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Don’t let gin become the drinks industry’s next novelty act

I appreciate that in the age of a man-child US President, suicidal UK Brexiteers, tinderbox Middle Eastern politics and impending nuclear Armageddon in Asia there are more important things to lose sleep over, but I am quite worried about gin.

The joys of January

Of all the months of the year, January has the best intentions. It reminds me of Eddie in Ab Fab, late for work, horribly hungover, coming down the stairs in oversized sunglasses to frumpy Saffy sitting at the kitchen table. “Health, health, health, darling!” she sings. But the illusion doesn't last for long.

Seeking collaboration

Of all the topics this column has returned to, I wish that anti-alcohol rhetoric wasn’t the most frequent. But it remains one of the most threatening issues the wine trade is facing, and the one which our industry seems to find most challenging to counter effectively.

Lifting the spirits

I were to sum up alcohol sales over Christmas 2017 in one word, it would be “gin”. At Nielsen, we define the Christmas period as the 12 weeks to December 30 and in that time gin sales were £199.4 million, which means they increased by £55.4 million compared with Christmas 2016. There’s no sign the bubble is about to burst either. Growth at Christmas 2016 was £22.4 million, so gin has increased its value growth nearly two-and-a-half times in a year. The spirit added more value to
total alcohol sales than any other category, with its contribution dwarfing that of the next biggest grower, wine, which increased sales by £23.8 million. Among our team of alcohol analysts, no one can remember such an impressive performance for a single-category spirit during the Christmas period, and if current growth rates continue, gin looks likely to overtake blended whisky by next Christmas.

There's not going to be a campaign for that for much longer

The campaign name There’s A Beer For That may have got cynics like me trying to think of things there wasn’t a beer for, but broadly speaking it was a force for good.

Agreeing to disagree

Disagreeing about wine is a fact of wine-trade life, like drugs in sport or corruption in politics. Because taste is entirely subjective, debates about our personal preferences are as inevitable as they are interminable. Indeed, these long-winded, wine-fuelled arguments are precisely what make our jobs so much fun.

Wine's time to shine

At this time of year, the activity of an independent wine merchant has the quality of a time lapse in a David Attenborough documentary.

The shops that stand out from the madding crowd

The judges met last week to sort out the winners in the independent categories of our 2018 Drinks Retailing Awards. The results are top secret until the awards dinner on February 6 but it’s giving nothing away to report that the overall standard of those that will be revealed in the shortlist of finalists in the January issue of DRN is higher than it’s ever been.

Richard Hemming MW asks: what’s the next step for indies?

In the not-too-distant future, when all humans are born with inbuilt VR headsets and Trump is Supreme Commander of the Known Universe, how will students of wine look back on the present era of retail in the UK? And, in such a dystopian world, why would anyone care?

The Cape comes of age

An enthusiastic wine drinker finding themselves a fly on the wall at a trade-only tasting would undoubtedly be surprised by how serious everyone looks. Within the trade, we regularly hear from customers how nice it must be to spend at least part of the working day tasting wine. Although it’s hard to put it on the same level as moving furniture or reconciling accounts, tasting is nonetheless work that requires stamina, discipline and concentration, hence the scribbling and frowns.

Myths and moral panic

I am fed-up with politicians and academics with an agenda endlessly repeating the same old anti-alcohol tropes – usually without having the faintest idea about where they came from or whether they are true. I recently heard a minister (who must remain nameless because the meeting at which he spoke was under Chatham House rules) repeat that old canard that “minimum pricing is justified because alcohol is being sold at pocket money prices, often cheaper than water”. Now, maybe Tesco’s cheapest “everyday lager” has been sold for less than the most expensive bottle of Perrier, but the idea that supermarket shelves are stacked with booze that is cheaper than water is just nonsense. I asked the minister could he give us even one example of this and he couldn’t. What is true is that certain brands of bottled water are outrageously expensive. Just saying!

