On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss the rise of sales in the ultra-premium gin category. Could this be the result of the Martini’s comeback, which has been trending in recent years? Maybe some answers lie in the massive success of Empress Gin, which has grown significantly in the last year thanks to its visual element perfect for sharing over social media. Tune in to learn more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Hey, guys, what’s going on? How are you doing?
Z: Pretty good. I’m having the very strange juxtaposition of leaving cold, rainy Seattle for a couple of days for warm, sunny Napa Valley.
A: Are you there now?
Z: I’m not there as we record. Through the magic of time dilation, I will be back in Seattle by the time anyone else hears this.
A: You’re going for the weekend.
Z: Yes. Just a very short trip.
A: Do you fly or drive?
Z: Oh, I fly.
J: It is a long drive.
A: Where do you fly into, though, from Seattle?
Z: Generally speaking, SFO.
A: You still have to get from SFO. There’s not a closer airport you could go to?
Z: I mean, Oakland is technically slightly closer to Napa, but it’s not that much closer. There are a lot fewer flights to Oakland, even from Seattle, than from San Francisco. There’s an airport near Napa. We fly to Sacramento, it’s about the same distance. But again, San Francisco just has way more flight options. I don’t want to wake up at the crack of dawn. I mean, I’m waking up pretty early to go there, but I don’t wake up any earlier than I have to.
A: Yeah, I’m glad you’ll be in Napa. I just got back, as you know.
Z: I know. You’ve been well traveled. Was there anything exciting you had there?
A: Yeah, man, I had a lot of exciting stuff to drink. But before we jump into me, why don’t we start with you?
Z: Oh, right back at me.
A: I like it that way.
Z: We had a nice bottle of wine for Mother’s Day, which was kind of fun. We went for Côte Rôtie from Rostaing. Caitlin and I went out to one of our favorite restaurants with our kids. Dining with the children is always an adventure, although they were both actually quite well behaved, which was fun. And we got a lot of attention from the service staff because they were impressed that our children were eating elk.
A: They got a palate, man. Are you palate training them?
Z: Yes, because that’s just how we eat. We have been very firm believers with both kids that they just mostly eat what we eat. With our older child, we’re not doing purees or buying cans and jars of baby food or whatever. We’re not spoon- feeding them, literally. We did a little bit of reading and figured, he’ll like what he likes, and he’ll taste what we eat. As an almost 4-year-old, there are things he won’t eat that, when he was 2, he would eat. He wasn’t going to have favorites in the same way, but he’s quite adventurous. And Lila, who’s 7 months old, will stick in her mouth whatever we give her, whether it’s food or not. It’s working out. How about you, Joanna?
J: I’ve had a bunch of mediocre cocktails.
A: Oh, no.
J: They were fine. I drank them, but nothing really stood out.
Z: It’s worse than getting a bad cocktail.
J: Well, I have nothing to talk about then.
A: Yeah, so really just all mediocre.
J: Well, I had one drink last night. I went to dinner with my brother for his birthday to a place called Nudibranch. I think that’s how you say it. I’m so sorry if it’s incorrect.
Z: Named after the sea creature?
J: I had their take on a Martini, which had a white anchovy on it and also a pickled pepper. I think it had some of the anchovy oil on it as well. So that was good and interesting to me. I liked it a lot.
A: But the others?
J: There was another banana rum drink. It had egg white in it. It was just a little too much. It was too rich with all of those flavors. But I like to try things, so I’m happy to try them. But the Martini, I think, was the best thing I’ve had recently.
Z: It wasn’t served too cold?
J: No, it was perfect temperature. Not too cold and not too warm, either. I hate that. Adam, tell us about Napa and anything else.
A: I got to go to Napa last weekend for the 50th anniversary of Chateau Montelena, which was pretty awesome.
A: It was a very crazy party. Man, those wine people can drink.
Z: We’ll just assume that our invitations were lost in the mail.
A: It was a lot of fun, but it was definitely like it was a party for their friends and family. There were 800 people.
