YouTube quietly added free, ad-supported movies to its site

YouTube quietly added around 100 ad-supported Hollywood movies to its site, beginning last month, according to a new report from AdAge. The titles include a mix of classics like “Rocky” and “The Terminator,” as well as other family fare like “Zookeeper,” “Agent Cody Banks,” and “Legally Blonde,” among others.

Before, YouTube had only offered consumers the ability to purchase movies and TV shows, similar to how you can rent or buy content from Apple’s iTunes or Amazon Video.

Currently, YouTube is serving ads on these free movies, but the report said the company is open to working out other deals with advertisers – like sponsorships or exclusive screenings.

YouTube’s advantage in this space, compared with some others, is its sizable user base of 1.9 million monthly active users and its ability to target ads using data from Google .

The addition of a an ad-supported movies marketplace on YouTube follows Roku’s entry into this market, which began last year with the launch of its free collection of movies, called The Roku Channel.

This year, Roku has been expanding the type of content on that channel to also include things like live news from ABC News, Cheddar, Newsmax, Newsy, People TV, Yahoo and The Young Turks, and – more recently – entertainment and live sports. 

Walmart also offers its own free movies collection through Vudu, and recently teamed up with MGM on original content for the service. Tubi operates a streaming service with free, ad-supported content, too. And Amazon is rumored to be working on something similar.

Blockchain gaming gets a boost with Mythical Games’ $16M Series A

Fortnite, the free multi-player survival game, has earned an astonishing $1 billion from in-game virtual purchases alone. Now, others in the gaming industry are experimenting with how they too can capitalize on new trends in gaming.

Mythical Games, a startup out of stealth today with $16 million in Series A funding, is embracing a future in gaming where user-generated content and intimate ties between players, content creators, brands and developers is the norm. Mythical is using its infusion of venture capital to develop a line of PC, mobile and console games on the EOSIO blockchain, which will also be open to developers to build games with “player-owned economies.”

The company says an announcement regarding its initial lineup of games is on the way.

Mythical is led by a group of gaming industry veterans. Its chief executive officer is John Linden, a former studio head at Activision and president of the Niantic-acquired Seismic Games. The rest of its C-suite includes chief compliance officer Jamie Jackson, another former studio head at Activision; chief product officer Stephan Cunningham, a former director of product management at Yahoo; and head of blockchain Rudy Kock, a former senior producer at Blizzard — the Activision subsidiary known for World of Warcraft. Together, the team has worked on games including Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, Marvel Strike Force and Skylanders.

Galaxy Digital’s EOS VC Fund has led the round for Mythical. The $325 million fund, launched earlier this year, is focused on expanding the EOSIO ecosystem via strategic investments in startups building on EOSIO blockchain software. Javelin Venture Partners, Divergence Digital Currency, cryptocurrency exchange OKCoin and others also participated in the round.

It’s no surprise investors are getting excited about the booming gaming business given the success of Epic Games, Twitch, Discord and others in the space.

Epic Games raised a $1.25 billion round late last month thanks to the cultural phenomenon that its game, Fortnite, has become. KKR, Iconiq Capital, Smash Ventures,Vulcan Capital, Kleiner Perkins, Lightspeed Venture Partners and others participated in that round. Discord, a chat application for gamers, raised a $50 million financing in April at a $1.65 billion valuation from Benchmark Capital, Greylock Partners, IVP, Spark Capital and Tencent. And Dapper Labs, best known for the blockchain-based game CryptoKitties, even raised a VC round this year — a $15 million financing led by Venrock, with participation from GV and Samsung NEXT.

In total, VCs have invested $1.8 billion in gaming startups this year, per PitchBook.

Walmart passes Apple to become No. 3 online retailer in U.S.

Walmart has overtaken Apple to become the No. 3 online retailer in the U.S., according to a report this week from eMarketer. While Amazon still leads by a wide margin, accounting for 48 percent of e-commerce sales in 2018, Walmart – including also Sam’s Club and Jet.com – is poised to capture 4 percent of all online retail spending in the U.S. by year-end, totaling $20.91 billion.

The news of the shift in e-commerce rankings comes alongside Walmart’s strong earnings which saw the retailer reporting a 43 percent increase in online sales and upping its year-end forecast for both earnings and sales.