The perpetual pendulum of taste

Perpetual motion machines are scientifically impossible, but that doesn’t stop people believing in them. As usual, the internet provides a happy home for such nut-jobs, for whom scientific impossibility is just another government conspiracy, man. Hence the abundance of blogs purporting to prove that perpetual motion machines are, like, totally real, and that the Large Hadron Collider is actually a stargate to a new cosmic wormhole. I’m not making this up, by the way.

Drams and tots

Some drinks have such immaculate branding behind them that it's hard not to believe there's some mastermind behind it, a strategic genius of such infinite subtlety that their work is apparent everywhere and yet utterly untraceable.

What to expect at Christmas

The arrival of October means that we’re now officially in Nielsen’s Christmas trading period. Manufacturers and retailers alike have until December 30 to optimise their sales plans and activate them in-store in order to win at Christmas.

Talking terroir

When Bordeaux was in fashion, it seemed almost logical that we should fetishise winemakers. Here were people responsible for brilliant acts of blending, across large estates and multiple grape varieties, including superstars such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot. These days, fashion has moved on and pinot noir is ascendant. As a result, the star of the winemaker has fallen and we find ourselves following a new star in the sky: terroir.

Faith in fakes

One of the most fascinating stories in wine, fit to stand alongside the Judgement of Paris, is that of Rudy Kurniawan, a man who managed to fool friends, auction houses and experts into believing they were drinking some of the world’s most expensive wines.

Don't fall for minimum unit pricing case

Last week columnist Guy Woodward launched a quite extraordinary rant in our sister title, Harpers, in which he railed against the Scotch Whisky Association and argued in favour of minimum unit pricing. He called the SWA “shabby” for fighting MUP and threw his weight behind the anti-alcohol lobby. The basis for his argument was a press release put out by the neo-prohibitionist brigade and he bought its claims hook, line and sinker, without holding them up to the scrutiny they deserve.

Rediscovering the wonder
Escapement, lug, onion crown, tourbillon… since I recently bought an automatic wristwatch, these previously meaningless terms have become loaded with intrigue and interest. I had no expectation of becoming a watch nerd, and it has been a satisfying new experience to delve into an unknown world. It’s been equally satisfying to tell the time without having to look at my phone.

Discovering this new interest has reminded me of what I first found fascinating about wine. The longer we spend in the industry, the more jaded we can become. What often starts out as an enthusiastic passion decays into cynicism brought on by the daily drag of a professional life.

The high price of buying craft beer makers

“Would you pay £4 million for this crap?” That was the question posed by the front over of the NME in February 1986, a reference to the over-hyped electro sci-fi punk band Sigue Sigue Sputnik and the fee allegedly paid by record company EMI for their services.

Lesser-spotted Bordeaux

One of my earliest memories of drinking proper wine was with a university friend who liked to get out of Oxford on Friday afternoons and spend the weekend in London. There, we were able to prise open cases of her dad’s wine – Médoc something, I vaguely recall – stored in the garden shed and often more shed-cold than cellar-cool when we opened it.

Reasons to be cheerful

I would like to think my outlook on things is generally optimistic. Perhaps that’s a natural consequence of working with something designed to give pleasure. But recently it has become increasingly difficult to ignore a creeping sense of negativity pervading the British wine trade.

Thinking Drinkers: beer-curious need guidance

Back in 2005 (how’s that for a topical intro, folks?), we were on the panel of judges at the International Beer Challenge which awarded the Supreme Champion gong to Rogue Mocha Porter.

The limitations of Instawines

Picture the scene. You put your key in the keyhole, shove the door with your shoulder, drop your bags and look down. There, beaming up at you, is some relative or friend’s smug postcard with sandy beaches, Piña Coladas and palm trees (or, these days, an in nity pool and a detox smoothie) with a literal or metaphorical “wish you were here” written large.

Richard Hemming MW: How I Would Run a Wine Shop

Where I live, you can buy McDonald’s milkshakes 24 hours a day if you so desire. Yet both local wine merchants (one independent, one national chain) had locked their doors at just after 7pm when I was trying to buy a few bottles recently. For a neighbourhood drinks retailer to close so relatively early seems like wilful mismanagement to me.  

