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History of gin (1955 - 1997)

Words by Simon Difford

Gin boomed well into the mid 1950s but vodka was about to have its moment and as it became more fashionable so gin appeared old-hat and past it. Gin's running partner, the cocktail was also doomed.

The wartime and post-war period saw the birth of convenience foods: highly processed ingredients such as powdered mash potato or jello mixes that were easy to store, quick to prepare and, apparently, the modern way forward. In 1937, an enterprising American invented the first cocktail premix, a powder that could deliver the sought-after balance of sweet and sour without the need to painstakingly juice fresh citrus and balance it with sugar. Soda guns arrived, and the syrup dispensers were stocked not only with cola, soda and lemonade but with tonic, ginger ale and even "fruit juices". Finally, ice making machines arrived, that could produce small cubes of ice extremely quickly. These tiny, fast-melting ice cubes replaced the chunkier cubes and slabs of ice from earlier days, leaving drinks watery.

Faced with these trends, the vast majority of bar owners opted for mechanical solutions to the bartending skills deficit. Rather than train their staff to make a balanced, fresh drink, they chose to teach them to produce a chemically balanced, mediocre drink, using premixes. By the early 1980s bartending, cocktails and gin were at an all time low.

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1988 - Bombay Sapphire

Throughout the eighties gins fortunes and sales plummeted as vodkas rose. This was particularly so in its home market, the UK, also the base for the massive conglomerate Independent Distillers & Vintners (IDV), owners of Gordon's, Tanqueray and Bombay Dry. This was a multinational with a new product department that had ability, balls and big budgets with a successful track record that included Bailey's. It also had Michel Roux on its side, president of Carillon, the US distributors of Bombay and the folk who had launched Absolut vodka.

Then in 1988, at a time when gin sales were falling, IDV and Garillon launched a new gin - Bombay Sapphire. It was as though they looked at the blue rinse hairstyle of the core British gin consumer and used that as a design cue for their new gin bottle. At the same time, they dropped Bombay Dry from their UK portfolio and upset little old ladies throughout England's Home Counties who took some convincing that the replacement was not blue gin, but clear gin packaged in a blue bottle.

Love or hate Bombay Sapphire its launch was daring and inspired. It also marked the turning point for the fortunes of gin. Some three years into its launch, IDV's bright young marketing folk hit the UK drinks industry with another gin-primed bombshell. They reduced the strength of the brand leader Gordon's from 40% to its current 37.5% alcohol by volume. Many other gin brands quickly followed with reductions in their strength, while Beefeater, then ranked UK number two of the international gin brands, stood firm at 40%. We all thought Beefeater would clean up but those clever boys and girls at IDV held Gordon's retail price and invested the excise duty saved in marketing with claims that this would help both Gordon's and the whole gin category in general. They were right - Gordon's grew, as did the gin category as a whole. Beefeater fared less well.

1997 - IDV & United Distillers Merger

The merger of two of the world's biggest drink's companies, I.D.V. (Grand Metropolitan) and United Distillers (Guinness), formed what is now called Diageo and sent a shudder through the drinks industry. The combined corporation emerged to be by far the biggest and most powerful spirits company and it fell to the competition authorities in both the UK and USA to cut it down to size. Diageo was forced to shed brands which resulted in the sale of Bombay (Original & Sapphire) to Bacardi along with Dewers Whisky for a combined sum of $1.2 billion - a sum which now looks like a bargain.

This led to successive mergers and acquisitions as its competitors sought to square up to the mighty Diageo, resulting in considerable rationalisation of gin brands and the demise of many members of the gin aristocracy including: Nicholson's, Booths (still made in the USA but a mere show of its former self) and Gilbey's (also available in other markets but not the force it was in the UK).

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