For over 20 years, Matt Strauss has witnessed first-hand the evolution of top-dollar bottle service at nightclubs among the country’s biggest cities. As the senior vice president of hotel operations for the Tao Group, which owns more than 80 nightclubs, hotels, and restaurants in cities such as New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, Strauss has measured the particular spending and drinking habits of A-list customers. He knows what sells and what doesn’t.

“The three primary bottle orders for a table are always vodka, Champagne, and, in more recent years, tequila,” Strauss says. “Sometimes you see brown spirits like Scotch or bourbon requested, but that’s usually for a particular person who was committed to that one thing.”

One category that never quite makes the cut: gin.

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“In my entire career, I can count on my hand the number of times someone ordered a bottle of gin and then ordered a second one,” Strauss says. “By the night’s end, you’d have two-thirds of a bottle left that someone had to pay for.”

In response to this observation and to curb customer disappointment, Strauss began training his staff to dissuade gin as a bottle option and instead honor requests for steady Gin & Tonic service from the bar.

“At nightclubs, it’s all about the party, social vibe,” he says. “People have no problem taking shots of expensive vodka or tequila or knocking out bottles of Champagne. But you don’t shoot gin. Gin is more of a craft cocktail or Martini play.”

Great for Cocktails, but Can It Stand on Its Own?

In Houston, restaurant owner and beverage director Morgan Weber of Agricole Hospitality has encountered a similar experience to that of Strauss. His spirit-centric concepts, such as Coltivare, EZ’s Liquor Lounge, and Miss Carousel, have all garnered reputations for high-level craft cocktails. At his bourbon-focused Eight Row Flint, Weber offers an extensive list of hard-to-find and highly sought-after bourbons for sipping, many of which are priced for a pretty penny. When it comes to gin, he stocks his bars with quality selections such as Citadelle, Copper & Kings, and No. 3 gins, but he considers these more of an important base for building great cocktails.

“Gin’s just not something many people enjoy neat like you would bourbon, Cognac, or Scotch,” he says. “When I’m looking at gin for our programs, I want good quality … but without too high of a price to make it unappealing to the customer.”

Indeed, aside from a handful of limited-edition releases that eventually sell for up to hundreds of dollars, it seems gin as a category has yet to cement itself within the ultra-premium tier. While most reputable brands such as Tanqueray, Beefeater, and Bombay gin all sell for around $30 or $40 a bottle, the range of offerings that sell above $50 is much narrower.

Historically, Scotch and Cognac have earned a reputation as premium spirits within high society as something to sip after a meal or with cigars. In recent years, bourbon has risen from the average ‘Bourbon and Coke’ or bar shot to a sophisticated pour prized for its rich corn mash recipes accented by wheat or rye and American-oak-aged regiment. Today, due to scarcity and demand, bourbon releases such as Buffalo Trace’s Pappy Van Winkle, Eagle Rare 17, and Weller Reserve, are highly allocated and sell for hundreds or thousands among collectors’ circles. Tequila and even rum have experienced similar ascensions in premium perception.

What Makes a Gin Premium?

There are those that simply look at juniper-centric gin as little more than botanically infused vodka. Others show the spirit deeper respect, suggesting that the classic Martini would never have made its iconic status without using good, well-made gin brands such as Beefeater, Bombay, or Tanqueray, each of which consistently produces a good product at a high-scale volume and an affordable price.

“Tanqueray, Bombay, and Beefeater are all massive operations that can make a great gin inexpensively simply because they’ve scaled it,” Weber says. “And they’ve branded themselves so well with a specific drink like ‘Tanqueray and Tonic’ that they have become part of the culture’s everyday pour. But I wouldn’t exactly classify them as ‘premium.'”

This begs the question: What can make gin reach that elevated status? Is it price, production process, or a good story?

Weber suggests that it entails a bit of all three. But to him, it’s not as simple as making something at a high price or on a small scale, which would then single out craft distilleries exclusively within the ultra-premium category by default. There has to be more.

“It has to be authentic and special,” he says. ”If you’ve gone above and beyond to get a product that is delicious, unique, and difficult, if not impossible, to scale to a high volume, then you’ve got a premium product. With gin, you are finding this level more in the craft sector but the two are not mutually exclusive.”

As it happens, gin’s ultra-premium tier has slowly taken shape over the past decade with the emergence of craft selections worldwide, from Monkey 47 of Germany’s Black Forest to Japan’s Ki No Bi and U.K.-based Cambridge Gin.

A 2021 Drinks Market Analysis from IWSR reported an expected 23.1 percent compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) for craft gin in the U.S. between 2021 and 2025. The same report forecast that craft spirits are the fastest-growing segment of the spirits industry overall.

“I really noticed this premiumization of gin about seven years ago in the United Kingdom. It was sort of like what was happening with bourbon in America,” says Kris Comstock, CEO of the new craft-spirit cooperative, Stockwell Reserve, and former marketing director for the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Comstock paid many visits to the U.K. market while broadening the Buffalo Trace brand into Europe and was intrigued by the popularity of gin. “Today, I think there’s a great opportunity for that same thing to happen with gin in America,” he says.

Perhaps the catalyst to crack the seal on the top tier is Monkey 47, an artisan gin made in the Black Forest of southwestern Germany by distiller Alexander Stein that launched in 2010. Rather than searching for a gap to fill in the market, Stein was motivated to make a gin that tasted good to him. He was determined to answer the question of why no one was doing a high-end, hand-crafted, quality gin.

“With gin, you have a big canvas you can draw your own picture [on]. It has to be juniper-focused, of course, but you have an opportunity to create an aroma symphony with all sorts of different ingredients,” says Stein, who sees his job as an aroma hunter, always searching to bring rich aromas of fruits and herbs into the glass.

