The nineties and early 2000s saw a race to the bottom in food & drink production in the UK with highly processed products from big manufacturers becoming the norm. Thankfully in the last few years people have started to realise that quality does matter and both food and drink menus across the country now feature words like ‘local’, ‘craft’ and ‘artisan’ once more, but what’s in a label? Is the gin you paid a premium for truly a handcrafted artisan product? And how important is labelling to the customer
Personally, if I’m buying a gin that stipulates on the label ‘hand crafted in x region’ then I would at least expect it to have been produced in said region, rather than hundreds of miles away at a third-party distiller, which is increasingly the case with many so-called Scottish & Welsh gins being made in England. At last count three contract distillers (Langelys, G&J and Thames) were between them making over 200 gins under different brands labels and with rumours circulating that you can turn up at any of these distilleries and simply choose a recipe from their archives it’s no wonder some people are starting to question the ethics behind the practice. It’s also not surprising that as a result so many gins in the £20-£30 price bracket taste very similar!
You could be forgiven for thinking that I have an issue with contract distilling, but I really don’t, I happen to think it’s a great way for smaller brands to start out before purchasing expensive equipment but I do believe that brands should be transparent in their marketing. Marks and Spencer for example clearly state on all of their home brands gin, distilled at Thames Distillers and whilst some information can be easily found on the internet who’s really going to stand in a shop and google research before making a purchase? I believe that all brands have a responsibility to add a simple foot line such as ‘distilled at xxx’ onto their label, rather than adding it as an afterthought to their website. And I also believe that if you’re going to bring a new gin to the saturated market in 2019 it should be because of your love for gin not ‘just because everyone else is doing it’, therefore it’s not OK to just choose a recipe from a book which is the case with some gins out there!
But for all of the bad examples of this, there are many examples where third-party distillation is undertaken for all of the right reasons, The Gower Gin Company being one of these. Owners Andrew and Sian were very honest and up-front about the fact they were using a third-party distillery to make the first few batches of their gin and they had very good reasons for doing so. Having developed a recipe on a baby still at home they wanted to scale up production for a late 2017 release but with planning permission in an AONB not easy to come by the only option open to them was to use a third-party distiller. But unlike many other brands they chose the closest distillery to home (still in Wales) and they also chose to retain as much control as possible over the process by not just hand foraging some of the botanicals but also sourcing, hand weighing and delivering all of the botanicals to the contractor ready for distillation and then hand labelling the bottles themselves. Now, just under a year later they have realised their dream and have recently opened a distillery in their home village of Port Eynon. This just proves that using a contractor can be used to your advantage in certain circumstances.
But for the few examples of brands doing it right, there are many that are lacking. Gin Line 1751 for example states that it is distilled by Master Distiller Charles Maxwell, but it stops short of saying at Thames Distillery which for me a is a fail because whilst those with a keen interest in the gin industry know who Charles is, there are many consumers who wouldn’t and could easily be led believe that Gin Lane is the only brand he is responsible for. This is also just one brand, without extensive googling you wouldn’t be able to tell that many of the hundreds of so-called craft brands on the market are in fact not craft brands at all.
I also feel that many brands who are using third party contractors are at a huge advantage in comparison to those who set up their own distilleries. If you’ve walked into any of the big distillers and just chosen a recipe without having any creative input you are essentially a marketing team and a marketing team costs far less than a distillery to run! If I look at the reach of Greensand Distillery where the owner Will was solely responsible for both distillation and the day to day running of the business for the first year or so in comparison to Collagin where owners Liz and Camilla have been able to devote the majority of their time to marketing the difference is vast. And it’s the true craft products such as Will’s that lose out currently in terms of market share, sure they’re picking up awards and gaining traction but without being able to devote 90% of your time to sales & marketing getting UK wide coverage is going to be difficult. In this social media age visual marketing is key and having time to post daily curated shots isn’t something afforded to lots of small businesses.
I truly believe, especially at the premium end of the market, consumers do care about the provenance of the product they’re drinking and that they do want to know the story behind the brand and that’s where the labelling is very important. Having been duped on a couple of occasions myself into believing I was buying a craft gin supporting a small business I honestly believe that every bottle should state if it is made at Langleys, Thames, G&J or any other contact distillery for that matter because I believe it’s up to the consumer to make their mind up as to whether or not they want to support a marketing team or a truly craft brand. With a backlash in the craft beer industry after a series of buyouts by big brands surely it’s time we saw the same in the gin industry? So let 2019 be the year where us bloggers and industry commentators call out the brands who are doing it wrong and please gin brands lets make 2019 the year of transparent labelling because like I said earlier there is no shame in using contract distiller if you’re doing so for the right reasons.