Richard Hemming MW: beware inverse snobbery

Few things can bring communal pleasure so intimately as wine. Apart from a hot tub, perhaps. Sport can trigger mass jubilation, film gives us shared empathy, but wine has a nigh-unique ability to bestow conviviality among us through a shared bottle – which makes it especially galling that we spend so much time divided over it.

Jason Millar: making sense of "vintage"

In my first wine shop job I was astonished by a colleague’s ability to remember the personality of particular regions’ vintages and to casually observe, while stacking shelves, that the labels of a given wine had moved on from one vintage to another. Never blessed with a prodigious memory, this seemed to me as breathtaking as a circus trapeze act.

Thinking Drinkers: The Importance of Being Ernest

Whyte & Mackay has launched a Scotch in honour of legendary arctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton – a replica of the whisky he took with him to the bottom of the world, and famously left there for 100 years. 

Rosé tinted glasses

I was asked recently what I thought the biggest change had been in wine fashion in the past five years. My answer was unequivocal: sales of pink wines. From being a niche that expanded and contracted with the sunshine, rosé has subtly but steadily become a stalwart of many merchants’ ranges, with Provence firmly at the top and asked for by name.

Richard Hemming MW: harnessing cyberspace

At school, I was the kid who rushed through work to get five minutes playing Granny’s Garden on the classroom computer at the end of the lesson. In an era when neon legwarmers were trendy and Hock was posh, this clunky puzzle was the height of gaming technology - press spacebar to continue” felt like an invitation to the future.

Brewdog finds it's a dog eat dog world

There’s a standard bearer for the British craft beer movement that recently carried out an extraordinarily successful crowdfunding campaign. It’s a brewer that is at once innovative, experimental and exciting in its approach to making beer and has embarked on opening top-notch specialist bars to bring both its own and other producers’ best brews to significant urban locations. Its fundraising effort to ease its expansion plans attracted enthusiastic investors going into four figures and achieved 179% of its investment target.

Breaking up with Burgundy

Making my way through the recent tranche of Burgundy tastings for the much-hyped 2015 vintage, I found myself experiencing a moment of guilt.


Personal passions

I love Estrons. No, it’s not an obscure grape variety or a hipster wine bar – alright, chances are it’s probably both, but I’m talking about the Welsh band. I first heard them on the radio, started listening to them regularly, saw them playing live a couple of times, and am completely hooked on their energetic, sultry, riff-driven, growling indie rock. They call it heavy pop.

What makes wine special

Reaching the 50th instalment of Hemming’s Way is hardly the biggest milestone, but I don’t need much of an excuse to pour myself a glass of champagne before getting dressed. It’s a better reason than I had for all 49 other instalments, anyway. Not that that stopped me.

When craft starts to resemble the emperor's new clothes

As I’ve entered my sixth decade on the planet I hope I’ll be forgiven for not being massively hip and only paying proper attention to Seedlip for the first time this week.

Looking back to look forward

Wine is a liquid time capsule. Drinking older vintages not only recalls the weather conditions and winemaking styles of the past, it encourages us to reflect upon our own histories. Such reminiscence often inclines towards romanticised nostalgia. Especially after the second bottle. But looking back is a great way of learning about the future.

Picking up the Pais

It’s always exciting when a new movement comes along, be it social, political or cultural. So it is with wine. When a movement arrives, it signifies a new direction and a potentially important future trend. It’s in the interests of everyone who works with wine to keep abreast of the latest developments – and besides, unearthing the newest trends is an exciting part of the job.

Donald Trump: the US has much to learn from history

The reasons Donald Trump should not be left in charge of a shopping trolley, let alone the keys to the White House, are plentiful and well-documented – from his use of the word bigly” and lamentable business legacy to his dubious post-modern feminist principles, quite astonishing lack of political acumen and, most worrying of all, his bewildering hair. 

