Forty-seven million bottles of gin worth £1.2bn were served up last year in the UK. That’s enough, according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, to make 1.32 billion G&Ts. Gin has never been more popular and varied, and innovative manufacturer G&J Distillers is making the most of this trend. Maddy White reports.
If gin is your drink of choice – neat, pink, flavoured or otherwise – then chances are 250-year-old G&J Distillers has filled your glass. Based in Cheshire, the distillery, which is housed across two still houses, can produce a quarter of a million bottles of spirits per day.
The company boasts advanced liquid filling machines and brands such as Greenall’s Original Dry Gin, Opihr Spiced Gin and Bloom Gin. It is also the largest supplier of own-label gin (plus vodka and Irish cream) in the UK.
Over the past year, the distillery exported 30 million bottles of gin to more than 100 different countries. Opihr, the distiller’s fastest-growing gin, has seen just over a 100% increase in volume growth during the same period, making it also the world’s fastest growing premium gin.
High speed, low cost
Walking through one of the still houses, the aroma of juniper berries, the key botanical in gin is immediately apparent. G&J Distillers source theirs from Tuscany, and as Kris Dickenson, group integration director for G&J Distillers explains, when it comes to that vital ingredient, “We have automated some of the processes in the still house, but nothing is as good or efficient as a distiller’s nose.”
“The purpose of this site is to be highly efficient, fast and low cost; the strategy of the business may have changed over time – but it is through our processes and production lines that we remain efficient,” Kris continued.
Depending on the batch requirement, the distillery can produce anything from 750 to 19,000 cases of spirit in just one production. A fundamental aspect of G&J’s business is variety and flexibility, but that presents a classic production line challenge.
“In an ideal world, you would reduce the number of changeovers [of product type] and produce bigger batches. Essentially, you can have high efficiency and a low number of changeovers, or you can have a higher number of changeovers and reduce the level of efficiency.
“The customer base has changed so much that we are now doing an increased number of smaller runs and have more individual customers. But, we are flexible and agile, so if a small run offers a sensible business case, then we will do it.”
Another area of production that reflects Kris’s high-speed, low-cost strategy is the packaging of the finished product, which just like the distillery is semi-automatic.
On each pallet there could be 600 to a couple of thousands of bottles. The semiautomatic aspect is deliberate, explained Kris, “It is really important that the materials are quality inspected before they go into the packaging machine, not only in terms of product quality, but also ensuring there is no reason to create a stoppage – again, high speed, high efficiency and lowest cost.”
Two key pieces of equipment in the bottling hall is the pair of advanced liquid-filling machines from US company Hartness – they are the only two examples of this type in the world. The machines run 24 hours a day, five days a week and can fill up to 400 bottles a minute.
“We have basically become the experts in these pieces of equipment, and have been world-leaders for 10 years – only now are others looking at quicker changeovers when they are putting new equipment in, but we have been well ahead of that curve,” Kris says.
A conventional machine of similar size may take two to three hours to change the parts and enable a different production line to run. However, G&J’s machine can do the same changeover in just 20 minutes. Kris explained that the company made an important strategic decision to only produce certain types of products on the two high-speed production lines. These range from 20cL bottles up to 1.75L, and encompass shapes such as flasks, and round, rectangular and square bottles.
In total, 16 different products are able to run on the lines, but within that number there are numerous different volume sizes. There is also a third line, which is more complex and can fill over 45 different types of bottle.
Unlike conventional liquid filling machines, the ones at G&J Distillers grip the bottle throughout the entire filling process. In conventional lines the bottle is rinsed and then handed back to be filled, but on the high-speed line Kris explained that, “The inverted bottle is held all the way through by grippers, it then gets rinsed and stays inverted, to allow the excess liquid to drain out before it gets turned the correct way around and presented to the filler.”
He says these machines provide vital production flexibility for the company, enabling the variations in products they produce for their high customer count.
Flexible legislation enables innovation
Joanne Moore is G&J Distillers’ first female master distiller out of a total of seven in the company’s history. She is understandably passionate about gin, and her 22 years at the company reflect her extensive knowledge of the liquid.
She says that gin’s increasing popularity has been reflected in increased amounts of innovation, with different flavours and colours: “The gin world has exploded in the last five to six years and it is going to continue to do that. Total spirits are growing, but what is driving that is gin. Data from the International Wines and Spirits Record (IWSR) suggests traditional gin will grow by around 5% and flavoured gins will grow by 3% over the next five years.”
She explained that part of this growth is from product innovation, and this is only possible because there is less restriction on what can be called ‘gin’ compared to, for example, whiskey. The current legislation only says that gin must have a predominant note of juniper (although ‘note’ is not quantified), be 37.5% ABV, and the spirit must come from a suitable derived agricultural origin.
Despite the advantages of flexibility, Joanne believes that, “Legislation needs to catch up with innovation, especially in the arena of flavoured gins, which are experiencing a rise in popularity with consumers. Innovation is a good thing, but it should be mindful innovation – let’s not lose sight of our gin credentials.”
Joanne said the process of creating gins has remained the same over her career, but what has changed is the need for a quicker turnaround on products, from flavour to sampling and production. This is to keep up with the increased demand for both the product, and the variety of new gin concepts available to customers.
Consumer-focused is key
Both Kris and Joanne emphasised it is essential for the company to be consumer-focused and customer aware. Kris explains that the company’s customer base ranges from entrepreneurs who want small batches of gin, to larger companies, for example The Co-operative, which ordered an award-winning vodka that recently won a trophy medal at the International Spirits Challenge.
“The system has become more agile. What we are doing now, in terms of customer best practice, is improving the best processes and applying them company wide and we are maintaining our supply chain. This is to ensure we meet customer deadlines, achieve the right KPIs, and really offer a standardised service to customers across the company.”
The care and attention to detail G&J Distillers offer is something that Kris sees as the reason for their success. “We are able to offer and tailor a package that suits everyone.”
The distillers have a lot of projects in the pipeline, as Joanne and Kris tell me over a Bloom Jasmine & Rose gin and tonic. “We are strategic, one of the aims of the business is to become a one-stop solution for all spirits, whiskey, liqueur, gin, that is absolutely the goal. We are not finished. We are growing,” Kris says.
The process of gin creation from ingredient selection, to the distillation process and production is a complex operation. G&J Distillers has managed to optimise this process for their customers and are leading the field in their equipment and attitude.