Is Plymouth Gin the unluckiest spirits brand ever?
Richard Woodard casts his eye over Plymouth Gin, a brand with an enviable history – or an unfortunate one, depending on how you look at it.
Shortly after Moët Hennessy acquired the Glenmorangie brand in 2004, Bernard Arnault, head of Moet's parent company, LVMH, made a telling – and somewhat barbed – remark about the brand's perceived lack of dynamism and investment under its previous owners.
At a time when single malt scotch was witnessing spectacular growth, he said: "Glenmorangie chose not to take part in this."
Arnault's words came to mind when I read of Pernod Ricard's plans to transfer the US importation and marketing of Plymouth Gin (plus a handful of Irish whiskey brands) to a new subsidiary of former Malfy Gin owner Biggar & Leith.
Everyone knows about gin's spectacular growth over the past five years – and yet, compared to many of its more successful rivals, it looks as if this golden age has rather passed Plymouth by. How so? Delving into the brand's chequered recent past might help to explain.
Like many long-time gin fans, I've always loved Plymouth: the liquid, the brand, the history. When I first started in the drinks industry 20 or so years ago, Plymouth was a masterclass of what could be done to resurrect a dying brand with the right team and the right approach.
During the 1990s, when it was part of Allied Domecq, Plymouth languished in the shadow of Beefeater – at one point, it sold a paltry 4,000 cases a year – until it was rescued by branding genius John Murphy (Mini Metro, HobNobs, Homebase, and St Peter's Brewery), and run by Charles Rolls, later the driving force behind premium tonic maker Fever-Tree.
They turned Plymouth into the UK's best-selling premium gin by doing something that seems obvious now, but was less so 25 years ago: communicating heritage, history, and craftsmanship in everything you do – particularly the quirky, provenance-rich packaging. Restoring its abv to 41.2% from Allied's rather limp 37.5% didn't do any harm either.
The initial target was to sell 25,000 cases a year – just to break even – but, by the time then-Absolut brand owner Vin & Sprit acquired a 50% stake in Plymouth in 2000, volumes were closing in on 100,000 cases – and Rolls was talking bullishly about breaking the one million-case barrier within a decade.
Did it happen? Not so much. In 2011, Plymouth shifted little more than 75,000 cases, having haemorrhaged more than 50,000 cases in only five years.
What went wrong?
V&S bought Plymouth outright in 2005, when sales sat at well over 100,000 cases. Then, the company made the mystifying move of binning its instantly recognisable packaging in favour of a chiselled, art deco bottle that made it look like just another mid-market vodka. If it ain't broke, the thinking seems to have gone, smash it to bits.
In 2008, Pernod Ricard bought V&S, but just to get its hands on Absolut. For four years, Plymouth was back in the 1990s: second-best to Beefeater (which Pernod had acquired in 2005), with sales drifting inexorably down to a low of 50,000 cases in 2013.
By that point, however, Pernod had stopped sitting on its hands and done something, restoring the Murphy/Rolls thinking in 2012 with a provenance and heritage-heavy approach, a gorgeous new bottle and pricing in-line with the brand's super-premium status.
Hugely encouraging – or so I thought at the time. Since then, there's been the odd warm word – Pernod CEO Alex Ricard said Plymouth was "performing quite well" in 2017, and that it was "in strong growth" in 2019 – and the odd bit of NPD.
In mid-2019, the limited-edition Plymouth Gin Mr King's 1842 Recipe came along: limited to 2,000 cases and retailing at $64, featuring a bold recipe of only two botanicals: orris and juniper picked on a single summer's day in Italy. The first, we were told, of a series of new "craft" releases from Plymouth.
Almost two years later, despite its limited production, you can still buy Mr King's from the Plymouth Gin website, and from exclusive retail stockist The Whisky Exchange. Perhaps the pricing was too ambitious (roughly twice the price of the core expression and about 50% more expensive than Plymouth Navy Strength).
Nor has there been any sign of further releases in the series. Asked about this, Pernod Ricard UK says the brand has "adapted its plans as we saw consumer demand increase for classic gin styles". For a company that's released Beefeater Blackberry, Beefeater Peach and Raspberry, plus the 20% abv Beefeater Light in the past 18 months alone, that seems slightly odd.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that Pernod's gin strategy has moved on since 2012's talk of Plymouth's renaissance. Moved on to Monkey 47, to Ungava, Malfy, and Ki No Bi. It's not just Beefeater's shadow that Plymouth has to worry about these days.
What, then, to make of the news of the fresh strategy in the US? The prelude to a sale? Sources insist not. Evidence of a new, hands-off approach to help reinvigorate Plymouth? Let's hope so.
If not, it might be time for Pernod to finally admit defeat, cut its losses and find a modern-day Murphy and Rolls to ride to the rescue of what must surely be the unluckiest brand in the spirits industry.