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A perfect storm: The modern history of gin

The story of modern gin starts with its demise. After its last hurrah in the fifties, what followed were decades of neglect and falling fortunes. The swinging sixties ushered in flower power, men on the moon, microwave dinners and pre-mixed cocktails. Gin, along with the bartender’s craft of classic cocktail making, declined in favour of… View Article

The story of modern gin starts with its demise.

After its last hurrah in the fifties, what followed were decades of neglect and falling fortunes. The swinging sixties ushered in flower power, men on the moon, microwave dinners and pre-mixed cocktails. Gin, along with the bartender’s craft of classic cocktail making, declined in favour of convenience experiences. When it came to booze trends, this didn’t just mean vodka began its ascent, it meant gin’s almost complete eradication . . .

Despite tense relations with Russia during the Cold War era, by the time of the tumble of the Berlin Wall and the Hoff prancing about in a piano keyboard scarf, even the holy grail of gin cocktails, the Martini, had become more commonly served as a Vodka Martini and made using a Russian spirit.

Fortunately, one gin prevailed in these dark times: Bombay Dry Gin. Launched in 1960, ‘Bombay Dry’ was the brainchild of entrepreneur Allan Subin. Having previously worked in the drinks industry at Seagram’s, the Madison Avenue based ad man had spotted the opportunity for a new gin brand. Inspired by some of the original gins of the late eighteenth century and, in particular, that of the pioneer Thomas Dakin (whose distillery is now known as G&J Distillers), he decided to create a gin that embodied the elegance of the 1920s and which had strong connections to English history – both elements he knew would appeal to an American market.

Within five years, Bombay Dry Gin was achieving sales of over 100,000 bottles per year, which even by today’s standards was an impressive start. This steady growth continued throughout the seventies (even forcing new stills to be commissioned to keep up production), despite it supposedly being a period in which gin was out of fashion.

Bombay Dry Gin was, unfortunately, the exception to the rule and the seventies were, for the most part, a flat line for most gin makers. Simply put, gin wasn’t cool and hadn’t been for years. By the eighties, the big drinks companies were almost entirely focused on the success of their flagship vodkas.

Thankfully, in a moment of daring brilliance, Bombay Sapphire was launched in 1988. With an updated recipe formula that built on the success of Bombay Dry, and packaged in what has since become an iconic blue bottle, it may not have been an instant success story, but it is clear that the brand captured the attention of a new generation.

Years later, this is now widely credited as a turning point that marked the dawn of a new era.

The Foundations for a Comeback

The nineties were where much of the craft gin movement built its foundations. While it would be nice to be able to say that Bombay set a trend to premium-ise, it was such a novel concept that it was an outlier and it took years for marketeers to understand why it was successful and look to emulate it (something that can be seen in the noughties, more on this later). For the multinationals, gin’s comeback actually began with some shrewd economics in order to compete against the popularity of vodka. Gordon’s, Greenall’s and Plymouth lowered their ABV to 37.5% and thus reduced the cost per bottle to make it a more affordable choice for consumers. Combined with a notable re- investment in marketing efforts, gin was moving back to the mainstream (albeit in a watered-down form and aimed at the cheap end of the market).

The next seismic shift for the larger brand names occurred in 1997, with the merger of the two biggest drinks companies: Guinness and Grand Metropolitan, which included United Distillers and I.D.V, forming the behemoth Diageo.

Not only did the move force competition authorities to cut it down to size (Bombay Original and Sapphire was sold to Bacardi, for example), it triggered a quick scramble to consolidate brand propositions in other companies, so that they would be able to square up to Diageo. While it sounds particularly unromantic to say that hard economics and the establishment sharpening its elbows should take any credit, it was predominantly these two factors that laid the ground work for gin’s comeback.

The mass investment into the gin category that these factors created was a vital first step in the story of gin as we know it today. Bombay may have been the first to show that ‘premium-ising’ would be the way to succeed in the new era, but it is clear to see that gin needed a dose of hard economics to find a mass audience, before an injection of cool could even stand a chance of gaining traction.

By the year 2000, the fruits of both movements’ labour had sown the seeds for what was about to come for the multinationals, and one by one they all released premium versions of their flagship spirits. Diageo added Tanqueray No. Ten (2000) and eclipsed expectations to such an extent that Gordon’s Distiller’s Cut (released in 2004) is largely forgotten. William Grant & Sons launched Hendrick’s (2001) and Pernod Ricard added Beefeater 24 (2007), having already restored Plymouth to its original strength and relaunched in 1998.

Such major companies making that kind of investment and those kinds of launches would have made an impact to change the perception of gin no matter what the state of the market. However, once the independently owned smaller brands and the craft distilling movement that had been bubbling up in hot spots across the world added their offerings into the mix, it would change the picture entirely.

GIn DistilledWant to learn more about gin? This was extracted from Gin, Distilled: The Essential Guide for Gin Lovers, by the Gin Foundry – out now!

The perfect accompaniment to a gin & tonic, Gin Foundry have poured their expertise into one succinct expert read.

Includes: The modern history of gin; How gin is made; What to look for when choosing gin; Deciphering gin labels; How to taste gin; Gin Foundry’s botanical flavour wheel; Gin styles; Best cocktails for different gin styles; Fruit gins and infusions; The perfect gin & tonic; Gin Foundry’s garnish/gin pairing guide. Plus much more…

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