The UK gin category has enjoyed astronomical growth in the past few years, driven by innovative brands that have pushed the boundaries around taste, price and serve. One of its biggest success stories is Brockmans, which caused a stir when it was launched in 2009.
It pushed so far towards the edge of the accepted taste map that some purists questioned whether or not it could actually be labelled gin, and its imagery stood in stark contrast to the stalwarts of the category.
“Gin imagery at the time looked like Ken Barlow had decided to go down the golf club with his mates,” says co-founder Bob Fowkes. “We said, let’s do the polar opposite. Let’s be a cool, late-night, smoky, speakeasy bar-kind of gin. We wanted to make something high end, not to compete with the mainstream players, and to create a gin people would drink neat over ice.
"We wanted a gin so smooth you could drink it like that, and to find a place on the taste map that has not been done. People were doing London dry and changing one botanical, but we wanted to do something radical and go almost to the limits of gin. We wanted people to say, wow, is that really gin? We wanted to challenge accepted norms.”
Fast-forward eight years and Brockmans is soaring. Off-trade sales in the first five months of 2017 are up 246% on the previous year, according to the brand, after it gained a listing with Marks & Spencer. It is also sold by Oddbins, Wine Rack, Harvey Nichols, various independents across the UK and online retailers. Last year the turnover was £5.4 million, up 61%. And the only way is up, according to Fowkes.
“We are at the beginning with the super-premium gin category,” he says. “There’s a long way to go yet. It’s more followers than early adopters now, but there are still a lot of people coming into gin. You can see the delivery on and off-premise is improving all the time.”
But it was not always plain sailing. Fowkes, who formerly worked for Beefeater, started working on Brockmans in 2007, along with Neil Everitt, former chief executive at Allied Domecq, and two Scottish partners who have since cashed in their shares and left the business. After two years spent perfecting the recipe, the design and the market positioning, they launched in 2009. “We had amazingly naive projections, but it’s a tough market,” says Fowkes. “The consumer wasn’t quite there yet. I don’t think the trade got it. In Manchester you didn’t even see Hendrick’s. It was just Gordon’s, Tanqueray, Beefeater. But it really jumped up quickly in Spain, which helped us a lot. We hit the ground running. The UK really kicked in for us three years ago. It was like someone flicked a switch.”
Since teaming up with distributor Indie Brands, Brockmans has gained plenty of listings across the UK and seen sales soar. The UK now accounts for 30% of sales, with an even split between on-trade and off-trade. “Spain is our biggest market but the UK is catching up,” says Fowkes. “The UK super-premium gin market is now bigger than Spain. Over the next year our UK sales will overtake Spain. Overall we are the fastest-growing gin brand above £25 in the UK. We are around £34-£36.”
Gastropubs provided Brockmans with the breakthrough it needed in the UK and listings with the likes of Geronimo Inns helped it get off the ground. Then off-trade indies gave it a real boost. “Independent wine merchants love it,” says Fowkes, who is now marketing director, while co-founder Everitt is chief executive. “They are important because they can explain the product. Oddbins really helped. It is coming back and has that model of explaining to the customer what it’s all about.
“You can’t jump into Tesco with a new product because it can’t explain it. I think some of the multiples are still playing catch-up in terms of the [super-premium gin] opportunity and understanding it. Some of the multiples are still tending to the £24-£28 range, although we have never had a consumer say £34 is too much and we talk to thousands of consumers at gin festivals. Our model is on-trade, to get the brand experience and get people to taste it in the way we recommend and then go from there.
“We would like to be in the multiples one day. We are happy to be with M&S. It’s an exclusive arrangement at the moment but towards the end of the year we will revisit that and see where we want to be. You have to be careful. There’s still that discovery element going on and awareness is still relatively low. We also need to keep on board with the people who have supported us – the online people, the independent wine merchants. If we were to jump into the multiples they would probably move on to other stuff.
“It’s always judging it, whether you should be mainstream or discovery.”
At DRN it seems as though we hear news of another British gin brand being launched on an almost daily basis, such is the desire of entrepreneurs to jump on the bandwagon. The market is becoming extremely crowded, but Fowkes welcomes it. “I love the competition,” he says. “I describe it as a light going on about quality gin. It has happened in the UK but it hasn’t happened in the US yet. The step-change is the consumer thinks that there’s more to gin than they previously did. There is more to come, more serves, taste profiles, innovation – it all fuels growth and it helps us.
“We are ahead of the game. We got in very early so we are a brand that people recognise now. We are a top six super-premium gin brand in the UK, and that’s despite the fact we aren’t as far advanced as some in the off-trade. If you are coming now you might be a bit late. That would be my worry. It takes a while to seed your brand and build it.” Brockmans has reached its status by playing the long game and it says it will not confuse consumers by launching a bunch of range extensions. There is plenty of opportunity for it to increase its off-trade footprint with its super-premium gin, distilled at Langley in Birmingham. “We don’t think you can make a better gin and we don’t want to make it differently,” says Fowkes.