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Food & Drink

Scandinavia is a hot spot for trendy premium gin

Scandinavia, like much of the rest of the world, is in the throes of a true “Ginaissance.” So how did “Mother’s Ruin” (almost a synonym for gin in Britain) become one of the hottest drinks in years?

It’s generally agreed that the current craving for gin began in Spain around 2009 and spread further in that traditional gin stronghold, Great Britain. And although the trend may have taken a while to reach Scandinavia, it is well and truly established there now.

Today’s gin consumption is three times more than it was just five years ago. But it’s not just any gin that new consumers want to drink. The “super-premium” market is attracting more and more attention among both consumers and producers in Scandinavia, and although market share is still only around 5%, it’s growing fast.

31% of gin drinkers today as “explorers,” indicating a significant thirst for new and exciting alcoholic beverages. That finding hasn’t gone unnoticed in the Nordic countries, as is evidenced by new distilleries and brands continually popping up there – and sometimes in the most far-flung places.

The world’s northernmost distillery

Consider Aurora Spirit Distillery, the world’s northernmost distillery, occupying a former NATO base in the village of Lyngseidet, on a peninsula at the extreme upper end of Norway – northern lights territory. The hardy souls toiling away at this spectacularly remote location produce an extremely good gin as well as other forms of liquor.

Lights on!  The Aurora Spirit Distillery, the world’s northernmost distillery.

According to Aurora Spirit Distillery’s founder and CEO, Tor Petter Christensen, the special conditions prevailing in this isolated region play a distinct role in the flavor and production process.

“One of the unique features we have in the North is access to melted glacial water,” he points out. “On top of that, we use lots of Arctic botanicals and berries with special characteristics.” The plants, Christensen explains, grow prodigiously over the short northern latitudes summer, with its lingering daylight. That results in “a much less bitter taste, making the berries far sweeter. The light concentration also produces vitamin C and antioxidants.”

Visitors come from far and wide to visit the world’s northernmost distillery.At Aurora, as in other Scandinavian distilleries, to make gin stand out in an ever-crowded market, quality is absolutely key – especially as craft gins often come with a premium price tag. Evidence is mounting that if the product is good enough, and, crucially, is local, as well, consumers are often willing to pay considerably more for it than for a standard gin.

Increased experimentation with ingredients and presentation has helped Scandinavian gin enjoy enormous success on both domestic and global markets. But social factors have helped too, especially in Norway, notes Aurora Spirit’s Tor Petter Christensen.

“Drinking patterns in Scandinavia have changed. It was all about getting drunk in the cheapest possible way 15 or 20 years ago. Now, people are way more quality-conscious, and over the past five or ten years premium local products have become more important. That’s what made us investigate the market in the first place, and to ultimately invest in our distillery,” Christensen adds.

Bareksten Botanical Gin

But quality goes beyond taste. Equally important, according to Stig Bareksten, CEO and master distiller at Oss Craft Distillery, another Norwegian producer, are the right packaging and the tale being told. Bareksten Botanical Gin plays on the dark, stark artwork on its bottle, evoking silent trees, raw nature and mysterious forests.

“I wanted our gin to feel the way that I look at Norway – not just the Norway of marketing clichés,” Bareksten proposes. My inspiration came from nature, trolls, folklore – that kind of thing. The dark bottle in some ways reflects the Norwegian personality, with our more playful inner nature when you get to know us.”

Bareksten Botanical Gin’s branding draws on Norwegian nature and folklore.

The concept has worked, with Bareksten bagging a series of prestigious awards over the past couple of years.

Four brands representing the four Nordic countries

In Denmark, Jakob Vallentin has seen a major shift during the 35 years he has worked in the wine and spirits industry.

