The bar is packed at Ray’s, a cocktail bar owned by actor Justin Theroux on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He pours drinks in front of a lively crowd alongside fellow actor Woody Harrelson, who’s in town to promote his new liquor company, Holistic Spirits.
Booze pairs well with celebrities, and on rare occasions it can be an exceptionally lucrative mix. George Clooney sold Casamigos tequila for $1 billion in 2017. Ryan Reynolds’s Aviation gin went for $610 million three years later. Both were bought by British liquor giant Diageo.
“I’m just more attracted to spirits that are clear,” Harrelson tells Fast Company. “I don’t want to shoot myself in the very beginning with a shot of tequila.”
Gin has become Hollywood’s latest hit. Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emma Watson, and Sam Heughan have all launched gins this year. Cocktails like the Negroni, French 75, and the martini give it a touch of class. “You feel a little bit special, right?” says Christina Choi, senior vice president of gin for Diageo. “You feel that touch of elevation.”
Demand trends for gin are less balanced. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, volume dropped 1.6% in the U.S. last year, underperforming near 5% growth for the liquor industry overall. Yet demand remains strong for American whiskey, tequila, and mezcal. What may be holding back gin are the classics: Known as the London Dry, these juniper-forward liquors can be off-puttingly piney, described by some as tasting like a Christmas tree.
[Premier Cru and Premier Cru Martini]
Newer gins use a more diverse set of botanicals that are easier to stomach. Monkey 47 has cinnamon, nutmeg, and lavender. Harrelson’s Harmony gin is distilled with lemon peel and infused with artichoke and green tea. Colorado-based distiller Woody Creek sells a gin that’s dark blue because of pea flower blossoms and turns either deep violet or pink when combined with citrus or acidic ingredients. Bombay Sapphire’s Premier Cru leans into citrus with lemons and mandarins.
“The whole flavor boom is trying to help people have more of an entry point into the gin category,” says Natasha Curtin, global vice president of Bombay Sapphire.
Curtin explained that the U.S. is the largest gin market globally, with $2.2 billion in revenue annually and a category that’s projected to grow another $200 million over the next five years. “People are coming into gin because they want to try something a bit more interesting or different than vodka,” she says.
Waiting for America’s “Ginaissance”
Mixes from brands like Fever-Tree have also helped create new twists on the gin and tonic. “You have these flavored tonics that can blend better with certain gins,” says Dave Oz, founder of the New York City speakeasy hot spot Bathtub Gin. Oz loves gin because it “takes the form of whatever you mix it with.” Gin is a perennial favorite at high-end cocktail bars, restaurants, and hotels across the country, and that’s where many new gin drinkers can get their best impression of the spirit.
Many new gins are priced upwards of $30, a “premiumization” trend in alcohol where consumers pay more for higher-quality liquor but drink less. “In the U.S., the gin category faces a balancing act between growth from premium-and-above brands and declines in lower-priced segments,” says Adam Rogers, research director at alcohol data and insights firm IWSR.
Abroad, a “Ginaissance” that saw explosive growth in markets like the U.K. and Spain has shown signs of a cooldown. There are too many gins on shelves, and the spirit has been popular for too long. A similar shift may be due to occur in the U.S., where bourbon has been the star for more than a decade.
“I’m actually more bullish for gin in the U.S., because it hasn’t crossed that line of extreme saturation that has been crossed in other Western markets,” says Spiros Malandrakis, head alcohol industry researcher at Euromonitor International.
Getting Gen Z on board
Gin has never had the roaring swells of popularity that vodka, bourbon, and tequila have experienced in the U.S. at various points throughout the past several decades. “There is no nostalgia element in the U.S. when it comes to gin,” Malandrakis says.
“If you are just playing in straight gin, it is not a consumer go-to in the United States,” says Ann Mukherjee, CEO of Pernod Ricard North America. Pernod Ricard’s Italian-made Malfy leans into the flavored-gin trend, with twists that include blood orange and pink grapefruit. The French liquor giant’s Monkey 47 is especially popular with bartenders.
“Where you are seeing a lot of the growth and excitement is really around the smaller brands,” says Choi, explaining that Diageo’s Aviation deal helped the company speak to “a whole generation of drinkers who are coming up, the Gen Zers, who don’t know gin.” The company has also expanded the portfolio of Tanqueray and sought to educate drinkers through a multiyear campaign called “Damn Fancy.” Gin drinkers are now younger, more multicultural, and urban, and less Northeastern, caucasian, and male.
Reynolds and his marketing agency remain actively involved in shepherding the tone of Aviation. “People come up to me all the time and they say, ‘What makes Aviation so delicious?’ Most of the time I run away because noncelebrities frighten me,” Reynolds said in a 2018 advert.
Harrelson admitted that he “can’t presume to be competing with the likes of Ryan Reynolds. I think that guy is incredible.” But celebrities might be onto something with their gin concoctions, perhaps even getting ahead of a boom that may materialize stateside. Barbie star Robbie’s Papa Salt Gin, with bright flavors like hibiscus and citrus peel, is inspired by the coast of her home country Australia. Watson’s Renais is made from French wine grapes, a more serious spirit in the mold of the studious witch Hermione Granger, whom she played in Harry Potter.
“It’s about a twist to the positioning that actually captures the essence,” Malandrakis says, “almost like botanicals, if you wish, of the celebrity embracing it.”