Raising a glass to the special relationship

How the US got a taste for UK gin.

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It is official: the United Kingdom is in the grip of a gin boom, with no signs of the British consumer losing their thirst for new gin experiences any time soon. Not wanting to be left behind, our American cousins have caught the gin bug and more and more British gin is winging its way across the Atlantic.

The UK sends British gin to nearly 140 countries around the world and last year exports reached £612m, up 15 per cent on the previous year. The United States’ spirits market has traditionally been a vodka-drinking market, but in recent years gin has started to trend. Even Vogue magazine was keen to get in on the act and last year they featured an article on “how gin bounced back”.

The US is the largest importer of British gin, buying in £191m’s worth in 2018, up almost £13m on 2017 and has grown by 31 per cent in the last five years. There is no sign of this trend slowing. The number of distilleries opening in the UK has more than doubled in five years, bringing the total up to 361, according HMRC records. There are now hundreds of gin brands in the US – it is hard to put an exact number on it as new gins come on the market so frequently. Having become established at home producers are now looking to expand their business overseas and export into new markets to keep volumes up and maintain growth.

So, what has caused the Great British gin’s impressive comeback? What was once dubbed “mother’s ruin”, made famous by William Hogarth’s Gin Lane etching in 1751, is now a sophisticated spirit which encapsulates the best of Brand Britain. Consumers are increasingly interested in the locality, provenance and authenticity of what they are drinking. Gin distilleries have been quick to pick up on the revolution which was happening in British food industry, some years ago, with locally sourced foods becoming big business. Millennials, who now make up 75 million potential US customers, place increasing importance on drink characteristics and provenance and are a core target for British gin exports.

The growing demand for gin coincided with, and greatly benefited from, the Brand Britain effect. The success of British gin overseas has come alongside the huge appetite for all things British thanks to successful exports such as Downton Abbey and The Crown, not to mention a very high-profile Royal wedding. In 2017, combined sales of the quintessentially British spirit both home and abroad broke the £1.5bn mark. In 2018, combined sales overtook £2.5bn.

Britain has a proud spirit making heritage and the WSTA is working with the Department for International Trade to support its innovative distillers who have gained a reputation in the global spirit industry. As part of this the Wine and Spirit Trade Association in conjunction with the Department for International Trade have organised a series of trade missions in a bid to encourage exports and showcase the incredible quality of British gin and English wine.

There has been increased diversification in drinking tastes, with Americans increasingly looking to switch from the dominant beer category, to other drinks such as spirits and wine. The amount of English wine exported to the States is much smaller by comparison, however it too is seeing a growing audience in the US.

English sparkling wine producer Hattingley Valley was chosen as just one of nine wines the US retailer Whole Foods promoted nationwide in the run up to Christmas. It was available in 420 stores in 40 states, making it the first English wine available right across the US. Chapel Down in Kent has given its US distribution partner the chance to buy thousands of its shares as its fizz has proven to be a real a hit with Americans.

It is imperative for the UK wine industry that trade with the US remains uninterrupted. In the last 12 months UK consumers bought the equivalent of over 40m bottles of American wine with sales worth around £350m. A sensible trading arrangement with the US – without any unnecessary tariffs on wine or spirits – will ultimately save businesses and consumers money on both sides of the Atlantic. 

In 2018, the equivalent of 27.6m bottles of US whiskey were exported to the UK, which is more than double the amount sent here ten years ago, and an increase of over 14m bottles on 2008. This is impressive growth – although too early to say if the 25 per cent tariff imposed in June 2018 by the European Commission in response to the imposition of tariffs on steel imported to the United States from overseas will have an impact.

Outside the EU the UK government has an opportunity to develop trade agreements encouraging the spirits and wine industry to thrive. Britain has agreed mutual recognition trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, as well as trade continuity agreements with Switzerland, Chile, the Faroe Islands and the eastern and southern Africa trading bloc. The WSTA welcomes these agreements but is calling on the UK government to make it a priority to suspend the 25 per cent retaliatory tariff on Bourbon and American whiskey as soon as it can to protect consumers from price hikes.

The two countries have already taken a step in the right direction by agreeing the continuity of the US wine and spirits agreements. Both agreements are key to the importation of wines and spirits from the US. The wine agreement includes commitments regarding wine-making practices and labelling requirements and will ensure market continuity for bilateral wine trade. A number of key protected names are recognised as part of the spirits agreement including Scotch whisky, Irish whisky, Tennessee whiskey, Bourbon whiskey, and Bourbon. More must be done, however, and quickly, so that we maintain our position as the world’s largest spirits exporter and wine market, and further boost the UK economy and provide even more jobs.

Miles Beale is chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association.