The company had beat Wall St.’s expectations in its fiscal third quarter, with $1.08 earnings per share instead of the expected $1.01. However, it fell short on revenue with $124.89 billion versus the $125.55 billion expected, due to currency complications, it said.

eMarketer had estimated in July that Walmart would capture a 3.7 percent e-commerce share in the U.S. this year, but increased that to 4 percent based on its quickly growing online sales.

This year, Walmart’s online sales will grow by 39.4 percent – just slightly behind the growth rate for online furniture and home goods retailer Wayfair, which is expected to see sales grow by 40.1 percent, the firm also noted.

Apple, meanwhile, will grow just over 18 percent in 2018 – a slowdown related to slowing domestic sales for smartphones and other devices. Its portion of the e-commerce market is relatively unchanged from 2017 to 2018, going from 3.8 percent to 3.9 percent.

Walmart, by comparison, is increasing its share from 3.3 percent to 4.0 percent.

But both are behind eBay, now at 7.2 percent. And they’re both vastly outranked by Amazon, which will account for a whopping 48 percent of the U.S. e-commerce market in 2018, up from 43.1 percent last year.

Amazon will take in more than $252.10 billion domestically this year, eMarketer said.

“Walmart’s e-commerce business has been firing on all cylinders lately,” said eMarketer principal analyst Andrew Lipsman, said in a statement. “The retail giant continues to make smart acquisitions to extend its e-commerce portfolio and attract younger and more affluent shoppers. But more than anything, Walmart has caught its stride with a fast-growing online grocery business, which is helped in large part by the massive consumer adoption of click-and-collect.”

The Boring Company goes brick-and-mortar with The Brick Store

Elon Musk has shot out some crazy, unbelievable tweets over the last year, but he wasn’t joking about the bricks. Musk has started a company called The Brick Store LLC to produce and sell bricks, according to public documents obtained by TechCrunch.

The new company, which was founded in July, will be managed by Steve Davis, the ex-SpaceX engineer who is also running The Boring Company (TBC).

TBC is developing new tunneling and transportation technologies, and the bricks will be made from soil displaced by the company’s tunnel-boring machines. Elon Musk has tweeted that the bricks could cost as little as 10 cents each, and might even be given away to affordable housing projects.

The Brick Store’s first physical outlet will be a far cry from Tesla’s sleek, designer showrooms. Planning documents submitted to Hawthorne, a city in southwestern Los Angeles County, show a rundown stucco building about a mile from TBC and SpaceX’s headquarters. Forbidding black steel security grilles “will be utilized … to accent the entrances and windows,” TBC wrote in its application to repaint the building.

Despite these design flourishes, TBC did not select the building for its aesthetic appeal. The building — formerly housing a kitchen cabinet business — is located above an exit tunnel that TBC is digging to extract the boring machine from its first test tunnel. This is intended to showcase Loop, a proposed underground transportation system carrying people or cars on self-contained electric skates traveling at up to 150 miles per hour.

The tunnel was originally planned to stretch around two miles under public roads from a parking structure next to SpaceX. However, in April this year, TBC used a subsidiary to quietly buy the Hawthorne corner lot, which sits about halfway along the planned route, for $2 million.

In July, TBC asked Hawthorne for permission to use that lot to build an access shaft to extract its tunnel-boring machine, which, because it cannot move backwards, would otherwise have been abandoned at the end of the excavation.

The same month, Musk founded The Brick Store, whose purpose, according to state filings, is the “manufacture and sale of bricks.” TBC has already produced some structures from bricks made from tunnel spoil, and Musk tweeted yesterday that they would be used to build a watchtower at the entrance to the tunnel.

Turning tunnel waste into a valuable commodity fits in with Musk’s environmental leanings — and will save TBC from the cost of disposing all that dirt. TBC has even suggested that the bricks could potentially be used as part of the tunnel lining itself. Musk has previously said that the tunnel would officially open on December 10.

TBC did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this story.

Bricks made from everyday soil, usually called compressed earth blocks (CEB), date back to ancient times. CEBs are still used in developing countries today, and are part of building codes in California and New Mexico. But even there, the market for them is tiny — possibly because CEB buildings can be awkward to build, wire and insulate. BC has even suggested that the bricks could potentially be used as part of the tunnel lining itself.

Dwell Earth sells machines that produce CEBs by applying pressure to a mixture of earth and a little cement.

“Elon seems to have a way of bringing energy and talent to big challenges, and we are happy to see that he may be as excited about [CEBs] as we are,” Dwell Earths founder Bob de Jong told TechCrunch.