“Back in the 90s the segment was dominated by the major players. Hendricks Gin though opened up a new world for the end-consumer, with a well prepared launch and a total new way of drinking and serving gin was introduced. The big difference was not only the changing way of drinking but also the price tag, that was well above the market standard,” he recalls. Vallentin’s firm belief that premium quality will always find a buyer led him to found the Nordic Gin House in 2017. Based in the town of Horsholm, north of Copenhagen, it distributes four gin brands, representing the four Nordic countries, under its banner. All four have enjoyed great success and won prestigious awards over the past two years. It’s Vallentin’s belief that merely originating in Scandinavia gives many local craft gins an automatic leg up in the battle for recognition.

We use lots of Arctic botanicals and berries with special characteristics’

“Our region benefits hugely from its great reputation. We have clean air and water, we look after ourselves, and outsiders tend to appreciate our minimalistic design and work-life balance, not to mention other factors, such as our culture and TV productions. They consider us to be producers of good quality brands – who’d have thought 20 years ago that we’d have the world’s best restaurants in Copenhagen? So, people have high expectations for our products, but at the same time statistics show that they are happy to pay extra for them if they feel they’re local and authentic, not mass-produced.”

In socioeconomic terms too, an interesting trend has developed, Vallentin adds. “During the last economic crisis, the major players were considered premium stable products. In such times what happens is that the “big guys” lower their prices to maintain volume and ­market dominance. But now, and over the past 2-3 years, people are looking for products which don’t remind them of difficult times. They’re saying, ‘I want a Mercedes, vintage champagne and premium gin.’”

Another factor in the swing in preference towards gin is women – who are now drinking it in greater numbers. And far from the stereotype of elderly ladies enjoying their tipple in a teacup, gin has become the drink of choice for a much younger segment of the population.

A popular Danish gin blog

Iben Diamant is representative of the new wave of gin lovers, a Dane with a marketing background, for whom a chance decision on a beach vacation led to a career in blogging about the virtues of a good gin and tonic.

“I was on vacation five years ago and just fancied something different, so I asked for a gin and tonic,” Diamant recalls. “The barman asked which gin I wanted, which garnish and which type of glass. It was like a totally new world to me; I’d never heard of more than three gins. To me, a G&T was no more or less than that, but I developed a taste for it, did a lot of research and realized it was huge. That same evening, I bought the domain ‘whynotgin’ and started sowing the seeds of my blog.”

And like the spirit itself, the blog, in Danish, has taken off in a big way, with Diamant now writing, creating recipes, and arranging tasting sessions, gin bingo and even Copenhagen cruises. She’s also authored three books on her specialized subject. But despite seeing a passion turn into her career, she has lost none of her enthusiasm along the way.

“There are two main parameters for me. One, you can make a great G&T without too much knowledge, and second, you can build up a good gin collection without it costing a fortune – compared to the price of Scotch whiskey, for example,” she says.

Who’d have thought 20 years ago that we’d have the world’s best restaurants in Copenhagen?

So much for the juniper-infused spirit itself – there’s yet another spin-off sector enjoying the “Ginaissance.” Accompanying a wider selection of gins has been a boom in the tonic industry. As Diamant puts it, tonic is “the largest portion of the drink, so it’s wasted if it’s not done properly. Many people say they don’t like gin, but when it comes down to it, it’s not the gin they dislike, it’s the tonic.” Fever Tree has made huge dents in Schweppes’ dominance in recent years, while another old-timer, Fentimans, has also benefited from gin’s resurgence.

What’s more, mixologists in bars and restaurants all over the world are concocting better drinks than ever. And even the choice of drinking glasses can bring about feverish chin-rubbing sessions these days.

So, Ice and a Slice is simply no longer enough to cut it in the new age of gin drinking, where even the color of the sprig of rosemary or basil is pondered and thought through.

In a world where you can sleep in a gin hotel and spread G&T marmalade on your toast, you have to wonder about the longevity of this boom. The trendspotters in the Nordic countries, at least, predict that it’s far from peaking, with consumption predicted to continue rising until 2025, at least. Mother or no mother, this is a segment showing no sign of ruin.

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Last edited: March 14, 2019

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