Images courtesy of Olivier Ward

As one of the UK’s most prominent and well-respected commentators on the gin category, it’s a pleasure to have Olivier Ward for my latest in the ‘Behind the Gin’ series.

Founder and editor of Gin Foundry, Olivier was the IWSC Spirit Communicator Of The Year Winner 2017 and is a regular on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch.

Gin Foundry, Gin Kiosk, Junipalooza, Ginvent, collaborations with the likes of Hayman’s and Warner’s. Where do you and Emile find the time!?

It’s busy that’s for sure! We wouldn’t have it any other way. I think there are two big differences we have compared to many others. The first is implicit trust the other has got it sorted, so there’s just no need to pause, check or go over anything – it’s just a case of helping whenever possible to get it done.

Being able to move at that pace, with that momentum really helps accomplish all the things we take on. The second is that work is something we love, so long hours and high workloads are not really something that’s a chore. We’d be barflies, spirit geeks and on the hunt for interesting booze regardless, so the fact we do it for a living is just a bonus.

What’s been your favourite thing to work on in the last year?

Ginvent is always a lot more work than people see as there’s such a weight of responsibility to get it right and make sure that it’s a platform, not just a product. I’m really proud of what we did last year and hope to build on that further.

The collaborations have been fun and humbling too – namely as they are three distillers we respect hugely. They took a big gamble doing it and took the long view on what the projects set out to achieve. I feel that what we’ve done collectively has added to the category in a positive way and hopefully projects a message that it’s possible to add value to a saturated category, not just cash in on it.

They’ve all been a pursuit of an idea and an ideal too (be it innovating on Old English heritage with Hayman’s, looking towards sustainability with Warner’s, or trying something really out there with Tarquin’s), so hopefully that also inspires a few others to be brave and follow a thought to its full potential.

In terms of just pure fun though, that’s got to be Juniplaooza Melbourne. There’s something about Australian gins and the state of the market out there at the moment that’s really exhilarating – it’s all so nascent and distillers are really trying to push the boundaries with unusual processes and botanicals, while drinkers are also in a sense of wonderment about it. There’s much less cynicism and so far, much of what’s being made is aspiring to be the best it can be, not trying to cater to populist tastes in a race to the bottom.

In the last few years, the gin category has evolved hugely. What’s the thing that’s exciting you most at the moment?

Something exciting for me as a nerd is the fact that base spirits are becoming something that distillers are engaging with – there’s a lot of innovation yet to be done there.

From a trade perspective, I like that curation is starting to kick in – it’s way overdue and back bars filled with 100 gins are just ridiculous. Wine lists used to be like that until everyone realised people came to have a great time, not study a booze bible each order. Bars have held on to the fallacy that customer choice means offering hundreds of options. That’s not true; choice is having a diverse selection that’s been considered and subsequently, well explained to guests – not just a wall of gin.

A little curation based on recommendations and each gin having a purpose to be there is better for customer service, pace of service and quality of serve. It’s a win-win all round.

“Something exciting for me as a nerd is the fact that base spirits are becoming something that distillers are engaging with – there’s a lot of innovation yet to be done there.”

And conversely the most frustrating?

Distilling has always had a collegiate atmosphere and in 2019, that’s started to erode rapidly with walls going up in quite a few places. It’s really disappointing to see that happen between producers. Together everyone is stronger and with all the challenges spirits (and gin in particular) faces – there will need to be solidarity in the years ahead to help educate consumers and build a strong craft industry.

Just how tough is it for new brands to break through now? And what do they need to do to get traction?

It’s hard, but it’s always been hard to surpass a certain level – a glass ceiling if you will. The key difference is that now, you just can’t even get to small (20k bottles) size without a decent plan and the even bigger difference is that today, there’s less time to do that journey in – there’s no honeymoon period.

The reality is that while there’s always only ever been 1% of brands who have the wherewithal to become big (or the quality in the first place). Many who would have made a decent business locally and turn over at a reasonable size just can’t any longer.

What do they need? To understand that if the entire premise of a distillery is about being small, craft and local will get you nowhere past being small, craft and local. Look at the top 50 gins in the UK, none of those rely on those three USP’s alone as they realise they hold little sway to convince drinkers all over the UK, let alone globally.

Do you think reforming duty, as the UK Spirit Alliance are lobbying, would help smaller brands?

Less tax is always good news for distillers so i welcome their efforts. Realistically, it’s not going to change much though, as lowering tax will only really mean that producers will make 50p – £1.50 extra per bottle. It would be nice, but not a fundamental shift for smaller operators as the people who benefit the most from that are the multinationals (as they sell more bottles), and they just dump that back into marketing, further dampening the voice of the small players.

The game-changer for government aid will be rebates, grants and assistance for distillery tourism and/or any policy that helps bring people to the door.

That’s where everything changes as it helps small distillers in three ways. It increases advocacy and boosts the local economy making it better for the wider surroundings and all those who work there (it literally builds communities).

It increases consumer education and adds context to why they are different and how something is made. It increases the margin the distillers get directly in much bigger ways than a tax cut (selling direct compared to wholesale can be up to £8 more as there’s no distributor, no retailer and no postage/procurement).

The economics of that kind of aid are much better, while the positive effect of the aid is far more profound as it goes much further than just the distillery.

“The game-changer for government aid will be rebates, grants and assistance for distillery tourism and/or any policy that helps bring people to the door.”

You recently posted about your “6-month rule” for reviewing new brands. Has there been one which jumps out where you’ve got it wrong before implementing this policy?

A few. Mostly I’m just glad that we don’t for so many names who have approached, as so many are promising yet within a year have shown their true colours.

The one that comes to mind is Scapegrace. They did some super gimmicky things at the start and I panned them for it. I was right in what i said, but wrong about assuming that’s all they were about. Since, they’ve been steady and really developed something really worthy of the international praise they get.

The article was changed over the years, but in hindsight, had i just waited longer for that first one and not covered the story 6 months in, that initial exuberance would have been seen for what it was – just a team getting started, making mistakes and finding their feet.

What brands are exciting you right now?

I think that Isle of Harris’ direct to consumer model is really disruptive for the British market. It’s a completely different way of doing things and fascinating to see play out now that they’ve hit 4 years old.

In terms of distilleries, the UK is very insular in the way it approaches gin, new concepts and how it desperately needs to categorise things – so most of the innovation I’m seeing is coming from abroad.

Read more: Isle of Harris Gin review

Finally, if you had to pick one gin that doesn’t get the exposure it deserves, what would that be?

I’ll give you a couple, but they are both under celebrated.

As a producer / distiller, Greensand Ridge’s green credentials are so impressive, yet gets very little kudos. To be one of the first carbon neutral distilleries in the UK is a massive achievement, the gin’s solid, the team are nice – they are hugely overlooked.

Fisher’s Gin doesn’t get much exposure either, but i think that’s about to change as they step up a gear. If you have 100 gins on the table, tasting each blind – you’ll know when you hit Fishers. To be so distinct in today’s kaleidoscope of flavours is an incredible feat (a polarising one too) and once they get the new space sorted, the price point comes down, the brand refresh fully completed – they are set for a big year ahead.

More from Olivier

You can follow Olivier on Twitter and Instagram, as well as reading in-depth articles and reviews on the Gin Foundry website.