The Spice of Origin (or the Origins of Spice)
What is gin, really?
Is it simply flavored vodka, or is it a medicinal elixir with historic origins and a romantically unsavory past? It can be either depending on how you want to look at it. All gin starts with a still full of juniper berries and some base alcohol, but from that point on its upon us to provide our own personal interpretation as to what particularly draws us in. What’s interesting to me, having observed retail trends based on the origin of spirits over the last decade, is how the locality of a brand can have a serious impact on the consumer’s impression. Take Japanese whisky as an example. I’ve yet to taste an expression of single malt from Nikka or Suntory that was stylistically superior to Scotch whisky in any way, shape, or form. To me, Yamazaki, Toketsuru, and Hakushu taste exactly like single malt Scotch; it’s just that they’re made in Japan. They’re made just like Scottish single malts. They’re aged just like Scottish single malts. They drink just like Scottish single malts. But that doesn’t stop people from obsessing over their exotic origins and adding value based on that international intrigue. Japan is hot right now in the food and drink world. I know more people who have traveled or are traveling to Tokyo than ever before, and I'd say fashion-wise the country's culture has never been more prevalent in our sphere. Of course, if you think cultures and countries can’t be fashionable, then you obviously have never worked in the booze business.
Gin's appeal is no less oriented in its origins, it's just that there's a lot more gin out there than there is single malt whisky, and it's consumed in so many different ways that it's often more difficult to pin point exactly what's driving sales. The uniqueness of the botanicals in each recipe plays a small role, I think. There's definitely a marketable terroir-driven element to expressions like Bruichladdich's Islay-based Botanist and St. George's Mt. Tam-sourced Terroir that excites the food-focused crowd. While it's tough to say for sure if the fashions of origin can boost a certain gin into the limelight, what I can tell you right now with 100% certainty is this: were I to move back to my hometown of Modesto and create "David's Modesto gin," that brand would tank right into the toilet from day one, no matter how good it tasted. Why? Because there's nothing cool or romantic about Modesto, California, I'm sorry to say. Sure, George Lucas is from there (my grandfather taught him as a student). We've got Jeremy Renner and Timothy Olyphant, too. But unfortunately neither the force, nor the power of the Avengers are enough to overcome the insurmountable odds a Modesto-based gin would most definitely face by using its Central Valley locale as a marketing ploy. Now Parisian gin? London gin? Mediterranean gin? Those are origins I can work with.
Two big factors that make any particular wine, beer, or spirit successful right now are authenticity and credibility. The French get a huge pass on their winemaking because it's generally accepted that the vintners in Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Rhône know what they're doing. Ditto for most of Italy and Northern California. Any new player in any of these markets from the other side of the tracks will have to face a certain amount of scrunity because of where they're from (a la Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink). In the gin world, London and Holland are the default countries of distinction because it's there that gin was first created and rose to fame (or infamy). We often assume that the places with the longest traditions have the higher levels of quality (and often rightly so). Gin is an interesting case, however, because you can pretty much make it anywhere. I can't think of any particular reason that gin made in England should be any better than gin made in California, or in Australia for that matter, but that simple fact doesn't change the foundations of fashionable origins in our collective consciousness. One thing I suggested to the guys at Four Pillars this past week is that we all work together to promote the Yarra Valley as a whole. Not only is it ground zero for serious winemaking in Australia, it's one of the coolest and most-beautiful regions I've ever visited anywhere. There's a serious food and wine culture there and it's buoyed by some of the friendliest people in the industry. You start to enlighten people as to what's happening with wine and food in the Yarra Valley, and maybe they start getting interested in the beer and spirits as well.
A rising tide raises all ships, right? Something like that.