Once dubbed Mother's Ruin, gin is now anything but – happily disrupting the New Zealand market as the cool, go-to drink, causing sales to soar and new distilleries to open. We look at the business of gin, who's making it and why it's become so popular. Plus we list some of the most expensive, and cheapest, places to buy a G&T.
As a youngster, Rachel Hall grew up above a Greytown pub managed by her parents,
disliking the smell and taste of old-fashioned gin.
Now in her early 40s, she laughs at where she's ended up: as a distiller making gin for a living. She is in charge of Wairarapa's Lighthouse Distillery, owned by NZX-listed Foley Wines and backed by American billionaires Bill and Carol Foley.
Hall has gone from learning to distil gin for the Wright family in a tiny Greytown shed more than 10 years ago, bottling and labelling each bottle by hand, to this year having her first automated bottling line. What took her a day of hard labour now takes an hour.
Recognising the potential in Lighthouse Gin, named for the Cape Palliser lighthouse, Foley Wines bought the brand from the Wright family in 2014. Hall will get a new distillery and a German-made still next year as part of a multimillion-dollar development at the Te Kairanga winery in Martinborough.
Foley's investment in the future of gin is backed up by data showing it is the new cash
crop in the spirit world, following a global trend New Zealand is only just catching up with.
Statistics NZ figures show consumption of spirit-based drinks has risen by about 5 per cent a year for the past few years, and gin is leading the way. Imports of gin have increased every year, from $13.8 million in 2015 to $31.7m in 2019, rising sharply in the past two years.
Exports of locally produced gin are still relatively small but starting to gain momentum. In 2015, New Zealand distillers exported $795,000 worth of the spirit. Last year that rose to nearly $4m, an 80 per cent increase on 2018.
Across Super Liquor's 140 outlets, gin is the fastest-growing segment in the spirits group and is now the second-largest segment behind whisky. The stores have between 200 and 300 brands on their shelves and merchandising managers want to understand what sells well and what tastes good.
To that end Super Liquor has launched the New Zealand gin awards - The Junipers - which will be judged this month and announced in September.
Gin sales surging ahead
The company's marketing and merchandising manager Bryan Cherry says before Covid, gin sales – both premium and mainstream brands - were growing by 50 to 60 per cent on last year. Since lockdown ended sales are growing at more than 70 per cent, boosted by limited duty-free sales and the fact that more people are drinking at home.
More premium brands are selling, he says, and the number of New Zealand gins in the mix has increased. Last year there was massive growth in pink gin; this year it will be all about citrus.
Dr Sue James, chair of Distilled Spirits Aotearoa which represents local brands, has watched the number of local distillers grow from 33 in 2015 to 85 today. James, who is also technical director for Taranaki's Juno Gin, says more than half of those distillers are making gin.
Bottle stores are stocking brands like Blush, Dancing Sands, Scapegrace, Little Biddy, Denzien Urban Distillery, The Bond Store, Cardrona Distillery and Puhoi Organic Distillery. Some have thousands of followers on aspirational-style Facebook and Instagram accounts. No longer a drink for mums, it's now favoured by urban dwellers in their 20s to 40s - both men and women.
"New Zealand has lagged behind the rest of the world in their gin culture and appreciation of distilled spirits," James says. "We've been in love with our sauvignon blancs for so long we've forgotten that the rest of the world is now looking at something else."
Many of the new distillers have returned from overseas having noticed the surge of interest in spirits, and gin in particular. Looking for a change of career, they've taught themselves how to distil and started a business.
That was Soren Crabb's career path to becoming founder of Auckland's 1919 Distillery. Four years ago he was working as an officer on the bridge of Holland America cruise liners. Wanting a career change and to return home, he noticed the rapid increase in craft spirit distilleries in the US.
Searching for a brand name relevant to New Zealand, Crabb settled on 1919, the year
prohibitionists narrowly lost a liquor referendum once the count included special votes from troops overseas, on ships and in camps.
He launched 1919 with a classic gin in 2018, followed by a pink gin flavoured with strawberries and a little raspberry, and then Pineapple Bits, with a Kiwiana nod to pineapple lumps.
Like other gin distillers, Crabb has he's seen good growth this year and has plans for new releases for the summer. It's that freedom to create different versions and flavours that has given gin the edge over other spirits, creating wider appeal, Crabb says.
"The rules around it aren't as stringent as some of the other [spirits] which means you can make a fruity version or a spicy version and they're all still a gin. The flavours appeal to more people."
Good quality craft tonics, another segment on the rise, have also helped elevate gin to a new level.
