Exploring 'Brand Scotland'

The strength of Scottish gin

The inaugural International Scottish Gin Day takes place on 3 August 2019. The brainchild of Natalie and Martin Reid, the team behind the excellent The Gin Cooperative, it aims to build on, and promote Scottish gin to consumers across the world.

For many years, Scotland has been great at marketing produce under one umbrella and it’s become synonymous with quality – salmon, whisky, beef, etc. all use the “Scottish” label as a mark of excellence. The ‘Scottish’ tag has now been applied to gin. Ahead of the day, with the help of distillers and commentators, I take a look at ‘Brand Scotland’ to explore what has helped build its reputation.

Euan Harris | 22 May 2019

Google search data
While not a holistic measure by any means, as the largest search engine, looking at Google search data helps paint a picture of where Brand Scotland sits.

Using Google Trends, we can analyse searches for the following terms within the UK from January 2016 to December 2018: scottish gin, english gin, welsh gin and irish gin.

The first thing the data highlights is that searches for each term are generally on the up, which is unsurprising. Secondly, within the UK, “scottish gin” is by far the most searched for term – 65% higher than “english gin” and “irish gin”, and 200% higher than “welsh gin”.

View graph on Google Trends

Digging further into the data by UK country is really interesting. Google users from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales almost exclusively search for their own region’s gin. Users in England are completely different, with an almost even split for English, Irish and Scottish gin, with Welsh gin searched for around one third less.

View graph on Google Trends

While Google search data suggests Scotland has a strong brand in the UK, it doesn’t yet seem to translate to the rest of the world with the country significantly behind Ireland and England on the world stage, for searches.

View graph on Google Trends

Brand searches

That being said, searches across the world for these five big gin brands are dominated by those distilled in Scotland, most notably Hendrick’s and Tanqueray.

View graph on Google Trends

And if you look at where these brands are being searched for, Hendrick’s appears to be the dominant one out of these five heavyweights. Taking this data alone, the conclusions to draw are that while Scottish gin as an umbrella brand is strong in the UK, it’s not there yet on the international stage. However, individual brands such as Hendrick’s and Tanqueray are some of the biggest in the world, giving Scotland a strong brand presence as a destination for gin distilling.

View graph on Google Trends

Let’s now explore what’s helping shape the reputation of Scottish gins in the UK, with the help of some great minds from the industry.
A collaborative approach
“The Scottish unity is second to none,” says Bruce Midgely of Brentingby Gin. A South African, living in Melton, Bruce trained under Tom Nichol, the former master distiller at Tanqueray. He’s therefore got good insight into the Scottish brand, and can look in from the outside.

Speaking to him, you can tell Bruce has a great admiration for Scottish gin, and the way the distillers pool together. And there was a desire to learn from this and replicate it south of the border.

“Scotland promotes their gin as a whole and stay unified. It’s so heartwarming to see and experience, [it’s] not like the [rest of] UK. If the few companies were to focus on British gin, the industry would boom. The English gin community can learn from this and continue to grow.”

Despite this, the unity that Bruce speaks of does seem to have happened almost by accident – or at least there doesn’t appear to have been a concerted effort for Scottish gin brands to market as one. Until recently there were no bodies responsible for the umbrella, and all those who promote Scottish gin are relatively independent and quite new to the scene.

Organisations such as the Scottish Gin Society, the Scottish Gin Awards and indeed The Gin Cooperative have not been running for particularly long. In late 2018, the Scottish Distillers Association was relaunched and this will help give the block a more unified approach.

“I think there is an argument for saying the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts, as many Scottish distilleries really believe in Scotland as a brand and promoting Scottish gin as a whole, as well as just their own [products],” David Wilkinson, head distiller at Edinburgh Gin explains. “The Scottish Distillers Association and Scottish Gin Awards are good examples of how Scottish distilleries have come together to promote the greater good.”

Simon Erlanger of Harris Distillers agrees the collective aspect is important and also points to the organic nature of how Scottish brands market. “The umbrella aspect is probably important [in promoting the Scottish brands], he says. “I’m not sure however how many gins focus on ‘Scottish’ on their labels. Many use the place they are from, which happens to be in Scotland. So it’s probably more organic than by design.
It’s a fair point, in that so many gins from Scotland use a location as their brand: Isle of Harris Gin, included. Edinburgh, Tiree, Kintyre, Loch Ness, Shetland, Barra, Stirling, Glasgow, Orkney. The names of locations in Scotland can be found on dozens of the country’s 100+ gin brands. Some of the places are so well known across the globe that it can only help with promoting Scotland when it comes to gin.