J: Closest friends and family.
A: Yeah, so basically anyone that has had anything to do with Montelena in the last 50 years. We’ve obviously been champions of them since the beginning. They’ve been really great to VinePair and have seen us a publication they care about. And we’ve obviously reviewed and rated their wine really well and wrote about them a bunch. So they invited me out, which was awesome. The theme was Solid Gold, and I didn’t know I was going to Burning Man, but I was. If that’s how Napa wants to unwind. We were joking about it, and Naomi came with me. You think Napa, so you think black tie or whatever because it’s the opinion that we all have of Napa. And you forget they’re farmers, especially the ones who still own their wineries. Chateau Montelena is still owned by the Barrett family. It’s not a big company that now owns the winery and is going to put on pomp and circumstance. This family-owned, premier winery just wants to party. And so that’s what happened. We had a dude shooting steam out of two weird water guns and dudes on stilts and they opened a lot of really crazy wine, which was pretty awesome. I got to have a 1982 Cabernet Sauvignon, I got to have a 1973 Chardonnay and a 1984 Chardonnay, a 1976 Chardonnay, and a 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon. So that was pretty awesome. They made a special wine for the 50th anniversary that came from the three original vineyards that were in the Chardonnay that they made for the Judgment of Paris that they won. That was really amazing. Of course, when I asked about the wine, they’re like, “Oh, we already sold out.” But that’s fine, that’s good. That’s awesome for them. And then they’re pouring it out of magnums at the party. And then prior to the party, I got to go have a date night with Naomi that Friday night. We had Hirsch Vineyards, the Bohan Dillon, which is an awesome Pinot Noir. Those were the wines I had last weekend and then took some time off when I got back. Last weekend, I had Double Chicken Please.
J: What did you get?
A: Oh, gosh. I had the Japanese cold noodles. I really enjoyed that.
J: Is that like sesame oil?
A: Yeah. And it’s kind of Daiquiri-esque.
J: What is the base spirit there?
A: Oh, God, I don’t even know. I don’t remember. I can look it up. They tell all in Double Chicken Please. But I had the Japanese cold noodles. I had the cold pizza.
A: Which I also think is very good. When we were leaving, they were like, “VinePair, we want to send you guys a shot.” They sent us a shot, which is called the Double Chicken Please Shot. It’s Illegal Mezcal, plum, and shiso. The cold noodle is rum at the base. That’s pineapple, cucumber, coconut, lime, and sesame oil.
J: That sounds so good.
A: And the cold pizza is blanco tequila, Parmigiano-Reggiano, burnt toast, tomato basil, honey, and egg whites. It’s f*cking cool.
Z: It’s definitely not a cocktail where you’d want to ask for a substitution.
A: No, you would not. This is probably the most inventive bar in New York. You’re there to eat your drinks, if that makes sense. They do classics, but they would rather you do their cocktails. It was very cool. Speaking of cocktails, some data was released recently. What we would call ultra-premium or super-premium gin brands are really growing. This is gin at the very, very high end. We’re talking Monkey 47, Hendrick’s, Citadelle, Gunpowder, Botanist — these are really on fire. It’s made me wonder, along with some other things I’d like to talk about with you guys, is gin finally having its moment? Are people finally coming to gin? What could be explaining this, especially on the super-high end, rise of gin? On the low end, we’re not seeing it as much. What that says to me, first of all, is, perhaps this idea that the Gin & Tonic was the ambassador cocktail for gin is wrong. I don’t think a lot of these high-end gins are used in Gin & Tonics, at least not that often. Maybe you could say, “Oh, I love a Hendrick’s Gin & Tonic.” This is what’s so confusing about alcohol, is that the premium-plus gins are right below that. That’s where you find Tanqueray. Tanqueray 10 is a super premium. But with premium plus you find things like Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, etc. That category has been kind of flat according to the article. That’s where I really see people using those gins for Gin & Tonics. But on the high end, I would never put Monkey 47 in a Gin & Tonic.
J: Yeah, that’s all true.
