Tom Warner (left) and Sion Edwards (right) met on their first day at Harper Adams. Following jobs as farm managers and sourcing produce for supermarkets, they decided to strike out together, get back on farm, and set up an artisan gin entreprise.
“It came out of an idea to buy a still for producing essential oils, and to grow lavender for that,” explains Tom. “But we wondered what to do with it for the rest of the year after the harvest.”
Brewing alcohol of some description seemed the obvious use for it, and on reflection, something that the pair could identify with far better than essential oils. That was three years ago and Sion says that they have not mentioned essence of anything since.
At the time, the pair were both holding down full-time jobs in procurement. They dedicated weekends and evenings to researching the market and getting to grips with different gins available.
“We knew nothing about booze to begin with,” explains Tom. “The fact that others had introduced artisan gin brands in the past few years didn’t put us off; the white spirits market is worth £4bn in the UK.”
Tom and Sion knew from the outset that their biggest selling point would be the provenance of their product. Although they have to import the majority of ingredients from outside the UK, and currently buy in the pure alcohol they use – a licensing requirement – the entire production, from distilling to bottling, is done by the pair in an old livestock barn on Tom’s family farm. The water in the gin is from a spring in a nearby field.
One condition for the flavour was that it needed to be smooth enough to drink straight (not that you would necessarily want to), while keeping cocktail mixers in mind, which want to work with the purest base possible.
Top tips for bringing a product to market
- Do the research – Tom and Sion spent three years developing their business and learning about gin and the industry
- Get the brand right – The pair are convinced that their gin’s striking branding gives it credibility
- Fit a product properly into its market – Don’t try and sell a premium product to a budget seller or vice versa, says Tom
- Don’t be intimidated by big business – If you have confidence in your product, get in touch. Try and go direct to a buyer
- Twitter is brilliant – “Establishing ourselves would have been much more difficult without it; it’s a powerful business to business tool,” says Tom
- * Engage with experts – Spirit bloggers, reviewers and gin enthusiasts have bolstered much of the pair’s early success
The pair set themselves to learning about the production of gin; their first stop was a trip to a local pub where they lined up every variety on sale and tried the lot. “That was a rough night,” says Tom.
Following that enquiry they bought a Portugese still – a miniature, tabletop distillery – and began experimenting with different combinations of herbs and spices around the kitchen table.
As the idea grew over three years, they began to develop a business plan and, after raiding their combined life savings, getting loans from friends and family, and signing up to a hire-purchase scheme with a brewery financer for a bigger still, they grew closer to launching. But they still needed an identity for their gin.
Part of their product development was creating a brand; after approaching a few marketing companies for quotes, they tried a London firm, Blue Marlin. It normally deals with “big ticket” brands, according to Tom. “They came in with a quote, and it was massive.
“But I think they like working with smaller businesses and start-ups, because the decision-making process is not so drawn out.” As such they got a heavy discount and, Tom says, “it made the decision kind of easy because the pedigree that they have is unbelievable”.
He explains that bigger companies would approach Blue Marlin with an anonymous product and ask for a brand to be manufactured, but they were the opposite – the story, surroundings and partnership behind their gin were there to be distilled into a brand.
“We grew up on farms, worked on farms and sourced fruit and vegetables. We didn’t have a clue about how to create a brand,” says Sion. Getting in professionals to develop their product gave them the confidence to take their gin to the top sellers.
The pair are first to admit that their success is down to a well-presented, well put-together product. “It’s absolutely key to get the brand right,” says Tom. Although they had misgivings about spending the money, they say that Blue Marlin helped them create a clear and attractive product, and that’s made every step of marketing their gin easier.
“We just threw everything at them,” explains Tom. A group of designers visited the farm and quizzed the pair on their friendship, the local area, and came up with the name Warner Edwards, following a West and East theme (Sion is from Wales, Tom, from Kettering). The branding also reflected this, with a dragon and a lion weathervane for a logo.
They have got it on to the shelves of some impressive places since they launched in December: Fortnum & Mason, Harvey Nichols, Gerry’s (a famous spirit shop in Soho), The principle, aside from the product, is to go in direct, explains Tom. Find the person responsible for buying and speak to them directly.
“We’re building a completely unknown brand, that we’re pitching as a premium product. We’re looking for suitable establishments – wholesalers, preferably with a retail front and also big-ticket things, like Fortnum’s.
“Look for a fit, and keep an eye out for buyer open days. Be prepared to make mistakes, but don’t be afraid to approach buyers,” he adds. “Think about the places that your product will fit and go for them.”
The pair took delivery of a copper distillery, capable of producing 700 bottles in each run, from German firm Arnold Holstein late last year. They christened it “Curiosity” and launched their gin on 6 December.
The still mixes spring water from a nearby field with a bought-in base spirit of pure alcohol, as well as a blend of botanicals – homegrown elderflower, bought-in juniper, coriander and angelica root – but the pair are understandably keen to keep the exact recipe under wraps.
Once distilled, the gin is bottled by Tom and Sean in the barn, labelled, hand-wrapped with copper wire, and wax-dipped with a ribbon pull: another selling point, say the pair.
They say that reaching their capacity would be a nice problem to have, with each run of the still producing 700 bottles, and each bottle retailing at £33. “The business plan is to run one a month in the first year and, in terms of keeping up with demand, there’s a lot of flex there. We can bottle 250 in a morning.”
This is one business that is not thinking big, at least not in the traditional sense. They’re introducing an elderflower liqueur, and hope to have some sloe, blackberry and damson gin ready towards the end of the year.
The long-term dream is to set up a second distillery on Sion’s farm near Rhuallt, north Wales, to produce the pure alcohol base and complete the West/East link.
They hope for steady organic growth, look forward to being able to draw a salary, and are operating well under capacity at the moment. It’s a sophisticated front for two men brewing gin in an old livestock shed.
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