The Boring Company

TBC received around $112 million from Musk earlier this year. These funds will be used to build a number of tunnels around the country, including a Loop to connect Dodger Stadium to the subway in L.A., one that would link Chicago and O’Hare airport, as well as an ambitious commuter Loop between Washington, D.C. and Maryland.

These projects could be thwarted, or at least delayed, because of an increasingly heated trade war between the U.S. and China.

TBC lawyers wrote to the United States Trade Representative in July that the tariffs imposed by President Trump on Chinese-tunneling machine parts, among other products, would delay its projects by up to two years and mean lost job opportunities. The company asked for an exemption from the tariffs that has not yet been granted.

If there’s anyone who can re-brand dirt and build a market for CEBs, it’s Elon Musk. But even if The Brick Store’s bricks don’t raise enough money for a Mars mission or save the planet, at least they are a little more practical than a novelty “not a flamethrower.”

University students hit by wave of fake tax refund emails

Students in lectureImage copyright Getty Images

University students have been bombarded with fake tax refund emails in the last month, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has warned.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of students have been targeted in a bid to steal their banking and personal details.

The fraudsters appear to be using .ac.uk email addresses that look genuine, in order to avoid detection.

HMRC said email, text or voicemail would never be used for real refunds.

“Although HMRC is cracking down hard on internet scams, criminals will stop at nothing to steal personal information.

“I’d encourage all students to become phishing-aware – it could save you a lot of money,” said financial secretary to the Treasury, Mel Stride.

The tax authority said it was the first time it had seen a tax-scam attack directly targeting university students in such high volumes.

In common with other tax scams, fraudsters send a message – complete with HMRC, Gov.uk, or credit card branding – supposedly telling the recipient about a tax refund.

The recipient’s name and email address may be included several times within the email itself.

If tricked, the victim then clicks on a link, into which they enter their banking and personal details.

Fraudsters can use this information to steal money from bank accounts, or to sell on to other con-artists.

Between April and September this year, HMRC requested that 7,500 of these phishing sites be deactivated.

Which universities are being targeted?

Thousands of students have reported cases at certain universities, particularly in the past three or four weeks, but institutions across the country have been targeted.

HMRC said that it was calling on particular universities to raise awareness of the dangers.

They were Aberdeen, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Imperial College London, King’s College London, Manchester Metropolitan, Newcastle, Nottingham, Plymouth, Queen Mary (London), Queen’s (Belfast), Southampton, Sussex, University College London, and Warwick.

It is not known how many students have fallen for the scam or how much they have lost. HMRC believes cases are under-reported.

Pauline Smith, director of Action Fraud, said: “Devious fraudsters will try every trick in the book to convince victims to hand over their personal information, often with devastating consequences.

“It is vital that students spot the signs of fraudulent emails to avoid falling victim by following HMRC’s advice.”

Anyone targeted should not click on any links but can report cases to HMRC by forwarding the emails to HMRC or texts to 60599. Anyone who has lost money should contact Action Fraud.

Unicorns aren’t special anymore

When Aileen Lee, the former Kleiner Perkins partner and founder of the seed-stage venture capital firm Cowboy Ventures, coined the term “unicorn” in 2013 on this very site, there were just 39 companies that had earned the title.

She called them “the lucky/genius few.” Her definition: U.S. software startups launched since 2003 worth more than $1 billion. When she authored the viral post, just four companies were garnering valuations that high each year, according to her calculations. Five years later, the rate at which startups are becoming unicorns has increased 353.1 percent, according to PitchBook’s latest research.

Today, there are 145 “active unicorns” in the U.S. alone, worth an aggregate valuation of $555.9 billion.

Why? A couple of reasons. Namely, because companies are staying private longer and longer, allowing the unicorn count to continue to swell with very few companies transitioning out and into another club — the public markets club. Plus, there is so much capital available in the market, $80.1 billion, to be exact, that late-stage companies are opting for “mini-IPOs” sponsored by SoftBank instead of airing their dirty laundry in an S-1 filing.

There are no signs pointing to a slowdown in new unicorns. The latest data shows that it only took the average U.S. unicorn six years to achieve such status, versus 7.5 years only three years ago. I can think of several examples of companies that did it much faster than that: Brex, Lime and Bird are some recent companies to be worth $1 billion or more in record time.

