Should American Gins Be Geographically Protected?

Many European agricultural products, including wine and spirits, are awarded distinctions that safeguard their production methods and terroir. Should America's craft distillers protect spirits like gin based on where and how they're made? Lauren Sloss explores.

gin xoriguer gin de mahon

Gin has been produced on Menorca, a Balearic island in the Mediterranean, since the mid-18th century when the island was a part of the British Empire—and British soldiers and sailors had a serious hankering for gin. Early Menorcan distillers—using wood-fired copper stills—created a base from grapes grown on the island and flavored it with imported juniper berries, which were eventually grown locally, too. In the early-20th century, a local family began bottling and marketing the gin as Gin Xoriguer [buy], which eventually became known as Gin de Menorca and then Gin de Mahón (the capital of Menorca) in 2010.

Owing to all of these distinctions—its grape base, historic grounding and local production methods—Gin de Mahón is one of three gins in the world to be distinguished as a Geographically Protected product, a food or drink item that can only be produced in a certain place, using specific ingredients and made using a method with a long history. (At least, it was one of three. Plymouth Gin, produced at Blackfriars Distillery in Plymouth, UK since 1793, is losing its GI due to brand owner Pernod Ricard’s decision to eschew renewal. Vilnius Gin, a thirty-year-old spirit produced in Lithuania, is the only other gin with the GI.)

For U.S.-based gin lovers, the October announcement that Gin de Mahón was going to be available in the United States was an exciting one. But it also touches on a question some American distillers are beginning to ask: With the boom of American craft spirits—many of which boast local and craft production methods—could it make sense for American gins begin to seek out their own protected designations?

Geographic protections have been around for centuries, but came into vogue again a few decades ago as the European Union was forming, standardizing processes and terms for food and beverage products. In order to call something cheese in England, fromage in France, and käse in Germany meant it all had to be produced a certain way, using specified products in approved facilities. Products outside regulations, which had been made in unique, traditional ways for long periods of time—specific to (and often dependent on) their region of creation—could be awarded this protective status. So, you can’t go calling any pungent blue cheese Roquefort; it has to be made in a specific place, using a certain type of milk and aged in particular caves for it to be deemed as such.

U.S. craft distillers still seem hesitant to embrace the strictures that come with these types of protections. While the craft movement may tout its geographic points as much (if not more so) than the protected brands—cognac to gin—geographic protections necessitate strict limitations on how a product can be created.

The EU awards these distinctions—through an application and approval process—to protect traditional practices, recognize specific products and give consumers more information about what they’re purchasing. There’s also a healthy dose of marketing savvy, here—products that are recognized as “special” lend an appeal to buyers both local and international. It is, in a sense, the locavore movement put into practice on a massive, government-organized level.

Wine and spirits distinctions are an alphabet soup of protections. AOCs and DOCs, French and Italian appellation distinctions relating to specific grapes and regions, are considered Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), while spirits, including cognac, armagnac, scotch whisky and grappa, fall under the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) umbrella.

It’s a lot of legalese to wade through when picking a bottle to pair with dinner or mix into a cocktail, but the idea is to showcase a specific terroir that allows this product to exist in the first place. In the world of spirits, gin is an excellent example of demonstrating terroir if the juniper and aromatics used are local or native to the region. In terms of Gin de Mahón, a product with a distinct sense of place, which has been produced for centuries with a unique method and base, the distinction is well-deserved.

This focus on historical recognition and protection makes sense when applied to European products like these. But is there a place for this kind of thinking in the United States? On the one hand, “tradition” in spirits and wine production is relatively nascent, particularly when compared to European counterparts.

The rash of American “craft” products (and the marketing jargon that goes along with them) might encourage U.S. distillers to seek protections simply in order to separate their products (and, grant them higher status in the hierarchy of craft spirits) from vast numbers of producers claiming to be hyper-local, small-batch and beyond. So what if you’re making gin from a carefully tested and perfected recipe using only juniper and aromatics found within a 50-mile radius? These days, so is every other distiller in town.

Despite this, U.S. craft distillers still seem hesitant to embrace the strictures that come with these types of protections. While the craft movement may tout its geographic points as much (if not more so) than the protected brands—cognac to gin—geographic protections necessitate strict limitations on how a product can be created.

“It kind of goes against the spirit of craft distillers,” says Steven DeAngelo, founder of Greenhook Ginsmiths. Based in Brooklyn, DeAngelo finds the idea of terroir in gin worth recognizing, but balks at the idea of putting strict limits on creativity. “We want to do things the way we want to.” In DeAngelo’s thoughts lies a key difference between craft, with its focus on innovation, and these geographic protections, which seek to highlight and preserve deeply ingrained traditions.

David King, president of Anchor Distilling in San Francisco, is similarly uninterested in the limits that accompany such a distinction. “Distillery 209 [another San Francisco-based gin producer] is what, a mile away? And their gin tastes completely different,” King says. “In that sense, there’s no such thing as a San Francisco gin. What would that even mean, really?”

Both DeAngelo and King believe that the distinctions do have meaning if they’re very specifically referencing history and qualities of terroir that cannot be found elsewhere. But what makes sense in the European spirits world doesn’t seem to have the same place in the U.S. market—at least not yet. How could it, when our “tradition” is still being developed?

For now, both GI recognitions and the maverick moves of craft distillers are clearly attempts by spirits producers to stay relevant, and present, in an increasingly saturated market. At its best, the U.S. market is responsible for creating some beautiful, groundbreaking spirits; there’s no insecurity about their “newness,” nor should there be. The success of these innovative approaches is very much recognized by the European market. But traditions don’t appear out of nowhere and Gin de Mahón was certainly groundbreaking in its early days. So, if today’s nascent American gins manage to stand the test of time, in decades (or centuries) perhaps protective status will become a probability—or even a necessity.