Rachel Hall agrees that compared to the old days of gin and a mass-produced tonic, distilling has been transformed into a craft. Back in her Greytown pub days, "there wasn't a lot of love going into it".
Now distillers are getting more creative with botanicals to create different flavours and
consumers are experimenting with a wider variety of flavoured tonics and cocktail mixes.
While Covid-19 hit some craft distillers hard, particularly those without well-established e-commerce sales, Hall noticed significant growth in Lighthouse sales during lockdown.
"I think everyone discovered they liked gin," she laughs. "I was blown away by the orders
going out and it hasn't really slowed down."
Lighthouse is now exported to Australia, the UK and US, Hong Kong and Europe, a development that makes Hall feel proud when she thinks back to her days of making gin in a shed.
Three years ago Hall sent 17,500 bottles to Britain after being approached by subscription service the Craft Gin Club, which wanted bottles to include in its monthly gift boxes to members.
Locally produced gins are holding their own against international brands as New Zealand
makes the most of its pure water sources and range of botanicals. In 2018, Auckland distillery Scapegrace won the Best London Dry Gin award at the prestigious International Wine and Spirits awards in London.
Gin was the largest category in this year's New Zealand Spirit Awards. Of the 91 gin entries, 82 earned a medal, with Broken Heart Gin and Dancing Sands Wasabi Strength earning double golds.
Robert Brewer, chief executive of Spirits New Zealand, thinks local producers have an
advantage in the gin renaissance because consumers in Western markets want to know
where products come from and what makes them so special.
Figures from Spirits New Zealand show the gradual inroads gin is making in the market, at a time when New Zealanders' overall per capita alcohol consumption is falling.
Over the past five years sales of both locally-produced and imported gin brands have steadily increased, overtaking sales of whisky this year. In May 2016, whisky outsold gin - 15,6396 cases to 12,8769 cases of gin sold locally. By May this year gin was well ahead, with 21,4663 cases selling compared to 17,0606 cases of whisky.
Brewer has been lobbying the Government, to no avail, to go easy on the Excise tax which rose by another 2.63 per cent last month. Distillers argue it is unfair that they pay more than twice the tax paid by beer and wine producers. That means that from an $88 bottle of spirits, the government takes $29.35 in Excise tax, Health Promotion Agency levy and GST.
Once distillers sell their product wholesale, that leaves them with a profit of about $5 per
For many in the industry, it's a labour of love until sales start to outstrip the effort. In New York, Kiwi couple Sam Blackman and his wife Imogen Crispe rely on their day jobs to finance their Isolation Proof gin, distilled in a converted barn northwest of the city in the Catskill Mountains.
Each weekend they leave their Brooklyn home behind to drive three hours to join friends and business partners Jake and Catharine Sherry at their Catskills holiday property to make gin.
During the week Crispe works for the Washington Post as a strategist for branded content, and Blackman is co-founder of Nuvocargo, a digital freight forwarding company. Weekends are spent lugging heavy buckets, tending the still, lifting heavy loads, bottling and labelling.
But they wouldn't change a thing. "The rest of the week we are on our computers working so this is a really nice change," Blackman says.
Launching a gin brand was an idea that percolated slowly after the friends witnessed the UK gin movement spread to the US. The arrival of Covid and lockdown catapulted the
idea into reality.
Social distancing meant Jake Sherry couldn't work as a film director and, while staying in the Catskills, noticed local liquor stores were running out of stock. It was time to launch. The months of agonising over bottle shapes, label designs and brand names pretty much went out the door.
Isolation Proof, an apt name they thought, was pulled together in a few days. They chose an old-fashioned medicine bottle style of container and Blackman made a prototype label using his Olivetti 32 typewriter for the designer to work on over a weekend. Isolation Proof was born.
Sherry sold caseloads to local boutique outlets happy to tell the Catskills story. Blackman and Crispe hired a car and rode their bikes round the Brooklyn area to distribute to stores. And they sold to neighbours who, encouragingly, came back with repeat orders.
Now they're back in the Catskills each weekend making gin as orders rise, adding
botanicals like coriander, licorice and angelica root, cinnamon, orange peel and Indonesian black cubeb pepper to the juniper berries. A summer pink gin is the next project.
"It's a really versatile spirit in both the variation of the spirit itself and the way you can
flavour it," Blackman says.
Later this year bottles of Isolation Proof will be transported carefully to Auckland for family and friends to try when the couple arrive back to prepare for the birth of their first child.
Crispe hasn't been able to taste any of the creations throughout her pregnancy, but admits to "sneaking the odd lick". Blackman has promised a bottle of the limited edition pink gin will be kept aside.