Valuation step-ups are meatier than ever, too. The median late-stage valuation has increased by 50.7 percent year-over-year. Meanwhile, early-stage and seed-stage median valuations have jumped roughly 28 percent and 12 percent, respectively. Not to mention venture capital investment in 2018 is expected to reach highs not seen since the dot-com boom.

At the end of the day, a startup’s valuation, regardless of how large it is or how quickly it reached the billion-dollar milestone, shouldn’t matter. But these are metrics in which others in the startup ecosystem measure success and they determine the worth of a company — or at least the amount an investor is willing to pay for a piece. 

As much as I’d like to do away with the term, even the concept entirely, the proliferation of billion-dollar companies isn’t something I can ignore.

Feeling left out of a hot market? This new outfit has a fund with shares of 30 top ‘unicorns’ to sell you

When Equidate, a venture-backed secondaries marketplace based in San Francisco, closed its most recent round of funding with $50 million four months ago, it was hardly a surprising bet on the part of its backers. As startups linger ever longer as private companies, more people are looking to lock up shares wherever they can find them.

Investors have plenty of platforms from which to choose. In addition to Equidate, other companies that match investors with “pre-IPO” company shares include EquityZen, SharesPost, and Seedrs. Still, individual investors have mostly been relegated to choosing this or that company on a piecemeal basis as shares have become available. Among few exceptions to this rule include investors in venture funds like 137 Ventures, whose express aim is creating a portfolio of secondary shares that have been acquired from earlier investors, founders, and employees, or in Industry Ventures, which has been buying up later-stage secondary shares since its founding in 2000. (Investing in SoftBank’s Vision Fund, which is piecing together a portfolio of unicorn companies, might be another option for people with enough access, though it comes with certain strings attached.

No wonder Equidate thinks there’s a better way, And with the financial wind at its back, it just began testing out its theory. How? By spinning off a new asset management business whose sole purpose is to acquire shares in the “top” private companies that are currently valued at more than a billion dollars but that still trade privately.

It isn’t going to buy 5 or 20 or 100 stakes. Instead, the portfolio will maintain positions in exactly 30 companies, and these will be adjusted on a quarterly basis, led by the person leading this new spin-off: Ziad Makkawi, a longtime investment advisor who recently spent two years as CEO of Qatar First Bank.

As Equidate founder and President Sohail Prasad see it, his company is already spending time learning an awful lot about Palantir and Stripe and WeWork and Pinterest. It tracks bid and ask activity, along with how pricing and valuations are reflected by both new transactions and time decay. To underscore how much data is coursing through Equidate, he says that company now sees $1 billion in transaction volume on its platform annually.

After a point, he and the rest of Equidate’s management concluded that it made sense to create an index to track the health of these companies in a way that makes it easier to understand their performance relative to their peers (it rolled this out yesterday). It also decided to create a product around the index. Enter its new fund and accompanying asset management firm.

“We’re excited,” says Prasad. “This is going to let people buy for the first time a basket of all of these companies, which are vetted and that are already in their growth stages and in, really, in previous years, would have been public already.”

It’s easy to see other investors getting excited about a kind of exchange traded fund filled with unicorns, too. But first things first. The new fund is still being raised, sounds like. It’s looking to close with between $50 million and $100 million in capital. It’s also worth noting that although SEC Chairman Jay Clayton has said he’d like the agency to allow more retail investors a shot at companies that have been out of their reach, Equidate’s new spin-off, Equiam, will still only accept checks from accredited investors, and they need to invest at least $250,000 .

There’s also the prickly question of whether the companies that investors want most are accessible to Equiam. Unsurprisingly, Prasad, argues that it’s not an issue. “Because we’ll be a larger fund, we’ll be able to buy blocks of preferred stock where traditionally a person might not have access. We do have access at this scale.”

As for what Equiam is charging in management fees, the fund is “incredibly low cost,” says Prasad. Investors will have to decide whether they agree, but those who write the fund a $1 million or bigger check will pay a 1.5 percent management fee. Investors who come in at between $250,000 and $1 million will pay a 2.5 percent management fee.

If you’re curious about to learn more, you can learn more by checking out Equiam’s site here.

Kairos founder countersues his own company for $10 million

The turmoil continues at facial recognition startup Kairos. Last night, Kairos founder Brian Brackeen filed a counter lawsuit against Kairos and its interim CEO Melissa Doval that seeks $10 million in damages.

