on house menus using gin.  They can help educate and encourage drinkers on how to do in their serves in their own way at home, and help promote the idea that it’s worth remaining open to exploring alternatives. Gin sales in the on-trade are very G&T driven and if that is ever to change – or at least for other creative serves on bar menus to remain a thing of the future – that needs to be both on- and off-trade working together to ensure the spirit isn’t confined to one drink alone.

The on-trade have, I feel a big role to play in bottle sales as bartenders have the choice to be a curator, and make cocktails to suit the ethos and identity behind a brand by presenting a drink around an idea, or to simply use a gin as a tool to create flavours that’s much more about their creativity and their vision as mixologists.

Both happen in the bar environment – usually the latter – but it’s the combination of the two that will dramatically increase sales of gin as a spirit. If barkeeps can do both and give the consumer not just a great flavour journey but also, an experience that can harness the story behind a gin – it would make the biggest impact on sales in the off trade. Consumers become curious about a gin because they like the flavour it, but they are converted into buying it if they like the package: ethos, identity, provenance, the people who make it etc. A combination of the two, delivered in cocktail form means they would already have a feel for the brand and a connection to it too. It really helps bridge the gap and starts the process between a drinker going “I liked that ”, to “tell me more about it before I buy a bottle”.