Six new retail commandments

Ever since cavemen started swapping things with each other, the rules of retail have remained unchanged. Eye level is buy level, retail is detail, the customer is always right, one bear skin costs 10 arrowheads. OK, maybe that last one died out with the cavemen.

English wine: a happy harvest for Christmas

All across England and Wales, vineyards are being harvested. Down winding country lanes come armies of welly-wearing conscripts wielding secateurs and buckets, ready to reap the rewards of our vines. Happily they come, their cheeks ruddy with pride. Half an hour later they’re crawling over muddy clods with lacerated hands, drenched in claggy juice and cold sweat, as if ploughing through an endurance race.

Hofmeister may need more than the bear essentials to succeed

So, George The Bear is back. It’s hard for some of us oldies to fathom, but there are those under, say, 40 who can’t actually remember Hofmeister and, therefore, do not feel the cultural jolt supplied by the return of both the bear and the beer whose marketing campaigns it used to front.

Welcoming the wine rookie

It’s all true. Wine writers loaf around in a state of partial inebriation and partial undress, bitching about having to taste free wine all day and using recondite words like malolactic, terroir and recondite. 

The next big thing?

Procrastination required far more effort before the internet. Locating endless pages of time-wasting distraction necessitated a printed catalogue, and king of them all was Innovations. Subtitled Tomorrow’s Products ... Today! it was the mail-order equivalent of a fairground novelty stall, selling such junk as zip-up ties and big toe straighteners.

Champagne industry is turning its back on the UK when it should be doing the opposite

The UK is the world’s largest market for Champagne and after years of decline sales have finally started to pick up once more. Volume sales have grown 0.7% and values are up 1% (IRI, year to March 2016) and it is now worth more than £250 million in the UK off-trade alone. It therefore beggars belief to learn that the Comité Champagne has decided to scrap its annual London tasting.

Shifting Sands

Other than sandcastles, it’s generally inadvisable to build things on sand. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of a solid foundation. Building on sand is like drinking seawater when you’re dehydrated or reading tabloids when you want balanced reporting: a self-defeating exercise.

Three ways to improve wine's fortunes

Last month’s OLN Wine Report highlighted some of the most prominent issues currently facing the off-trade. Taken in isolation, the report’s findings make gloomy reading – shrinking product ranges, supermarket turmoil, lack of innovation and a decline in overall wine sales across the country.

Is golden ale the new Chardonnay?

It’s little surprise to see that Carlsberg’s Euro 2016 special, er, brew is a 4.1% abv golden ale. It’s a product spec that’s become the default setting for any beer launch that wants to tick boxes around modern beer trends without risk of causing offence.

Mass entertainment

Do anything too regularly and it soon becomes a chore. Stop sniggering at the back. It’s as true for wine tasting as it is for data entry. I know, poor us. Try telling anyone with a normal job how unlucky we are and I doubt you’ll get much sympathy, but the fact remains that there are thousands of different wines and most of them taste pretty average.

Maintaining perspective

Whatever your outlook, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Retailers are too often introspective, focused on what’s happening within their own four walls. Sales reps can get lost in monthly targets and fail to appreciate the longer-term needs of their customers. Wine writers spend far more time tweeting other wine writers about wine writing than considering what readers actually want.

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be

Some things make better comebacks than others. The Phantom Menace was trite, The Force Awakens was triumphant. Cadbury ironically relaunched the Wispa and it’s still thriving nine years later, whereas its Aztec bar bombed after optimistically returning as the Aztec 2000. Heart-throb boy-band Take That’s comeback album enjoyed huge success, but poodle rock hellraisers Guns ’n’ Roses? Axl Rose is 54 now. Welcome To The Jumble Sale.

The value of a self-regulating industry

Brewdog founder James Watt was forced to admit his appearance on BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary Who’s The Boss? was “a bit of a disaster” this week after his behaviour sparked a vicious backlash. He was dubbed embarrassing, rude and a “professional arsehole” in his ill-fated bid to hire an area manager in front of the watching public, while wholesaler Best of British Beer even said it was delisting Brewdog beers and giving away any remaining stock as a result.