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Ginning it up
After falling on hard times, things may be looking up for the gin makers -- and drinkers.
June 22, 2004: 1:25 PM EDT
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Few beverages symbolize the leisure class quite like gin.

With tonic, it's perfect after tennis. As night falls, the quinine water becomes vermouth. Before you know it, the swells down at the club are onto their third martinis, and Daisy wants a ride into the City.

But if gin was drink of choice in the East Egg scene, it has lost its edge since the Jazz Age ended. As vodka soared in popularity, gin's appeal waned.

As a category, gin shrank by nearly 20 percent in the 1990s. Meanwhile vodka, bolstered by new products and savvy promotion of old ones, solidified its grip on the No. 1 spot among clear spirits. Today, vodka sales in the United States outpace gin by nearly 4 to 1.

"Gin began to be seen as sort of a passé drink," says Richard Brandes, editor of Beverage Dynamics, a trade magazine for the spirits industry.

Gin's tough times may be nearing an end, however. With annual sales across the category averaging between 11 and 12 million cases, the spirit's overall growth has been flat over the past few years. But the bleeding has stopped.

What's more, high-end gin is showing a resurgence. Stealing a page from vodka, gin makers are introducing fancy new brands and rejuvenating traditional ones.

For drinkers, this is very good news indeed.

Everything old is new again

"There's a sort of movement that says that when classics are bypassed, they can become cool again. That's what's happening to gin," says Brandes. "It's part of the whole retro cocktail culture."

The best example is Bombay Sapphire, the upscale, flavor-packed version of a classic brand (its recipe dates to 1761). While its peers sagged, Sapphire became a juggernaut, each year adding sales, market share, and status as a fashionable icon. Today, it sells about 650,000 cases annually, second only to Tanqueray's 1.4 million.

Gin Cocktail Recipes

Spurred by Sapphire's success, a whole new segment of interesting products has sprung up.

"The super-premiums are tapping into the American drinking consumer's fascination with flavor," says Brandes.

Gin is basically a flavored vodka, a distilled grain alcohol to which various botanicals are added. Juniper berries are most common, as are such things as coriander and cassia bark. The goal is to turn a neutral base into something crisp, sweet, and spicy.

To do so, producers are experimenting with new flavors to attract new drinkers. Beefeater Wet's pear infusion is being watched closely, as is an orange-tinged variety from Seagram.

For existing fans, however, bolder versions of traditional gin styles may be more appealing than the fruity new stuff. For them, marketers large and small are pitching botanical-rich formulations that draw out the spirit's traditional essences. (See gallery »)

Personal history

Gin originated as genever in Holland in the 1700s, and was brought to England by soldiers and the ascension of the Dutch-born William of Orange to the British throne.

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For a populace unaccustomed to hard spirits, rotgut gin became the crack of the 18th century.

"Cheap, potent, and available on nearly every street corner, gin was the original urban drug," writes Jessica Warner in her book, "Craze: Gin and Debauchery in the Age of Reason."

Prosperity and regulation eventually tamed the madness. By the Victorian era, gin -- mixed with anti-malarial tonic water -- became a staple throughout the Empire. Officers served it in the Raj, and seamen got daily rations.

Of course, amid the sweep of history there are millions of smaller tales. Here's one of them:

One day back in the 1950s, my maternal grandfather was given the chore of painting his family's living room. To help, he recruited the two college kids who were dating his daughters.

Now, Poppy was a jokester who preferred parties to paint. So when his wife and daughters left the men to their work, he headed straight for the liquor cabinet. With roller in one hand and glass in the other, he taught his young students about the mysteries of the Martini.

Written by: Gordon T. Anderson
Consumer Goods

When the girls came back, the room was a disaster. But the gin had helped turn a tedious task into a bonding experience.

I'm pretty sure they all got in trouble for it, but no matter -- both my father and my uncle got their girls. And Dad became a lifelong Martini drinker.

Cheers and Happy Father's Day.

The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to:  Top of page

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