A: Is this the rise of gin, actually, because finally people are embracing true gin cocktails? We’ve been saying this forever, that was what we thought was going to push gin forward. That it wasn’t going to be the Gin & Tonic. Is that what’s happening? Because it’s really interesting to see all of a sudden that on the very high end of gin, it’s kind of blown up. I’m curious what you both think and why you think that gin on the super high end is exploding.
J: I have a thought. I was having this conversation last night with my brother because he drinks Vodka Martinis. From what I recall when I was younger, he was a gin drinker. I was like, “When was the last time you had a Gin Martini?” Because those are what’s very popular right now. And he was like, “You know, I don’t know. I think I just totally burned myself out on bad Gin & Tonics, that I kind of stopped drinking gin.” Like you said, Adam, cocktails where gin really shines, like a Martini, are coming back in a really strong way right now. I mean, the Negroni, but that’s not really a gin cocktail, is it? But like a Gin Martini where you need a good gin. They’re really popular. And that’s where I think this category is having success.
A: Do you think it’s just the Martini?
J: What else is there?
A: It’s gotta be the Gimlet. Sorry, Zach. That’s what I was thinking as well. Because I love a Gimlet.
Z: To justify these ultra-premium gins, you need the transparency of a cocktail like the Martini. And to some extent, I disagree with you on the assumption that people are not using these gins in Gin & Tonics. But I think what you’ve seen is the combined rise of really high-quality mixers, tonics, and otherwise over the last couple of decades that are really an industry standard in bars and even for a lot of people who are drinkers. I’ll use both of my parents separately as examples. Both of them are Gin & Tonic drinkers on the regular.
A: Mine, too. I think it’s a generational thing.
Z: To some extent. But I remember with both of my parents — and they’ve been divorced since I was little kid so this is not the two of them together — but each of them separately transitioning from having a big thing 1- or 2-liter container of Canada Dry or Schweppes or whatever in the fridge to now they both buy Fever-Tree or Q or one of these other higher- quality tonics. Those also allow you to have the sense of, “I’m making a high-quality cocktail, I’m using a high-quality mixer, and I’m going to use a high-quality gin.” I don’t mean to say that either of my parents are out there buying some of the absolute top of the market. It’s more often that I give it to them, but they appreciate it.
J: When did that happen? Was that always how it was?
Z: Oh, well, I would say the last five years or so is what I’ve kind of noticed. But I think that more than anything else, it’s that we are in this era with gin where you have all these different things happening. You have more of these ultra-premium gins on the market. You also have, I think, a really exciting and robust localized market for gin, where you have people really pushing forward interesting takes on gin. We’ve talked a little bit about this in the podcast in various ways, whether they’re localized to regions in the U.S. or what you’re talking about in being able to get a range of gins from Japan or from Scotland or from other parts of the world.
J: But there are more gin expressions than ever before right now, right?
Z: Yeah, absolutely. If you’re going to be the kind of person who’s going to buy one of those bottles or even try one of them at a bar, you are inherently going to be looking for the expression of that spirit that’s going to give you the most of it. So it’s going to be a Martini, maybe a gin and soda, if you like it on the really kind of naked side, or a Gin & Tonic if you want a little bit of that sweetness. Those drinks being popularized, and again especially the revival of the Martini and the Gin Martini at that, is really pushing these spirits to the fore.
J: It’s following everything else with premiumization, right?
A: Yeah, it is. It’s interesting, too, because I hear what you’re saying, Zach. What’s interesting is that there’s no one answer. I’m looking at this list, the top gin brands right now in the U.S. and all the ones that have experienced growth. Number 1: Hendrick’s. Then it’s Citadelle, then Empress 1908, which I want to come back to because that one’s really interesting. Then Drumshanbo Gunpowder, which I still am a pretty big fan of; it’s a really great gin. Roku, which is another great gin. I’m only calling out the ones that I think are newer and people might not know. Ford’s London Dry.
J: That’s interesting, isn’t it?
