“In a world where the word “Fake” gets thrown around as a prefix to nearly any word (cough “fake news”) it was inevitable that someone would coin the term “Fake Gin.”
Hayman’s (makers of several quite excellent gins) has launched a campaign titled “Call Time on Fake Gin.” Gins with only trace notes of juniper – or a juniper character that is overshadowed by other more dominant flavourings…we believe that a small number of producers are today creating spirits that have strayed too far from what makes gin ‘gin’.” [source]
Gin is unusual among spirits in that it’s flavor is what defines it. In other words, nearly any process that yields a spirit whose flavor is “juniper” can call themselves gin. However, taste is inherently subjective. Which means the de facto standard for what constitutes gin is a “recipe which contains juniper.”
Legal Basis for the Taste Standard
In the United States gin is defined as followed:
“Gin” is a product obtained by original distillation from mash, or by redistillation of distilled spirits, or by mixing neutral spirits, with or over juniper berries and other aromatics, or with or over extracts derived from infusions, percolations, or maceration of such materials, and includes mixtures of gin and neutral spirits. It shall derive its main characteristic flavor from juniper berries and be bottled at not less than 80° proof. [source]
While many critiques focus on the “juniper berries,” aspect, I think the real troubling term are the adjectives appended to flavor. What does characteristic mean? What does main mean?
Would the spirit be different without juniper? Even if it is subtle? Perhaps. But differentiating that is hard, even for skilled judges. If you haven’t been part of a spirits judging panel before, let me share with you. We don’t always agree.
Given that subjectivity, if a spirit is submitted to an approval agency, is there enough legal teeth in this clause to justify, say if a spirit was rejected under the “taste” clause?*
If we look to the European Union standards, we see further ambiguous terminology. “Only natural and/or nature-identical flavouring substances as defined in Article 1(2)(b)(i) and (ii) of Directive 88/388/EEC and/or flavouring preparations as defined in Article 1(2)(c) of that Directive shall be used for the production of gin so that the taste is predominantly that of juniper.” [source]
Again we have the difficulty of the legal basis for legislating taste. “Predominant” refers to a subjective standard. Can even experts fairly and justly legislate “taste?”
Why Fake Gin isn’t actually “Fake”
Because the standard is sufficiently vague, and the terminology effectively impossible to enforce in an equitable fashion— if it says gin, it’s technically a gin. That means that it contains juniper. Nothing more.
A path forward for Gin
As a critic of gin who has seen the category grow from a handful to thousands over the last ten years, the story has been the rise of contemporary style gin. These are gins which don’t necessarily have a loud and bold juniper note, but are legally still classified as gin.
The reason for this explosion is market driven. Consumers are embracing these gins, including those that some deride as “fake gin.”
However, Hayman’s point is well taken. We lack the terminology to convey the flavor of gin effectively and we rely on terms like “London Dry” even though it has no connection to flavor. Where I disagree with them is on the legislative front. I don’t believe that subjective impressions of taste can be fairly and equitably legislated. Rather than have cases about “what gins taste like gin” argued in courts or argued in legislative bodies (where those with the most money may have the most influence), I suggest we separate the two concerns entirely.
Three Point Path for defining gin
- Remove all references to taste from legal definitions of gin. The new standard should be “the recipe contains juniper.” If that’s not strong enough, in consultation with chemists and distillers perhaps the code should be revised to say “contains x grams of juniper/liter of spirit.” Or specify a gas chromatography standard for identifying aromatic compounds. Papers have been written on the topic and it is possible to define an organoleptic profile for a stricter definition of gin.
- Come together on standard taste descriptors that we use to talk about gin. I prefer “classic” to refer to gins which strongly taste of juniper; I use “contemporary” for gins which have juniper but feature a stronger/more dominant note. These terms shouldn’t be legislated, but should exist in bars, in liquor stores and in conversation. We need a way to talk about gin flavor. While not every bar might put the same gins in the same categories, at least we have a starting point for discussion.
- We need new categories for herbal spirits that don’t contain juniper AND we need to be willing to embrace them. There are distillers who are putting juniper in their herbal distilled spirits simply because they want to have a shelf where their spirit can go. Ever bar has a gin. But how many ensure there’s at least one Aniseed Spirit behind the bar? What about a Cardamom flavored spirit? Can you imagine pitching to a liquor store to stock your spirit— but they don’t have a shelf for it. We have a very narrowly defined set of categories that we expect to see, and distillers for economic reasons force a square peg into a round hole. This is where we as writers, bartenders and industry influencers can make the biggest difference in defining gin.
Declaring gins “fake gin” is a bold and somewhat brash move. It’s important that we keep in mind that there’s a wide range of reasons why distillers and gin-makers do this. Firstly, distillers are forced to list things as gin because of our narrow conceptions of what constitutes a spirit category. Secondly, distillers make these non-juniper-forward gins because people like them. And finally, we should be wary of using legislation to declare winners and losers in what is now an extraordinarily competitive sector— the original goal of spirits law was to protect people from inferior or harmful products— not to say one is better than the other.
*For example, look at the recent case in Wisconsin regarding the protective “taste clause” for butter.