Kairos is a facial recognition startup that has become well-known for its stance to never sell to law enforcement. At Disrupt SF 2018, Brackeen showed his technology and spoke on a panel about the hazards of facial recognition and algorithmic bias.

This countersuit comes after Kairos terminated Brackeen from his role as chief executive officer, citing Brackeen misled shareholders and potential investors, misappropriated corporate funds, did not report to the board of directors and created a divisive atmosphere. Kairos followed that up with a lawsuit, alleging theft and breach of fiduciary duties — among other things.

In a countersuit, Brackeen now “seeks to hold Kairos and Doval accountable for intentionally destroying his reputation and livelihood through fraudulent conduct, the publication of malicious falsehoods, and the commission of illegal corporate acts.” The suit also alleges Kairos refused to pay him the compensation to which he was entitled.

In one example, Brackeen alleges Kairos, under the leadership of board chairperson Stephen O’Hara, did not pay him a salary for 34 weeks in order for Kairos to have a better cash flow.

“We’ve come to expect this behavior on his behalf,” Doval said in an email to TechCrunch. “We stand firmly with our original complaint and the courts will rule in our favor once they are presented with the evidence for the case. Our fiduciary duty is to our stakeholders, and we remain dedicated to doing right by them.”

The lawsuit alleges O’Hara also did not share Brackeen’s commitment to ensuring Kairos’ technology did not contribute to racial bias and other social injustices. It also alleges O’Hara pressured Brackeen to retract his promise to never sell the technology to law enforcement. That clash, the lawsuit alleges, resulted in O’Hara seeking to push Brackeen out of the company. O’Hara, in an email to TechCrunch, denies those claims.

“Of note, as far as I know as chairman of the board, we are not trying to sell this to law enforcement and have no plans to do so until such time we can insure [sic] any biases of facial recognition are solved and all privacy issues addressed,” O’Hara wrote. “Frankly, we are focused on much more attractive opportunities now.”

Cash-strapped

In the coming weeks, Kairos will hold a meeting of the shareholders, where Brackeen hopes they will vote to remove the board and reinstate him as CEO. That meeting was supposed to happen last week, but has since been rescheduled. Brackeen says he’s currently trying to get enough shareholders on his side to force a vote. In the last week, however, the company presented an offering to shareholders that was fully subscribed.

“Meanwhile, thanks to a vote of support from all classes of shareholders this past week, Kairos under Melissa Doval is focused on building its business behind its new on-premise product,” O’Hara wrote. In a follow-up email, O’Hara said, “Shareholders voted to approve the Rights offering which was fully subscribed, and included ratification of the Board and Ms. Doval.”

That offering valued the company at $1.5 million — a significant drop from Kairos’ previous $120 million valuation. That means shareholders were able to purchase 43,366,780 shares at a price of just $0.01153 per share.

“Though the emergency nature of this offering and the Company’s precarious financial position have led the Company to offer common stock in this offering at a price well below that received in prior fundraising transactions, the structure of the offering as a rights offering to all existing investors in the Company will allow the Company to raise needed capital without subjecting participating investors to dilution of their ownership stakes in the Company,” the memo, obtained by TechCrunch, states.

One of the conditions of that offering is to reconstitute the Kairos board of directors as a three-person board that consists of O’Hara, Kairos Director Mike Gardner and Doval.

The point of this offering is to raise $500,019 in “emergency capital” to be able to pay its employees and continue operating into 2019. As O’Hara noted, the offering was fully subscribed.

Thanks to this current legal situation, which Brackeen refers to as a “cram down,” his ownership in the company has decreased by 90 percent, which “shows a disrespect for founders.”

Kairos is pretty cash-strapped right now. Even with the emergency capital in place, Kairos is only set up to be able to operate through Q1 2019, “by the end of which management believes that revenue growth through sales either will enable the Company to become financially self-sustaining or will place the Company on a more sound financial footing that allows it to conduct further capital-raising,” the memo states.

Meanwhile, however, Brackeen says he has been able to raise $3.5 million in venture funding, and is targeting a total of $5 million. This funding, he hopes, will be successful in convincing shareholders to vote to replace the board. Brackeen raised this funding from Beyond Capital Markets, an impact investment fund.

But convincing them to invest given the current state of Kairos was quite the feat, Brackeen said.