A: Ford’s is considered super premium, but it’s not priced that way. I’m very confused by that because I thought it was more like the pricing of a Tanqueray. But Monkey 47, Malfy, and then Sipsmith. For some of these you’re right, Zach, I definitely think of them as Gin & Tonic gins. I know a lot of people who like Hendrick’s and tonic, that is their Gin & Tonic order. Or like Botanist & tonic. Especially Fords, you know. But then I think of Citadelle as a Martini gin. I use Gunpowder as a Martini gin. Roku is a Martini gin. And Monkey 47 for sure, it’s just too expensive. Out of this list, it’s by far the most expensive. Sipsmith just would tell you it’s a Gin & Tonic gin because it’s literally a creation of London, England, and that’s what they f*cking drink there. I think your point about it being all these new tonics is very good because it does make it feel like much more of a premium drink, then. I think that one of the reasons that Gin & Tonic has failed to grow for such a long time is, why would you ever take tonic off the gun — which would be gross — and then mix it with these premium gins and then pay $15 or $16 for it? I’m wondering if it’s a little bit of both. People have now noticed what the gin tastes like on its own if they’ve had it in a Martini. Oh, then this is the same gin I want to use. I’ll use it in a Gin & Tonic, but now I want my tonic to be better.
J: That’s interesting.
A: The Gimlet, I think, could be a big summer drink. We’ll see.
J: You’ve heard it here.
A: I think it’s on its way because we love sours. If gin does keep growing, it’s an easy one to slot in because with a high- quality gin and good lime, etc., the Gimlet is a delicious drink. It’s basically a gin Daiquiri, or something like that. So that’s delicious. The one that’s a big outlier here that I thought would be fun to spend a little bit time talking about is Empress 1908.
Z: Before we get into that, I want to say one more thing about the Martini that I meant to mention. The other reason why I think the revival of the Martini and its correlation with gin sales are so interesting is because with a lot of other of the other spirits categories that we’ve talked about experiencing premiumization and growth — things like tequila, bourbon, and other whiskeys — there’s a really natural way to to sample those expressions. And it’s neat. Along with lots of other ways that you could certainly mix some of them in cocktails. Very few people want to drink gin neat, especially room temperature gin. There are those people for sure. I’ve served them in the past.
Z: They’re a rare breed for sure. But most people want their gin at least chilled down, if not mixed with a little bit of vermouth or tonic or soda or something. What’s cool is that the rise of the Martini and the sort of return of it to prominence — and not just for a certain longtime Martini drinker — means that people have a permission structure to go try a lot of different gins in a way that maybe a few years ago, they just didn’t. The Martini is obviously one of the most famous cocktails out there, but it wasn’t culturally relevant. Now you have this platform for people to discover all these different gins and to understand how some of these different gins that we have been talking about in this category are really quite different in a way that someone five or 10 years ago was learning about different bourbons or even different forms of whiskey, whether that was through tasting need or even in classic cocktail formulations. But gin has never had that sipped neat identity.
J: Right. Also we’re seeing more Martinis on menus versus people just ordering them. I think that’s an opportunity for bartenders to highlight a selected gin in a way that people haven’t seen before, to your point, Zach.
A: It puts a premium on choosing that gin, which again is a really fascinating thing. Sometime maybe we’ll have a conversation about how bars choose well spirits. It’s a fascinating process I’ve been part of because you do say a lot about your identity as a bar when you do that. But it’s in that space that, when you are not leaving the Martini as a call drink and it’s actually on your menu, you are sort of saying, “We think this expression is maybe not the best, but it’s one we really love and we want to share it with you.” And that’s a cool thing to do that, again, gets people to try it, right?
A: Let’s go back to the other issue at hand, which I think is the weirdest gin on this list. And I don’t mean weird, but that is Empress. Empress is so interesting because Empress is this gin that sort of seems to have come out of nowhere in the last five years.
J: It’s pretty new, right?
