The Future of GinColin McLean, Head Ginologist at McLean’s Gin.
Published: 14th July 2019
The Future of Gin asks Scotland’s gin makers and distillers their thoughts on what the future of Scottish Gin looks like. How important is sustainability, technology, geographical protection and provenance to them?
In this feature we meet Colin McLean, Head Ginologist at McLean’s Gin. Now based in rural South Lanarkshire and working from his gin lab, Colin along with his wife Jess, produce a variety of cold compounded gins and just recently launched their first distilled gin to mark their first wedding anniversary.
What’s your name and what do you do?
Colin McLean; self-proclaimed Head Ginologist at McLean’s Gin. Myself and my wife Jessica take care of all of the day-to-day running of the business, from production to sales, admin, deliveries, finance…you name it!
Some have said we’re currently in a gin bubble – would you agree or disagree and why?
I wouldn’t use the term “bubble”, as that implies that it’s likely to burst at some point. Gin certainly has seen a meteoric rise in the past few years and this can’t continue forever, but I wouldn’t expect sales to suddenly plummet, nor the spirit fade back into obscurity. The gin market at the moment is by all accounts rather saturated, but there are also more people drinking gin – in all of its many forms, from traditional London Drys to more “contemporary” offerings – than ever before. And the “bubble” has yet to even begin in many overseas markets, including the USA!
In my personal view, the producers who continue to push the boundaries, produce great liquids and find a strong USP should see continued success, even after we’ve theoretically reached “peak gin”.
What do you think are the big issues facing Gin and Scottish Gin at the moment?
The 2 issues most often raised are provenance (is it made where the branding insinuates it is?) and authenticity (is it even gin?).
The issue of provenance is beginning to resolve itself; more and more brands are pushing to get production to their specified geographical location, and those who aren’t quite there yet are generally much more honest now about their production location and/or plans for the future.
However, the latter issue shows no signs of slowing and, in fact, is probably “worsening” as time goes on. There’s no easy solution for this; regulation would only serve to stifle innovation, and the industry does have to thank what many would see as “imitations” or “fake gin” for the recent astronomical growth of the category as a whole. There is definitely a careful balance to be struck here, but achieving it is no easy feat.
Where do you see Scottish Gin in 5 years time?
We’re already well renowned for our great whisky, so why shouldn’t it be the same for gin? The category has only gone from strength to strength, and Scottish food & drink products in general are known for their quality around the globe. Going forward, #ISGD should be very helpful in increasing the exposure of Scottish Gin on the global stage. However, for the moment I believe Brexit is repelling many producers from exploring this stage.
Gin tourism is likely to increase in turn, so those whose production facilities can/will double as visitor attractions will likely do very well for many years to come.
What do you think is the ‘next big thing’ in the world of Gin?
That’s a difficult question to answer! Pink was all the rage in 2018, so we’re personally hoping blue is the new pink…Something Blue (the gin we created to celebrate our wedding this time last year) is our primary focus for the years ahead, as it combines both traditional yet interesting flavour elements with contemporary visuals and branding, and with a strong USP across more than just the craft-gin market.
Consumers are always looking for something more from their gin now, so “experiences”, meal-pairings, community involvement, events with a difference etc. are all likely to be areas where we’ll see growth and movement.
As the consumer becomes more educated and discerning, it’s quite possible that things will go full circle and very traditional, dry gins will return to centre-stage.
What would you like to see more gin makers doing in the future?
Collaborating! Although the tone in the industry is generally friendly, there’s very little in the way of collaboration. We could learn a lot from the craft beer crowd – there’s no end to the creative collaborations going on there at the moment and it really shows a united front, as well as offering consumers something completely different.
What are the long term plans for McLean’s Gin?
They change almost daily, in truth…but first on the agenda is getting production out of the house and into a purpose-built facility (still within the boundaries of our own premises). This way, we can have our own still and experiment a lot more with production techniques that home production doesn’t allow for.
We’re also keen to start looking at export markets, particularly for Something Blue, which we think could have global appeal. However, we have a few hoops to jump through before we’re at this stage.
On the mid-term, we’re very keen to establish a visitor centre. Being based on the edge of a thriving, historical market town (Strathaven), within touching distance of Scotland’s biggest city means that we’re very well situated for this to become an attraction and ultimately an asset to the town.
Do you think technology will play a more important role in the distillation process?
Many producers are going down this route, and it definitely has its advantages. However, for many small producers the biggest obstacle here is the up-front cost. Personally, I think technology should be explored and find it all very interesting, but for McLean’s, we know personally that many consumers prefer the traditional “hand-made with love” element…the Scotch Whisky industry is testament to this; by and large they have respected and maintained traditional production processes over more modern variants used in the production of other spirits and the industry’s reputation has only benefited from this respect for tradition. However, it’s very much “each to their own” and we like to see producers pushing forward with more advanced technology, too.
Can you give an example of innovation in your business?
We started our business with the few quid that we had in our savings account; converting a cupboard just off our living room in our tenement flat into a functioning gin-production facility. I think we’ll struggle to top the innovation of the early days, but we’re always looking at how we can innovate. We do have a few ideas up our sleeve, but won’t give too much away fro the moment!
Would you like to see a Scottish producer making contract NGS?
From a provenance perspective, I think this would be a dream come true for most Scottish gin producers. However, we do all have established relationships with our current neutral suppliers, and so the cost and service would both have to be on point; very difficult when competing with the huge production facilities south of the border who have years of knowledge and experience in the industry. I wouldn’t see this happening on a scale that would deliver for the Scottish gin industry as a whole for some time.
Should gin makers have geographical protection for their gin?
As before, regulation can stifle innovation and so should be approached with caution. But yes, in terms of geographical protection I think regulation ultimately needs to be introduced, if for nothing more than protection of the consumer.
What support would you like to see available for the Scottish Distillery and Brewery sector?
There are avenues for support currently available, but the costs associated can stop many small producers (including ourselves) from accessing such services. A funded, opt-in government initiative would be very beneficial to the industry; ultimately revenue will increase if the industry is better supported. However, there would be considerable costs associated in setting this up, and in turbulent economic times I wouldn’t expect to see much movement on this in the near future.
Are you finding gin consumers are more aware of provenance and want to know where a gin is made and who made it?
Most definitely! But we’re very lucky in that McLean’s is 100% home-made and hand-made by us, and that’s the way we intend to keep it.
You can learn more about McLean’s Gin here.