Stein spent two years researching and developing Monkey 47’s recipe beginning with the base spirit, which he determined should be made from molasses for its ability to portray sweetness. He also studied numerous fruits and herbs from all over the world for which he now has an extensive library at the distillery. Of the 47 botanicals he settled on, local lingonberry was a key part of the puzzle, along with Sicilian lemons and Croatian juniper.

“We use many things that are from the Black Forest, but it was important that if it wasn’t the best quality of an ingredient, we would source it from where that ingredient was the best,” Stein says.

Stein references the early years when bartenders hand-smuggled half-liter bottles into the States before he had distribution. Within a few years, the brand had U.S. distribution and a steady cult following.

“I think we were a discovery brand, and that’s a really nice position to be in,” Stein says. Such a nice position, in fact, that Pernod Ricard took a majority stake in the company in 2016 before assuming full ownership in 2020.

While the flagship Monkey 47 is well established, Stein continues to indulge his creative side with an annual “Distiller’s Cut” edition in which a different library botanical is included as a special 48th ingredient to the original recipe. This small-batch bottling retails for about $100 and has sparked a trend for gin collecting. The 2023 edition features the earthy, Black Forest woodruff, which offers the gin a vanilla-spice character.

But Stein is not alone. To pique consumer interest, even larger brands such as Hendrick’s and Citadelle have also released special-edition gins such as Hendrick’s sea botanical-driven Hendrick’s Neptunia and the flower-centric Hendrick’s Flora Adora. Citadelle issued “Jardin d’Été” (Summer Garden) and “Vive le Cornichon” (Long Live the Pickle), though all of these releases remain in the sub-$40 price range.

How Sipsmith Gave the U.K. a Stake in the Game

The launch of Monkey 47 coincided with the reigniting of craft distilling in the U.K. Since 1883, it had been illegal to license a still with a pot capacity of less than 1,800 liters for commercial production. But in 2008, that legislation was overturned thanks to the efforts of the founders of Sipsmith Gin, who were determined to usher in an era of craft spirit production in the country.

“Every small-scale distillery in the U.K. has a debt of thanks to Sipsmith for changing that legislation,” says Danny Cameron, who co-owns Welsh-based Dyfi Gin.

Located in the idyllic Dyfi Valley in the center of Wales, in 2015, the Dyfi Distillery was one of the early distilleries to obtain an official license to produce a gin of provenance. Pronounced “dovey,” brothers Danny and Pete Cameron crafted this unique gin to celebrate the region’s rich biodiversity, which received UNESCO World Biospheres Reserve designation in 1978 for its unique biosphere of native flora.

“Much like wine, we wanted to address things like brightness, balance, texture, and complexity, which are not always elements people associate with gin,” Cameron says.

Dyfi gin is made with 28 botanicals, most of which are hand-foraged, all within 15 miles of the distillery. Among the key elements is a native plant called bog myrtle, which offers aromas similar to a very complex eucalyptus “but without the bluntness,” according to Cameron. When added to the recipe, Cameron says, it amplifies the coniferous characteristics of the juniper.

Through research, the brothers discovered they could enhance the complexity and texture of the juniper characteristics through a milling technique from American craft distilling from the late 1800s.

Certainly, terroir-driven botanicals and a more time-consuming production process can help build the perception of an “ultra-premium” gin. However, as exemplified through Monkey 47 and Dyfi, the story also plays a significant role.

“I think what made bourbon so popular is the lore, the fetishizing of Pappy Van Winkle story,” Weber says. “With gin, it needs to taste good, but if their story is compelling, that’s something I can get behind and share with my customers.”

Which is what drew him to Wonderbird Spirits. Just south of Oxford, the distillery makes gin from rice grown in the Mississippi Delta that is fermented using Japanese koji and distilled along with local herbs and botanicals. As the third rice-gin produced worldwide, the founding team of Robert Forster, Chand Harlow, and Thomas Alexander took inspiration from Japanese producers, such as the Kyoto Distilling Company of rice-based Ki No Bi gin, and dedicated themselves to learning the art of sake production in order to develop a true agricultural-driven spirit reflective of place.

“We knew we wanted to create a high-quality gin, and when you embark on that journey, you have to commit to certain elements that may affect the time it takes to complete the product. But ultimately, it results in something really special,” Forster says.

The team spent nearly a year running different distillations for their rice-based substrate before finally settling on a selection of jasmine rice from Two Brooks Farm, a nearby culinary farm.

“This is what I mean about what makes a spirit premium. This is something that takes time and intention. And it’s something you can taste in the final product,” Weber says.

Premium Gin Origins in Craft Distilling

It’s worth noting that all of these distilleries focus solely on gin and not on making other spirits. “We get asked all the time if we’re a whiskey distillery making gin while waiting for the whiskey to finish. That was just never part of our business plan,” Cameron says. “We’re here to make gin. That’s it.”

It’s this sort of commitment that has intrigued spirits industry veteran Kris Comstock, who sees an opportunity for gin to experience the same ultra-premium trajectory as bourbon and tequila.

“I think we’ll see premium gin is going to find a space from within the craft industry that’s proliferating today,” Comstock says.

To his point, brands like Monkey 47, Sipsmith, Ke No Bi, and others all began in the craft distilling space. They just managed to expand into the global market and capture attention and acquisition by multinational brands such as Pernod Ricard and Beam Suntory within a relatively short time. Comstock sees a similar future for brands like Wonderbird Spirits if given the set of tools needed to grow. In his mind, the consumer market is poised for exploring gin in a new way.

“People are looking for something to discover,” Comstock says. “And with the growth we see in the gin category, it’s a great time for emerging brands to take it to the next level.”

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