Opinion: Nate Brown on how spirit labels are becoming obsolete

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Drinks: Drinks

Some folks can get really caught up on labels – ‘remoaner’, ‘millennial’, ‘snowflake’, ‘nationalist’ – something that my Northern Irish upbringing hammered home. My mother used to say ‘Nothing unites people like a common enemy’. And you know, she’s never been more correct. We use labels to identify ourselves and others; sometimes they stick, sometimes they don’t. Either way, they’re a powerful tool, allowing us to define and classify.

Perhaps what’s even more powerful, though, is the ability to redefine a label or defy classification. Those who do, find themselves derided all too often and celebrated all too infrequently – think David Bowie, Grace Jones and the like. The world of booze is no different. Labels as definitions offer reassuring classifications to consumers, and they once had a place in protecting traditional producers.

However, as time has passed a paradigm shift has occurred. Labels now extend beyond production and into expectation. Though consumers might not know the legal definition of gin, they believe they know what gin is, right? The shifting landscape of the spirits industry has muddied these labels. I can walk into a bar and order a gin and tonic, and the spectrum of flavours that could be served is vast: berries, grapefruit, cucumber, rosemary, sage, oranges, lemons, the bells of St Clements. There are flavoured tonics, too. These choices are too different to be interchangeable with each other, so what does ‘gin and tonic’ really mean for today’s consumer?

The same could be asked of rum. When using ‘rum’ as an umbrella term, is it really fair to classify El Dorado 12yo and Plantation 3 Stars as the same thing? Gosling’s and Bacardi? And these are just commonly available drams. What happens when we widen the net? Clairin and Foursquare? Not even close. Gin Mare and Beefeater? Chalk and cheese. Redbreast 12yo and Kilbeggan Single Grain? Who are you fooling? In today’s nimble market, how necessary do labels for spirits – ‘gin’, ‘rum’, etc. – remain?

‘That’s why it says pot still or grain!’, I hear you cry. But show me a bar full of consumers who understand these terms. What’s more, plenty of spirits don’t actually conform to the strict legislation that their label demands. Do you think every gin across Europe has been distilled to a minimum of 96% during production? Not on your nelly. Even the much-lauded whisky producer Compass Box flouts the rules while technically obeying them. This is best encapsulated in its Three Year Old, which had less than 1% three-year-old malt in the blend to command the age statement, showcasing the flaws in the labelling system.

And what about the rise of the pioneer spirit – those that defy conventional classification? The Empirical Spirits team from Copenhagen is releasing koji-fermented spirits that don’t obey legal definitions. Their defiance of classification is alarmingly evident, literally to the point where the physical bottle labels are as minimal as possible. So does ‘rum’ actually mean anything when it no longer communicates flavour? Does ‘gin’ when the spread of botanicals offers such broad contrast? And what do we do with spirits we can’t classify at all?

Where labels such as ‘Caribbean rum’ and ‘London dry’ were once essential tools to shift bottles and shield us from rip-offs, there’s now only the brand and the flavour. And it’s the brand (fuelled by social media channels and advertising) in which consumers now put their faith (and cash). In the end, those of us who wish to identify as early adopters drink the edgy and unclassified, while those who want sophistication drink the classics. I think those brave enough to eschew the path of convention deserve to be celebrated.

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