“It’s like riding a bike backwards with one arm — and blind,” he told me.

The lesson for founders, Brackeen told me, is “when you’re taking those first investments and you’re really excited, you need to have callouts for the founder versus the current CEO.”

He added that “angel groups shouldn’t have that kind of power too late in a company’s lifecycle.” Additionally, once founders are starting to raise a Series A, “you need to make sure your lawyers are not meeting them halfway on docs and not necessarily playing nice.”

Publisher of the ‘i’ newspaper sets out rescue plan

The "i" newspaper

Johnston Press, publisher of the ‘i’, The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post, has detailed a rescue plan aimed at ensuring its survival.

The newspaper group put itself up for sale last month, but said none of the offers it received were strong enough.

It now plans to file for administration and says the firm’s assets will then immediately be bought by its lenders.

If the deal is approved by the courts, it will preserve jobs and stabilise the business, Johnston Press said.

But shares in the company are now worthless and will no longer trade on the London Stock Exchange from Monday.

The group said in a statement: “This is the best remaining option available as it will preserve the jobs of the group’s employees and ensure that the group’s businesses will be carried on as normal.

“The group hopes that this transfer will be completed within the next 24 hours.”

Chief executive David King said in a letter to staff that the move had not been “an easy decision”, but it would reduce debt and secure new money for the business.

“We are very confident that this is not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new phase in which we work with the new owners of the group to give shape to a new future,” he wrote in a letter to staff.

Johnston Press is one of the largest local and regional newspaper organisations in the UK, but has a £220m bond which is due for repayment in June next year.

Mr King said the debt had “constrained us” and that none of the offers they had received for the firm was enough to repay it.

He apologised to staff with a defined benefit pension scheme – some 250 current employees – warning their future payments would be affected by the rescue deal.

“The negative effects on the scheme are an inescapable consequence of taking the steps needed to ensure the future of the business,” he wrote.

Mr King said he intended to stay on as chief executive and said the rescue plan was better than “a lengthy and unpredictable administration process”.

Long history

The publisher has titles covering more than 200 locations from Scotland and Northern Ireland to the south of England.

It was founded in Falkirk in 1767, and listed on the London Stock Exchange in 1988, growing through acquisitions.

The i, which was first launched in 2012 and sells for 60p on weekdays and £1 on Saturdays, is seen as the jewel in the crown of its papers. .

In its latest results, Johnston Press reported a 10% fall in revenues during the first half of 2018. It swung back to a profit of £6.2m for the six-month period, but this was mainly due to a one-off accounting gain of £8.8m.

In September the i recorded a year-on-year circulation drop of 9% to 242,408 copies.

How long can gin stay in high spirits?

Gin bottlesImage copyright Getty Images

Gin has gone from a drink for posh parents and old buffers to the hippest spirit in the UK – but is it on the wane again?

Friday night at the House of Hortus bar in London’s Soho is shaping up nicely.

There is a choice of themed rooms with lighting, furniture and even scents matched to the colour and flavour of the drinks being served, and there’s groovy music, too.

There’s a good choice of cocktails, different ones in each room: rhubarb and ginger, plum and cinnamon, pomegranate and rose, all mixed with sparkling wine and garnished with mint or rose petals. But there’s one thing they have in common: the alcohol in all of them is gin.

Image caption The Lidl House of Hortus pop-up bar in Soho

The night is in fact to promote discounter Lidl’s Christmas gin range.

The chain is banking on it contributing to a bumper Christmas – its sales of the spirit are already 40% higher this year than last.

This isn’t just the fashion at Lidl, of course. Aldi’s gin won joint silver (with Lidl’s) at this year’s International Wine and Spirits awards and Asda reports a mind-blowing rise of 76% in gin sales this year.

Lidl says 1.5 million more adults drink gin today than four years ago.

And this week saw the launch of a £4,000 bottle of gin. Available only at chic department store Harvey Nichols.

Gin’s popularity isn’t just found in a glass these days.

Essence of gin runs through a startling list of products: body butter, scented candles and lip balms, tea bags, advent calendars, popcorn and gin-flavoured cheese and chocolates.

All this would have bemused the late Queen Mother’s generation, for whom gin aperitifs marked the spirit’s last high popularity mark sometime around 1970.

Juniper, the defining aromatic that gives the drink its name, may not now even be discernible among the flavours featured. Roasted white sesame seeds, seaweed, hibiscus and sansho (Japanese pepper) have all been pressed into service for flavouring gin.