There’s nowhere else who really markets themselves in this way as far as I can see. The English brands are much more regional, with areas such as Cornwall seeming to do what Scotland does on a more localised scale. Perhaps it’s the comparative size of Scotland which makes this collaborative approach more prominent, the country being some 10 times smaller in population than their southern neighbours. But if that were the sole factor, there’s no reason why Wales wouldn’t be working in the same way, for example. Ireland is the closest comparison I can think of, while there’s huge potential for Australia to create something too, with their gin boom in its relative infancy.

A heritage of distilling
I don’t proclaim to know much about whisky; I don’t drink it (what a poor Scot I am!). However, it would be remiss not to acknowledge its profound effect on Scotland’s reputation for food and drink.

Scotland has been distilling whisky for over 500 years and in 2018 exports of Scotch hit the £4.7bn mark. When you think of whisky, you think of Scotland. This has undoubtedly helped Scotland gin in many ways.

“It’s what Scotland does!”, Simon Erlanger told me of distilling. As managing director of Harris Distillers, one of Scotland’s most popular brands, Erlanger knows a thing or two about both spirits. Famed for their outstanding gin, the distillery also have a whisky in the pipeline. And it’s this “culture of distilling”, which Erlanger points to as having a huge impact also on Scotland’s reputation for gin, giving brands access to new markets.

David Wilkinson, agrees. “The reputation of Scotch Whisky certainly helps [the strength of the brand],” he explains, “as it has built a heritage for distilling in Scotland, which is logically transferable to gin.”

With this infrastructure and knowledge it’s no surprise that some of the UK’s finest brands of the gin revival came from whisky distillers – brands such as Hendrick’s, The Botanist and Caorunn.

Quality and quantity
The heritage of distilling has clearly helped push Scotland to the top of the pile when it comes to the gin category. The country has centuries of skills and expertise behind it and it’s only now, in 2019, that England has more distilleries than Scotland.

For the last decade, England has been massively behind in the number of producers, giving Scotland an advantage in the number of brands on the market. As mentioned the likes of Henerick’s and Caorunn were created by whisky distilleries, but the drive to make new whisky brands has also seen a big uptake in gin north of the border.

Gin is now such a huge cash cow that brands are unsurprisingly using this for income until their whisky is ready. Despite the success of their gin, Harris Distillers, for example, are “first and foremost a whisky distillery.” While their Hearach Whisky is now mature enough to be a legal Scotch, fans will need to wait for it a little longer until the distillery is happy that the product is ready.

This mix of old and new has resulted in a huge number of new Scottish gin brands. According to the Scottish Gin Society, there are around 70 distilleries in Scotland who make their own gin.

But with the quantity there also has to be quality. “In terms of quality Scottish gin for me is fantastic,” Martin Reid, co-founder of The Gin Cooperative says. “Considering I’m up at over 160 Scottish gins tried, I’ve only found one that I wouldn’t try again based on my personal taste.”

These thoughts are echoed by David Wilkinson. “As a consumer, I think it’s fair to say there are some great gins coming from various countries right now. However I genuinely believe the majority of the best ones are Scottish. There are no doubt numerous factors in this but I think the best of Scotland easily stands up on a world stage.”

Paul Jackson, editor of The Gin Guide also believes the quality is high in Scotland’s second spirit. “I live in London and the only other countries that come to mind as well as Scotland, as having a wealth of quality gins would be Ireland and Australia,” he states.

“Germany, Belgium, Spain, South Africa and USA all have high numbers of gins, but the quality is very varied and the diversity of style is vast. The Scandinavian countries have some stunning gins and certainly have the quality, but they don’t have the quantity to develop a reputation yet. So the Scottish gin industry certainly is well placed to develop this reputation and brand further.”

Natural beauty

A friend who worked in the whisky industry once said to me, “If there’s one thing Scotland knows how to do well, it’s market spirits.”