A: It’s very new. It’s grown very fast. And it changes colors because it has butterfly pea flower in it. So it changes from a bluish to a pink, especially when tonic hits it. You’re not making a Martini with Empress, right? Or you’re probably not making a Martini with Empress. You’re probably making a Gin & Tonic because it makes a really beautiful Gin & Tonic. And it exploded.
J: Because of TikTok.
A: Right. They’re probably the brand that, more than any other alcohol brand right now in the U.S., I have seen all over TikTok. I think it’s really caused their sales to explode. They were on Instagram a little bit, but they’ve gone completely viral. I mean, look, it’s a liquid that has the ability to go viral. It changes colors, and people love that.
Z: It’s good on Instagram, but it’s so perfect on TikTok because you can watch it happen. That’s where I think it sets apart from, like we’ve talked a little bit in episodes in the past, other interestingly colored spirits, whatever the color may be. There’s something about that transition of color that is super popular in bars because you can watch it happen. And it’s super popular on TikTok because, again, you can watch the transformation happen and it’s like a little magic trick in your glass.
J: Have you guys ever had Matchbox cars that turn color?
J: When you were little?
A: Oh, yeah. In the bathtub.
J: I think it plays on the same sense of wonderment.
A: Well, it’s really funny that you mention it, things that change color. For this 50th anniversary Chardonnay that Chateau Montelena did, they did a cold-activated label like Coors Light. So when the Chardonnay is cooled to the proper temperature, fireworks come out on the label. I was like, “That’s actually kind of funny.” And they’re like, “Yeah, like it’s blowing up on social.” People are taking pictures of it now that they got the bottle. Yeah, of course it is. Because it’s one of these things that’s just really fun that people want to share. People like that when it comes to anything but spirits, especially. I don’t want to call it gimmicky.
J: Yeah, it’s a little gimmicky, but it’s fun.
A: But it’s fun, right? I’ll say, I’ve had it. It’s nothing amazing. It’s a fine gin. But it’s the fact that it changes color. I brought it before to the beach with Naomi’s family and her parents and her sister and brother and their partners and everybody. They’re like, “Oh, my God, this is so cool.” Because it is. When you watch it happen, you’re just like, “That is amazing.” And then my sister-in-law was like, “I gotta get a bottle.” Because she wants to have it when her friends come over and they see it for the first time.
J: How much is it?
A: It’s not cheap. I’ll have to look it up right now ‘cause I don’t know off the top of my head. But again, we know it’s sitting in that ultra-premium category. Right now in New York, it’s $45 at Total Wine & More.
J: It’s not cheap.
A: That’s not cheap.
Z: It’s funny, too, because I think there’s an interesting piece to this. I don’t want to call it a gimmick exactly, because I think that’s maybe a little unfair to it. But to what extent does the appeal of this visual transformation do? It really reminds me of some of the gimmickry or the trendy stuff we’ve seen in seltzer where something is super popular because you want to show it off or you want to try it or you’re interested in it, and then it doesn’t last. On the other hand, I will say this. We’ve had Empress because it’s based in British Columbia, so just to the north of me. It’s actually been in the Seattle market for quite a while and we had a cocktail on our list for a while that used it, and it was quite popular. Somewhat to my surprise, we actually got people who would order more than one of them. I thought it was kind of an interesting drink, but more for the visual than for the drink.
A: Does it always change colors? If you made a Martini, does it change colors?
Z: I believe it would.
A: So as long as it’s mixed with something else, it goes pink?
Z: I’m not 100 percent on the science there.
A: Butterfly pea flower works, because that’s what’s in it.
A: It’s f*cking fascinating.
J: At the very least, it’s like a purple or blue Martini.
Z: Because even if it doesn’t change color, it’s a very pretty color before it goes through its transformation, to say nothing of how it finishes. I remember having a conversation with someone a while back about how there’s a whole range of spirits that don’t change color but sort of do change visual appeal. You see this with absinthe and you get a sense of things in that category. But unfortunately for them, they go from a vibrant, bright green to kind of a muddy, greenish-yellowish color. It’s not that pretty. Which is definitely not the case with Empress. It’s still a very pretty color no matter where it is — purple or pink.
