Tom Warner – Warner Edwards
Pioneer of the flavoured gin category, Warner Edwards saw big change in 2016, especially it won a sizeable sum from HSBC. We heard from Tom Warner about his plans for the distillery’s future, and drilled him for his opinion on craft.
2016 was a big year, full of changes for Warner Edwards, so there’s a lot of ground to cover. We’ll start with the obvious, though… 2016 saw the departure of your co-founder, Sion Edwards. Can you tell us anything about that?
It’s been a rollercoaster of a year at the farm and there has been a lot of change in the business. The team has almost doubled in the last 12 months and the business has tripled. Within that melee, Sion decided to move on and start a different chapter of his life.
Warner Edwards is the best and worst thing I have ever done in my life. It’s like holding a tiger by the tail, which is awesome while the tiger moves forwards, but it has the ability to spin around and kill you at any time.
The stresses and strains of running any business are high, but a start-up manufacturing business in a very competitive, extremely high-growth environment, whilst on a shoestring, is exceptionally hard indeed and it continues to get harder. It is very exciting and rewarding, but you really need to be able to commit yourself fully to it.
You won £150,000 back in March after taking part in HSBC’s Elevator Pitch competition. At the time you said it would allow you to turbo charge your growth plans. What’s happened since then?
What a coup that was. We got £150k off the bank with no strings and no guns involved! It was an amazing experience and I would like to say well done to all the other finalists, it culminated in a very surreal two days in the Shard, topped off with a party on the top floor where we won! It’s been a huge bonus to us as a business; the direct and immediate impact was liquidity. The more you sell, the more you are owed and we have grown very quickly this year so the prize money gave us the ability to continue trading at a pace.
It has also enabled us to push forward with many projects around the distillery. The botanical garden was a huge focus for us this year and I became fairly obsessed, spending most evenings and weekends from April onwards either moving earth or building the beds.
We also launched a fifth gin in the range; this sounds simple but there are a lot of start-up costs to any new line and the prize money gave us the ability to get the packaging in place and perfect the recipe.
Can you tell us a little about the botanical garden?
My late mother Adèle was a keen gardener and an amazing cook. Over the years she had developed a beautiful garden full of fabulous plants and herbs that she used in her recipes. In September 2015, Oli (our head distiller) and I were in the garden next to the distillery brainstorming. Absent-mindedly, we starting picking different herbs and plants in the garden and remarking about how awesome they smelt, then we said let’s play around with them and make some new gins. We harvested several different mints, fennel, quince, plums, thyme and rosemary and began creating a flavour library of distillates.
We were amazed at the gins we had produced using these botanicals, and that is when the garden plans were born. The halo effect was the structured managements of mums gardens by the business, something that we were not doing very well at the time!
Melissa is the first product to emerge from the garden – was this a happy accident due to the virility of lemon balm, or had you wanted to use this herb for some time?
Lemon balm is known by its Latin name Melissa Officinalis and it was always at the top of the list; we loved the flavour it created when distilled, it grew in abundance all over the garden and it had a sexy name, so it was written in the stars.
Rosemary and mint were also taken from your mum’s garden when you were experimenting with flavours – are they likely to crop up in the future? What can we expect next from the Botanical Garden range?
The plants that are grown will alter from year to year based on our experiments with flavour – there will be some constants, but there will be others that cycle in and out of the garden. It’s been great fun and really educational working with fresh plants and herbs. It’s also exceptionally satisfying using things that you have grown. We have discovered an amazing botanical that we want to use in the next gin, but this is top secret at the moment.
How do you plan to use the range to keep your fans engaged and excited?
Quality, authenticity and innovation are our three anchor words – as a distillery I like to think we define ourselves by a standard of excellence that’s worth aspiring too. If we live by those three words we should be delivering for our fans consistently. I would like to think that our core range is loved and enjoyed but that we also recognise that innovation is where we will see growth as a business. As much as the Rhubarb and Elderflower have been huge drivers for us, we can’t rest on our laurels.
You said at the Melissa Gin launch that craft is an abused term. To you, what does it mean?
At the moment any new gin launched seems to be called craft, irrespective of how or where its made, whether its made on multiple sites, whether the process is fully automated or hand made, who owns it or what scale its made in. In reality craft will never be defined to anyone’s satisfaction, it means different things to different people. Small producers will always feel that it defines them, where as some brands with little provenance see it as romantic term that’s very handy for marketing purposes. I am sure the distillers that have worked in the industry all their lives but now make the global brands for the big boys feel they are master craftsmen and therefore produce a craft product.
All the big brands want to look small; it’s why supermarkets put fake pictures of farmers on egg boxes. Consumers want to feel like they are buying something that’s authentic. Can a size be put on craft or should it be defined by process? Hand made?
All of these definitions are difficult – as an example “hand cooked crisps” conjures up a great image but in reality they can be called this as long as the kettle is stirred once manually during the cooking process.
Is innovation a part of defining what craft means for you?
Innovation is an area in which small independent producers can capture the craft ideology. Due to our scale we are flexible and more nimble than the big boys. If all the small guys continue to try and make the best dry gin in the world we will not make inroads against the big boys with large marketing funds. Speed and innovation are our superpowers!
As a distillery everything we do is by hand; the still is manually controlled, so we rely on the distiller’s senses rather than a computer. All bottles are filled, wax dipped and labeled by hand. We have a very rudimentary process but it means we are in a symbiotic relationship with our products. If that is craft in the consumers eyes, then we are craft.
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