Luke Smith – Poetic License
Northern hospitality got a whole new meaning in 2015, when Sunderland’s Roker Bar opened the doors to its distillery – Poetic License. The brand has come on leaps and bounds since then, with a beautiful upgrade in packaging, a ludicrously lovely strawberries and cream edition and huge effort made in experimentation. We caught up with Master Distiller Luke Smith to see if fans are embracing the change.
Gin Foundry: Last year, Poetic License moved to new packaging, which seemed like a really positive change. What prompted you to do it?
Luke Smith: When we began, we wanted to do something with our packaging to tell every what Poetic License was about and demonstrate that it was our first run of spirits, that would also get us noticed in a competitive market and would give folk a reason to hang on to their bottles. This is where the idea for the wrapping our bottles came in. Each wrap had info about the distillery and product as well as denoting their limited edition nature.
However, due to the success we had, it became unmanageable to hand-wrap every bottle and being such a small team, it actually meant I was wrapping bottles over things like attending events – a bit counter-intuitive! But the success it brought also meant that we then had to money to invest in a new knock-out bottle design, which I think we’ve achieved. We were keen for it to be less labour intensive so that I could spend more time distilling and out and about representing the distillery, so the new design means no more hand wrapping.
We think it’s a marked improvement, but what’s the reception for it been like for it? Have you seen a big change in the way people engage with the brand?
The response to the new bottle is even better than we could have anticipated. We didn’t want to lose the story that the wraps told about Poetic License and why we do what we do, so this is now incorporated into a text-lead design that encircles the bottle. We chose a bottle style, with a slight apothecary feel, that we think better reflects the small batch nature of the products. We kept with a natural cork stopper but have now also branded these with our logo on the top – these are really expensive but we loved them! The whole thing is coated in black, but it’s translucent so that you can still see the liquid level – this was something we were very keen to have to aid stock-checking for bartenders (our MD being in the trade himself knows what a hassle a fully opaque bottle can be for this).
I still get a very small number of people who say they miss the wraps but the vast majority of people seem to love the new look. The appearance of the bottle is actually what draws people in and a big part of why they try the gin in the first place – we get a lot of people who come over to us at events purely because of how the bottle looks and that can only be a good thing – it’s no good having tasty gin if people walk straight past it!
Talking of tasty gin, your range is ever growing (and ever changing!). Do you ever feel there’s a danger that special editions can create confusion, or “water” the core brand proposition down too much?
Honestly, I’d say there probably is but we are a craft distillery and, for us, that means continually creating new concoctions to excite our drinkers with.
We have tried to develop the look of the bottles so they can be identified as core products, seasonal spirits or rarities in their look. We’re hopeful fans of the brand will get to know and recognise this and those who are fans of our Northern Dry Gin and Old Tom Gin will naturally then want to try what else we have to offer.
You’ve brought the Picnic Gin back for a second spin. Can you tell us a little about it, and why you chose to re-release it?
We’re big on seasonality as well as experimenting with flavours and we wanted a gin whose flavours would encapsulate the summer season in a sip. Strawberries and cream seemed like the obvious choice to us. We also enjoy setting a scene (our winter mulled winter fruit flavour gin is named Fireside Gin) and feel strawberries and cream should be at every picnic, ours just happen to be boozy! We’re really proud of it as a product and feel it offers something unique in that it delivers on both the strawberry flavour but also the creaminess really comes across in the mouthfeel.
The Picnic Gin was hugely popular last summer, going way beyond our expectations. Despite it being a seasonal product, once we stopped producing it we continued to get asked for it. The Poetic License brand has come a long way in a short time in terms of awareness since last year so we wanted to bring it back, not only for those who got to try it and were demanding it back but, as we’re a little more well-known, hopefully this will mean far more people will get to try it this time around.
Gin has really shaken off its female reputation of late. Do you find the Picnic Gin, with its strawberries and cream flavour profile, leans in any one direction?
On first impressions, it’s without a doubt appeals to female in both appearance and flavours. However, whenever I am doing tastings I always push the blokes to give it a try too. I think on first glance, everyone automatically assumes it is a liqueur (which are typically favoured by females) and going to be loaded with sugar. Although it is a sweet spirit it does not contain any sugar. Percentage-wise, it is around double the strength of a normal liqueur and there is also a good base of Juniper, so it is still rooted firmly in the gin-camp, albeit a flavoured gin. On this basis, despite appearances, I think can appeal to a more open-minded male audience, and certainly most who are unsure and try it are usually pleasantly surprised!
We agree, flavour isn’t based on gender, just on personal preferences and it’s great to not see it presented as that. How well received have the Rairities been and can you give us a clue about the next one?
Well, so far we’ve only done one, an orange blossom flavoured gin, but the feedback has been phenomenal! The idea is to create around 400 bottles of a unique product and when they’re gone they’re gone. I miscalculated and by happy mistake produced 673 bottles of the first rarity– however all sold out within a fortnight.
Well whenever I am at the distillery I usually have a test batch of something on the go, so I am constantly experimenting with flavours and developing ideas for our next spirits. I can’t say what the next rarity will be yet but we’re hopeful to have it next ready in time for Junipalooza!
What was the last cocktail you had (and where did you have it!) that has you seriously impressed?
It was actually at a training session for our latest cocktail menu for the Poetic License bar. I presented our mixologist, Antony Pearman (somebartender.com), with one of my test creations for an upcoming rarity and asked him to mix me a simple drink. Sadly I can’t give anything away, I can’t say what was in it and we haven’t even given it a name yet, but I can say it was delightful and will be a suggested serve for a rarity due out later this year!
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