Move Over, Whiskey: How Gin Became a Tipple of Choice in Ireland
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Gin was once your grandma’s tipple. Now it’s for Ireland’s cool kids.
By Stephen Starr
From an ornate drinks room overlooking the River Shannon, spirits expert Cathal Quinn is in full flow telling the story of the drinks craze gripping Ireland. “They say you eat with your eyes,” he declares, carefully filling a large goblet with ice, deliciously scented Mediterranean tonic, raspberries and a strong measure of gin. My mouth is watering, and I’ve never tasted gin before. “But you drink with your eyes too.”
Quinn organizes gin tastings and a gin cruise master class on Lough Derg from the picturesque village of Ballina in County Tipperary. On this cool summer evening, he’s giving us a rundown of the history behind this once-berated spirit, known as “mother’s ruin” and the “demon drink” in Britain during the early 1700s for the destruction it wrought on households.
Today, Ireland’s craft gins come with brash, eye-catching packaging and slick marketing campaigns.
Ireland remains a country of staunch port and whiskey drinkers, but gin has had a makeover and is very much back in fashion. While sales of vodka (which is Ireland’s most popular selling spirit, according to the Irish Spirit Report 2017 by the Alcohol Beverage Foundation of Ireland) fell last year, gin sales jumped 44 percent (252,000 cases or 2.3 million liters), and international sales tripled. To put this into perspective, sales of Irish whiskey saw a 5 percent increase (548,000 cases or 4.9 million liters). This reflects a recent shift in the tastes of Irish drinkers, with an increased interest in premium spirits and cocktails. You’ll find the juniper berry–infused spirit in huge demand from rural pubs to Dublin’s finest cocktail bars. Plus, it is particularly popular with young women.
But why gin — typically the tipple of grandmothers — and why now? It’s largely down to the lifting in 2008 of a string of 18th-century laws in Britain that banned the small-scale distilling of gin. While Ireland has long since gained independence from its colonial neighbor, the law change still caught the interest of savvy entrepreneurs and would-be craft distillers. One is Eoin Bara from Offaly, who founded Mór Irish Gin three years ago. “When we set up in 2015, there were three gin brands. Now there are more than 40,” he says.
Another reason for gin’s newfound popularity: profit. The number of home- and craft-made whiskey distilleries has skyrocketed across Ireland in recent years. However, many soon realized that because it takes four or more years for a batch of whiskey to mature, it takes years to make money. That led many distilleries to set their sights on gin, which takes much less time to make and get to market.
Today, Ireland’s craft gins come with brash, eye-catching packaging and slick marketing campaigns, in stark contrast to the dated and unimaginative labeling of traditional brands. Experts say sales are also helped by a new range of flavored tonics.
But it’s not all been clear sailing. Ireland has one of the highest spirit sales taxes in the EU, which helps explain why craft gin doesn’t come cheap — a 700ml (23 fluid ounces) bottle of the popular Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin retails for around $53 in Irish stores. The gin game is also an increasingly crowded scene. “It has become extremely competitive,” says Clare Quinn (no relation to Cathal Quinn) of Echlinville Gin in County Down. Getting men to drink what’s regarded as an unmanly spirit is another challenge. “The customers on the gin cruises we do are 90 percent women and 10 percent men,” says Cathal Quinn.
Nonetheless, the broader signs are positive. Bara says sales of Mór Irish Gin are up 40 percent compared to last year and he hopes to break into markets in New York, California and Florida.
And with a further 16 distilleries in the works, chances are you’ll see a bottle of Irish craft gin at the local pub sooner rather than later.
IRELAND’S KEY GIN CRAFTERS
- Thin Gin: This multi-award-winning gin from County Waterford is named after Isaac Thin, who, after tasting a fine gin in Paris, spent his life trying to replicate its complexity. Drink for its strong citrus base tones.
- Mór Irish Gin: From Tullamore, County Offaly in Ireland’s midlands, start-up Mór Irish Gin is a relaxed gin best served with raspberries, blueberries and a tonic from the Fever Tree range.
- Dingle Gin: This popular gin from Kerry in southwest Ireland is distilled using only locally sourced wild botanicals, including bog myrtle and heather. Try with an elderberry tonic and thinly sliced pieces of cucumber.
- Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin: This is one of the most popular Irish gins and a staple in Irish pubs and clubs. With a bottle similar in shape and color to the world-famous Bombay Sapphire brand, this County Leitrim–made gin gets its name from the tea that’s used as a base note.
- Stephen Starr, Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who lived in Syria from 2007 until 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.Contact Stephen Starr