Gin isn’t just popular in specialist bars, it’s booming in traditional pubs

The changing face of community spirit 

The bar and gantry at Winstons

IT was only a few short years ago that operators of Scotland’s more traditional pubs may have felt they were pushing the boat out if they stocked more than one gin on their back-bar.

But it’s safe to say the gin sector – its perception, depth and popularity – has come a long way since then and in 2020 customers are as likely to find small-batch brands behind the bar of their local pub as in Scotland’s top-end cocktail bars.

Speaking to SLTN Billy Gold, owner of Glasgow pub the Hielan Jessie, said in the past couple of years “the mould has been well and truly broken” in terms of who is ordering gin in his pub.

“I was surprised myself how quickly the gin thing took off in here, and right across the customer range,” said Billy.

“It’s been good for us. And I think people are pleased we’ve responded to it. People like having an influence on their local. If they say they like something and ask us to get it in we will, which makes them feel a bit more connected than they might with some of the larger pubs or groups.”

Winstons pub’s Iain Hewitt and Lisa Smith

While Gordon’s – a long-established name on the pub’s back-bar – remains the biggest seller in the Hielan Jessie, newer names including Boë, Brockmans and Glasgow Gin have been proving very popular with locals.

And by keeping an eye on which deals are being offered by suppliers, Billy said the premium gins are providing solid margins for the pub.

“It’s changed the way a lot of people drink in here,” he said.

“It’s an amazing wee thing that’s happened. It’s like a wee mini revolution.”

It’s changed the way a lot of people drink in here. It’s like a wee mini revolution.

In Fort William Rhona Mackenzie, general manager of The Ben Nevis Bar, said it was the arrival of Isle of Harris Gin a few years ago that really kickstarted the gin boom in that venue.

“It was probably two or three years ago when Harris Gin exploded and everyone was wanting Harris Gin or something more local,” said Rhona.

“And then it just sort of grew from there. We went from having two or three bottles to having nearly 40.”

Billy Gold of the Hielan Jessie

Like at the Hielan Jessie, gin has proved popular with a broad spectrum of customers at the Ben Nevis, both male and female and with locals as well as tourists visiting the area and wanting to try Scottish-produced spirit.

And with the wider range of gins has come a much wider selection of tonics and mixers.

“That’s kind of exploded as well,” said Rhona.

“People used to just want a gin and tonic and now they want a gin and elderflower tonic or a gin with cucumber tonic. That’s changed quite dramatically.

“We recommend pairings for people who’d like to try something different but there’s a small amount of people who like a specific tonic with a gin because that’s just what they enjoy.”

Working with mixer brand Fever-Tree, the Ben Nevis hosts gin tastings a couple of times a year, and Rhona said these events have attracted new regulars to the pub.

“Last time we had a group of women that didn’t realise we had the whole range of Fever-Tree tonics,” she said.

Ben Nevis bar in Fort William

“They’ve started becoming regulars now because we have the whole range.”

Tastings have also become a regular event at Corstorphine pub Winstons, where licensee Iain Hewitt will charge customers £15 to sample five gins with a range of mixers, with all proceeds going to local charities.

Winstons stocks between 20 and 30 gins at any one time and – like both the Ben Nevis and Hielan Jessie – the spirit has become steadily more popular in the pub.

“Some of them are customer requests, some are good deals, some are recommendations from other bars or suppliers,” said Iain.

“It’s really just a case of having a decent range covering the majority of [flavours] and then a few sort of weird and wonderful ones.”

And Iain reckoned the popularity of the spirit has been helped by the number of mixers on the market.

He said: “Part of it is probably the tonic thing; people think they don’t like gin and tonic when actually it’s that they don’t like the tonic. So now that everybody’s drinking gin people are more aware of different mixers you can have with it. So you’re getting more gins and lemonade, more gins and soda, that kind of thing.

“If you were to split it, there’s probably more females drinking it than men, but it is changing, I think, from the more traditional views.”