I must confess I have yet to get my head around the explosion of gin brands hitting the UK market in recent times. Where just a few years back stood the familiar line-up of Gordon’s, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Beefeater, Greenalls and the supermarkets’ own-label gin, ginophiles today are swamped by dozens of new names and brands in ever more exotic bottles with ever more fancy names and labels.
It all stems from a small but crucial recent change in the law that for the first time allows small operators in small distilleries to distil. There has been a consequent big stampede into distilling and, whereas whisky has to mature for three years and a day in oak casks before it can be sold as whisky, gin can, in theory and practice, be bottled and sold within days of being distilled.
There are parallels with the great Excise Act of 1823 that transformed distilling in the UK, particularly in Scotland, and over almost 200 years has created the modern Scotch whisky distilling industry.
Prior to 1823, crippling restrictions and taxation had decimated the legal distilling industry and led to some 90% of whisky production being illegal, with the illicit distillers and smugglers fighting a decades-long, and often bloody, war with the excisemen or gaugers. This verged on an unofficial civil war and was a vast waste of human resources the country could ill afford.
The 1823 Act set out three basic rules –a distilling licence cost £10, and all stills had to be at least 40 gallons (about 200 litres) so an illicit distiller could not run off with it over his shoulder if the gaugers came to check. Finally, excise duty was halved to two shillings and sixpence a proof gallon, with a discount on exported whisky. That duty was roughly 14p per five litres: today it is more than £140 for the same amount.
The Act led to a stampede of new distillers but, short-term, it meant far more whisky was being produced than the market could absorb. Many of the new distilleries failed by 1830 or soon after. Today things are very different but I worry that many of the current swathe of gin distillers, however good their product, will struggle to survive long-term.