Is that the smell of hope in the air? Or is it just the pungent scent of quinine from yet another gin & tonic – my lockdown anxiety-busting drink of choice.

Despite the handwringing of certain members of the self-appointed moral police it seems we did drink less in 2020. Yes off-trade sales increased but the fact that pubs and restaurants have been closed for most of the last 12 months has meant that sales figures for gin and other spirits are significantly down.

Irish gin sales grew in 2019 by 4.6% (compared to 1.5% for whiskey and a 0.6% for vodka) but those growth figures were easily wiped out by the COVID 19 lockdowns. The closure of the on-trade meant less opportunities for consumers to experiment with the new, and of course no boisterous launches or on-site promotions, so the lockdowns have been kinder to established brands than new entrants.

Oisín Davis of Great Irish Beverages believes that the pandemic has “Taken its toll on those who wish to launch new gins”.

It’s not all bad news however – Oisín has seen a surge in consumers becoming at-home mixologists, something which plays into the hands of startup and smaller brands and distilleries.

“The lockdown has seen millions of people around the world upskill their domestic mixology. This has been channelled by clever brand education in the online realm – brands that did not focus on online in the last year are floundering at best or at worse, failing,” he said.

Of the boom in hard seltzers and canned, RTD (ready to drink) cocktails, Oisín sees them as a mixed bag.

“Ready to drink mixes have definitely seen an increase, partly driven by the sudden growth of the hard seltzer category and the simplicity of the single serve G&T in a can, perfect for al fresco socialising. However the quality of the canned gin & tonics needs to be improved as some are just criminally awful and far too low in ABV,” he said.

The pandemic has had one tiny positive for the gin world and that is the creation of a brand new gin called Runway28, named for Dublin Airport’s main runway. Runway28 has an aviation theme with a picture of an old Dakota Passenger Plane on the label and is the creation of MarieAnn McLoughlin-Dwyer, a former air steward, and her partner who is a captain with Ryanair.

MarieAnn has more recently worked in food product development for the aviation industry and supplying airline crew through Kilbarron Aviation, her Donegal based company.

“There are more than 50 Irish gins on the market but we think we have something different,” said MarieAnn. “We wanted to put our pandemic downtime to good use and while we stuck to classic botanicals we have added a healthy kick of pepper to our gin which we created with Listoke Distillery in Louth.”

Runway28 is gaining traction and is available in independent off-licences but MarieAnn hopes to focus more on travel retail, especially the 50ml miniature market for inflight service and possibly cruise ships.

Another new entry is Stillgarden Distillery who have really hit the ground running and recently won best new distillery at the 2021 Irish Enterprise Awards. For Christmas 2020 they created a rather tasty Christmas gin with notes of plum pudding, and their latest gin product is a mid-strength Give and Take gin which at 22% is aimed at the trend towards lower alcohol drinks.

Stillgarden are based in Inchicore and was created by Vickie Baird and her partner Pat O’Brien. They have been hugely creative in the last 18 months. Many of their botanicals are grown by a team of volunteer ‘Social Botanists’ in their community garden in Inchicore. Locals are encouraged to return their empties to be refilled and receive discounts and as well as gin they have a new Aperol style drink on the way, and cocktail pouches in recyclable tetra packs.

Established brands have not sat still over the past year either. Blackwater now have a mail-order club with a new gin every two months plus a fun spirit – their limoncello was one of the best things I tasted in 2020. In April 2021 Gunpowder released a Sardinian Citrus version of their hugely successful gin (which sells more than any other sku in Dublin Airport). This new iteration is made with Citrus Monstruosa and has a distinct lemon-grapefruit tang.

Another new gin you might have missed is 3 Sq. Miles Gin from the new distillery on Cape Clear Island – about time Ireland got in on the island distillery act. It’s wonderful, infused with the usual botanicals but also fuschia flowers from the island which give it a distinct floral note, mixing nicely with the salt ‘n pepper ozone notes.

Expect more seasonal gins and boutique gins – soon every five star hotel in the country will have their own and probably most four star hotels too.

As home cocktail making became the norm in 2020 expect more kits and pouches like the ones from Stillgarden. Expect canned G&T to attempt a return (the jury is out on this) and expect more creativity mixed with the local.

My final advice to anyone looking to create a new gin is to go to their local park and start sniffing things – it’s doubtful, but there might be something there that hasn’t yet been used as a botanical.

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