It’s a fair point given the size of the industry to the Scottish economy. And when you look around the various brands, there’s almost a unity in terms of branding style.

Scotland is a stunning country and is highly regarded as a tourist destination throughout the world. And the country’s gin brands are great at using the landscapes to their advantage, explains Martin Reid.

“Scotland has a rich tapestry of landscapes and stories, all of which gin makers have been able to tap into. Local folklore, famous landmarks and more have all been used by Scottish gin makers to help them tie their gins to their area.“I think in part this ability to tell great stories that have real world connections adds value to the brands and category as a whole.”

”Martin Jennings is co-founder and distiller at Dorset’s Pothecary Gin. A Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) educator with 30 years’ experience in the food and drinks trade, he had similar feelings on how Scottish gins market themselves, pointing to comparisons with how New Zealand promotes wine.

“[There’s] a stronger focus on foraging, rugged landscapes and of course, the sea,” he Jennings expands. “[They] all contribute towards a general marketing style in my opinion, and a good one at that.”‘Gin tourism’ is a term you’ll see coming up more and more. And as a popular tourist destination, Scotland is well-places to take advantage of this trend. The fact there are so many distilleries for the size of the country can really help too.

I’ve no doubt that brands such as Edinburgh Gin and Pickering’s have benefited hugely from the exposure of being based in Scotland’s capital. This is something that David Wilkinson touched on.Both the brands mentioned are rated highly on TripAdvisor, for example, so this exposure can only help. And despite its remote location, Harris Distillery is pushing towards 100,000 visitors per year – further highlighting just how important gin tourism could be when promoting Scottish brands.

Building for the future

So what does the future hold for Scottish gin? And how can they capitalise on the strong foundations that have been built? From what we’ve explored in this article, Scottish gin as an umbrella brand isn’t yet there internationally. Martin Reid puts this partly down to the infancy of the category and that many brands are yet to look to distribute to new markets and calls for more to be done to help Scottish brands export.

“I think more needs to be done to open up new markets to all Scottish gin brands, rather than at moment with some distributors and food and drinks agencies, [where] it can seem a little biased towards some brands over others.

”An even greater collaborative approach could work for small distillers, pooling together resources and marketing to help promote Brand Scotland in key global markets. The Scottish Distillers Association (SDA) could help pave the way for this, with one of its aims being to promote Scottish spirits both in the UK and internationally.

It’s also important to point out that, while marketing as a block, organically or otherwise, is generally great for the brands as a whole, it can also open it up to being damaged. It’s been hotly debated for the last couple of years about what defines a Scottish gin, with vocal opponents to gins being branded as Scottish, or named after a place in Scotland, when they’re made elsewhere.

And I agree it’s true, this can be damaging to the whole brand if it gets out of hand. I’ve spoken to consumers who are really disappointed when they’ve discovered a brand with their hometown stamped on the bottle is distilled elsewhere.

Are tighter controls and transparency critical to safeguard the reputation of Scottish gin? This is certainly the view of many and is also something the SDA is looking at.

David Wilkinson isn’t so sure about the need for protected status. “That’s something I used to really believe in, but to be honest I think it’s a bit late in the day now. The gin boom is nearly a decade old now and gin has developed phenomenally in that time. I’m more concerned over the definition of gin in general than ‘Scottish Gin’ per se.”

And he has a point. To gain strong protected status like whisky would be hugely challenging. There are so many precedents and variants on ‘models’ used by different brands – grain to glass, Scottish botanicals, rectified in Scotland, contract distilled elsewhere in Scotland (or outside of Scotland) – it could be hard to pin down a legal working definition.

That being said, maybe there isn’t a need for one? Over the last year or so I’ve seen an increase in how educated consumers are. They want to know where it’s distilled and by whom, what botanicals are used, the process… And this inquisitive consumer is in-part because Scottish brands are becoming increasingly transparent and leading the conversation.

So maybe self-policing is the route on which to travel, using transparency as the mechanism for protection. Consumers will quickly decide what they do and don’t want. I certainly feel that Scottish gin has a huge opportunity. The country’s had an amazing head start along the way and with continued collaboration, it can make that ‘Scottish’ prefix rival the country’s other categories revered throughout the world.

International Scottish Gin Day
3 August 2019