The terms ‘less but more’ and ‘supporting local’ still abound in the Covid era of drinking. So, is now the time to invest in British premium spirits for your bar? Millie Milliken investigates
It was while shooting a conservation story on the Burmese border in China during his time as a photojournalist that Barney Wilczak (main picture) realised he’d missed the beginning of growing season back home in Cirencester. Obsessed with distilling in his spare time, Wilczak had begun making eaux de vie in his dad’s Cotswold greenhouse.
That greenhouse has evolved to become Capreolus Distillery. Its 11 eaux de vie and two gins are stocked in some of the UK’s most prestigious hospitality venues, lauded on social media by the UK on-trade’s most influential, and has created one-off expressions with fine wine and spirits behemoth Hedonism Wines. Clocking in at £55-£120 per 375ml bottle and arriving at consumers’ homes and restaurant tables with letterpress labels; fountain pen-scribed year, abv, bottle number and variety details, and a natural cork, they epitomise British premium.
Though coronavirus has put the on-trade into a financial quagmire, chat hasn’t quietened about how consumers’ drinking behaviour is changing. But will the end of the furlough scheme (not to mention the recession and Brexit) see belts tightening as we enter the latter part of this year? Or is it worth investing in British premium spirits for your bar?
Defining what makes a product premium is the first step. For some bar owners and wholesalers, ‘premium’ doesn’t just mean high cost, but also high perception value.
For Dawn Davies MW, head buyer at Speciality Drinks: ‘Most people will think of “premium” on a price point, and that can be objective... It’s also about look and feel, people buy with their eyes.’
Pajtim Tani Hasa, co-owner of Lab 22 bar in Cardiff, has gross profit (GP) to bear in mind when he thinks about what ‘premium’ means while stocking his back bar. ‘I do think different bars have different scales of where they place premium,’ he tells me, ‘but once they cross the £5 mark for a spirit [per serve], then they drift into that top-shelf category.’
So, what are the benefits of having those spirits behind the bar? Becky Davies, former Mangrove global on-trade sales director, thinks it feeds the consumer’s desire to drink liquids made by people who represent their own principles.
‘There’s a clear opportunity for the on-trade to benefit from listing premium spirits,’ she tells me. ‘It’s a buoyant part of the market as consumers seek brands that speak on their behalf; ones with conscience, purpose and personality.’ Incidentally, she’s in the process of launching a new drinks company, Ten Locks, specialising in premium brands.
And then there’s the allure of British products. The locality of Capreolus’ eaux de vie is undoubtedly part of its charm. ‘We’re looking at 90% of our ingredients coming from within 50 miles of us, and 70% from 35,’ Wilczak explains. He works with local small farmers to buy produce such as raspberries, quince and plums and even has access to farms on the edge of Prince Charles’ Highgrove estate, not to mention the 1,000 trees orchard (1,000 varieties of apple, one per tree) for its 1,000 Tree expression – ‘no other distiller in the world has access to something like that’.
Another favourite, Black Cow Vodka, uses West Country cow’s milk to make its spirit on the West Dorset coast. ‘Because we make it here in relatively small quantities, by virtue, that makes its premium,’ co-founder Paul ‘Archie’ Archard tells me. Interestingly, at the end of 2019 the brand reduced its cost from £28 per bottle to £25 having saved money by moving the manufacturing of their bottles to the UK.
Haggerston’s 58 Gin also sees bartenders head to the distillery to create their own gin for their bar, so they can create a spirit based on the flavours they want to achieve in their cocktails and explain their involvement to their guests. It adds a local, personalised and exclusive offering to back bars. ‘I don’t think you need 100 gins on your cart,’ says Carmen O’Neil, MD of 58 Gin. ‘[Consumers] can buy the speed-rail pours at any corner shop and have them at home – going into a bar, customers want that experience.’
Russell Burgess, founder of event consultancy Wet & Dry Group, argues that provenance of a category (in traditionally non-British categories) is also becoming less important. ‘When you talk about vodka, provenance becomes less relevant when you discuss sustainability versus looking at getting a vodka from Russia, which costs a lot of money.’ The day after we chat, he’s heading to the Ramsbury Brewery & Single Estate Distillery in Wiltshire (which produces award-winning vodkas and gins) for a new project.
Going British premium doesn’t come without its issues, though. Burgess says that the idea of people buying premium homegrown rums doesn’t sit well with him. ‘When you look at the British Empire and [consider] the countries that make rum and are reliant on western capital, the amount of money they make from the rum industry is huge – it’s almost like we ought to buy those rums.’
He also thinks that investing in new expensive stock right now is not a clever move for bar owners. ‘When money is tight you have to be very reactive and flexible.’
Speciality Drinks’ Davies believes that brands releasing highly premium products at this moment in time are ‘really taking the piss on pricing… We need to be careful around responsible spending’.
She reflects on a recent trip to the Artesian bar at The Langham, London. The menu, which would usually feature big-name brands, is looking to focus more on smaller ones (even removing most brand names from the menu). ‘Hopefully the bartenders are reflecting not on what cash you can get from a brand, but the quality of the product. Then it becomes what’s best for that drink – and the bottom line.’
Lab 22’s Hasa also wants to make sure that he isn’t pricing his customers out of his door. ‘You shouldn’t be pushing how much you’re charging… We’re fine to compromise on the GP as long as the guest has a quality drink in front of them.’
New ready-to-drink range Vacay uses Misty Isle Vodka and 58 Gin in its canned cocktails. Founder Chris Caruso is keen to elevate the RTD category
‘Both of the British spirit brands we work with produce their liquid with great care in small batches. It’s their dedication to their craft that makes a product like this possible. Similarly, it is nice to know you are supporting local producers.
‘Using them certainly increases the price point of the product. However, we recognise consumers are willing to pay more for a premium product and experience. We really want to elevate the category.’
Mixing it up
We talk to mixer brand Sekforde Drinks’ founder, Talula White, on why she created a British premium product to sit alongside premium spirits
‘I grew up as a big whisky drinker. But as I got older and my friends were having fancier G&Ts, I got really frustrated. It all sprung from the whisky mixer, then the rum one came about because rum drinkers were having a similar frustration. The gin one came about because the drinkers who didn’t like tonic felt left out. The final child was the tequila/mezcal one because a lot of makers were fed up that people were screaming with joy about shots.
‘We’ve grown hand-in-hand with the premiumisation of spirits. Speedy bars love the fact they can make a Sekforde and spirit mixer in seconds – it justifies the price premium.’
This article was first published in the 2020 autumn issue of Imbibe.