Image caption Is there anything you can’t put a gin theme on?

How has it come to this? And can it continue?

The answer to the first question is a simple policy tweak by the government. Before 2009, the law meant no distillery under a 1,800-litre (400 gallons) capacity would be granted a licence. It did this to try to stop small-scale hooch makers.

But then the government’s tax collector, HMRC, at the urging of Sipsmith Gin, changed its policy to allow small, craft distillers “as long as they had good business reasons and strong security could be evidenced to protect excised duty revenues”.

The number of stills rocketed. HMRC says there are currently 419 licensed distilleries in the UK; in 2009 there were only 113.

Image copyright Nick Cook
Image caption Nicholas Cook of the Gin Guild hasn’t (quite) called peak gin

Two brands in particular stand out for whetting the trendsetters’ appetite, says Nicholas Cook, director general of industry body the Gin Guild.

“Bombay Sapphire was a revolution at the time with its lighter, more botanical style and the other one was Hendrick’s, which marked itself out with what were then novel botanicals, in the form of cucumber and rose.”

Another trailblazing feature of the two brands were their “inspirational, individual and stylish bottles”.

But with 500 gins in the UK alone, uniqueness on these two fronts is no longer enough.

Peak gin, it seems, is nearing.

A major report on the UK white spirits market, by market research firm Mintel, will be published in December. Its author, analyst Alice Baker, says gin is by far and away the fastest-growing of the white spirits with sales across the board up by around 25%.

“Gin could have another few years of growth – but then it could plateau. As with any trend, it has its limits.”

Even the Gin Guild comes close to acknowledging this although it’s hardly going to call time on its own product. It prefers to say it is at “peak brand”.

“It would be hard to enter the market now,” admits Nicholas Cook. “You’d be hard pushed to find room on a retailer or bartender’s shelves.”

And although the Guild may not want to acknowledge it too strongly, its parent body the Worshipful Company of Distillers’ annual debate, will in fact be: “This house believes that the gin boom has reached its peak.”

But it holds this in May, so we won’t know what they think about that until then.

Image copyright Scott Garfitt
Image caption Pink gin is reborn

It is hard to see where next the gin market could go but Mintel suggests manufacturers distinguish themselves by using “colour outside the bottle”.

In Lidl’s House of Hortus pop-up a whole room was glowing pink, with those pinkish-type gins of pomegranate and rose on offer. Other rooms were also colour-themed.

And Mintel says this could go even further. “Pink rules now, but there are even ones that change colour. Social media users are a key target – vibrantly coloured gins lend themselves well to photos and videos and that sort of thing does help reach those precious under-40-year-old consumers.”


A short history of gin

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hogarth’s Gin Lane: idleness, squalor and oblivion
  • Gin was invented in Holland in the 16th Century as a medicine, the English caught on to the “Dutch courage” habit when fighting with the Dutch in the Thirty Years’ War
  • King Charles I gives the Worshipful Company of Distillers the sole right to distil spirits in London, partly to help English farmers by using surplus corn and barley
  • More royal help from King William III (a Dutchman), he actively encourages spirit production to raise money for wars. Gin becomes cheaper and more popular than beer
  • Overuse of gin in the 1730s becomes a scandal as portrayed in Hogarth’s Gin Lane – idleness, vice and misery, madness and death
  • The “gin palaces” of the Victorian era are built, bright and glamorous giving the new industrial working class a place to spend their money
  • Gin falls from fashion, becoming the province of the posh and elderly until in 2009 a change in the law makes it easier to open a distillery and the new boom is unleashed

Meanwhile, all those who have joined in the gin party may like to consider what they can turn their hand to if the party is indeed winding down.

All those gin stills could be turned in a trice to another spirit.

Paul Jackson, the founder and editor of the Gin Guide, expects it to be rum.

At least he won’t be out of a job. He is currently laying out the pages for the first edition of the all new Rum Guide.

Mintel’s Alice Baker agrees that rum could be a contender. “It has the provenance potential – the story of which Caribbean island it originates from, and it doesn’t dominate the drink, if you had the right sort of marketing campaign that could start to improve again.”

Either way, HMRC won’t mind as it will still get its cut.

It takes a hefty payment from any spirit sold. For a litre bottle of 40% alcohol by volume that is currently £11.50.