A: It’s funny talking about this now. It is interesting to me that you haven’t seen a lot of other clear spirits play with color this way.
J: We’ve seen charcoal.
A: Right, but there seems to be such an opportunity here to do this.
J: I mean, Pink Whitney. Come on.
A: Yeah, I guess Pink Whitney. But that’s a very different group of people.
Z: That with the exception of Empress, you’re talking about something that is going to read as very gimmicky. We are maybe in this era of rediscovering some colored spirits, like Blue Curaçao which is having a bit of a moment. Whether it’s through tropical drinks or, again, through social media and stuff like that. If you’re like, “Here’s my neon orange gin,” people are not going to want that.
A: Yeah, like the gimmick of the color change. But I guess if butterfly pea flower is the only thing that does this, then you can’t all do it. You’re all just copying Empress. Look, this was brilliant that they chose to do this in the beginning. Brilliant, very brilliant. To be a brand that’s exploded that fast and at that high end, I think they’re still independent. Is that what it says on the list? I think it does. If they weren’t independent, I don’t think they would be messing around as much on TikTok. A lot of the bigger alcohol companies tend to stay away because there’s a lot of fear there. They grew more than anyone else on this list.
J: 120 percent.
A: It’s insane to become the third-largest super-premium brand. And that’s basically all TikTok.
Z: I want to ask you guys one last question about it before we leave. Do you guys have a favorite? I know this is a difficult question. Favorite of the moment, let’s say.
A: Joanna, maybe not a favorite, but what would your normal call be? If you went to order a Martini and they said, “What gin?” What are you choosing?
J: I think the last time I did this, which was kind of recently, it was Hendrick’s.
J: I’ve done it with Tanqueray 10, too.
A: Hendrick’s is Josh’s call, usually.
J: Because I feel like they reliably have that.
A: Yes. Zach, what would your call be?
Z: I guess if I’m looking for something that I’m confident that the bar will have, I’ve always been a big fan of Plymouth. I’m relatively confident about that. We mentioned it in passing before. Roku is probably my favorite, if they have it. And I always have it at home; I just think it’s interesting with a little bit more delicate, subtle flavors, which I kind of dig. It’s a way to describe a Martini in some cases, although I know Tim McKirdy will agree with me. It makes an incredibly drinkable Martini.
A: So for me, it’s funny, ’cause it’s not on the list. Sometimes, I would ask for Ford’s, but almost no one seems to have it. I think that’s probably going to change because I think they’re making a big push. I usually ask for a Tanqueray 10, which again, is hit or miss. So then I’ll usually wind up with Hendricks or Citadelle, but I’m seeing Roku more and I actually like Roku the most as well. Zach, I agree with you. I’m now seeing it in airports and stuff at the bars, which is a good sign. Again, Beam Suntory is starting to really push that.
Z: It is not Empress. It has a big old company behind it.
A: The only one on this list I will never call for but I love having a home is Monkey 47. But again, it’s because it’s so expensive. I know why everyone likes it and I like it, too. But for a gin to be as pricey as it is, and often in the half-bottle.
J: Isn’t it $80?
A: Yeah. So you make four Martinis with it and there goes the bottle. I basically made $30 Martinis at home. As much as I love it, it’s a very hard gin for me to feel like I could drink all the time. So that’s why I’m even more surprised that it grew by 20 percent even. It actually has the lowest growth. It’s kind of tied with Hendrick’s in terms of the lowest growth over the last year or whatever, but it still grew.
Z: Yeah, 20 percent is not nothing.
A: It’s not nothing. It’s just not 120 percent.
A: Well, guys, this has been interesting. If you have a favorite gin, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always curious. And if you think there’s another gin cocktail that’s really helped fuel this growth that has not been the Martini or maybe the Gin & Tonic, let us know. Do you have a favorite gin cocktail we didn’t think about? Shoot us an email. And guys, I’ll talk to you Friday.
J: See you Friday.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.