Bulldog Gin is set to ship 150,000 cases in 2016

Bulldog Gin is set to ship 150,000 cases in 2016

Bulldog Gin is a brand on the rise in a category on the rise. Earlier this month, just-drinks met the company's founder & CEO, Anshuman Vohra, in London, to consider Bulldog's history, the potential for the premium gin segment and how to navigate the hurdles that face spirits start-ups.

Anshuman Vohra has a lot going on at the moment. The 38-year-old Indian native – although his accent highlights his 25 years in the US – is in London to promote his Bulldog Gin brand at London Cocktail Week. We meet at lunchtime in a bar/restaurant that is fully decked out for a Bulldog tasting event that he will be attending later in the day.

Bulldog has come a long way in a short time: Launched in New York – Vohra's home – in 2007, the brand may only be able to boast volumes of around 150,000 nine-litre cases this year, yet it has secured fourth place in the premium (US$20+) gin segment in the US.

"I'm a recovering investment banker," says Vohra. "I started in finance, but I always wanted to be an entrepreneur." The career-change, which took place in 2006, clearly suits him: He is engaging, enthusiastic and patently driven.

"I've been a gin & tonic drinker since I was about 16. My dad, a good Indian man, would drink 90% Scotch, 10% gin. At 16, he introduced me to Scotch - I had a very violent reaction to that. The next Saturday, he gave me a gin & tonic. It reminded me of lemonade, it probably just had a drop of gin in it. Since then, gin & tonic has been my drink."

Anshuman Vohra, founder & CEO of Bulldog Gin Co.

During the early 2000s, Vohra would do battle with his vodka-drinking banking colleagues, arguing that gin was due a comeback. "Back in 2004," he recalls, "there would be 20 brands of vodka behind the bar, and only two of gin. Up until the mid-'60s in the US, gin outsold vodka. Today, vodka to gin is ten to one in the US - at the premium end, I'm sure it's even more."

Gin had a problem: Two, according to Vohra. "There was its taste, and there was its perception."

"Historically, the abv in gin in the US was 47%. Also, they had excessively high levels of juniper. Combined, that's a very potent drink that some people liked, but many more people gravitated away from. As a result, gin became an ever-smaller component of the big guys' portfolios. Companies fell out of love with gin, preferring to focus on innovation in other categories. As a result, gin became the old guard."

By dialling down the abv to 40% - "most spirits segments operate at around 40%", says Vohra – and working on a broader range of botanicals, Vohra teamed up with UK-based distiller G&J Greenall to produce a liquid that he felt would work with 21st Century consumers. Drop in a New York design agency that came up with a bottle and some branding for Bulldog – named after Vohra's fondness for all things British – and the product was launched the year after Vohra had quit the banking world.

"At that point," he smiles, "I thought the hardest part was over. How naive I was. After a year, I started thinking that this was the hardest industry in the history of the world: like riding a bicycle up Mount Everest, with a couple of Iron Mans along the way."

His first problem came in the form of distribution – or lack thereof. "I found getting distribution extremely hard. In the US, the system makes it very difficult for the little guy to succeed. The wholesalers are very leveraged towards the big suppliers and their brands, there's very little space for a guy like us. We're more of a nuisance than a product that they'd carry in their portfolio."

And then, once Bulldog got under the consumer's nose, keeping it there proved the next challenge. "When you did get on to the bar, that alone wasn't a guarantee of success - we had to talk to the consumer, we had to talk to the trade, there were other steps to get the product moving off the shelf. This process was very time-consuming, inefficient and labourious."

just-drinks editor Olly Wehring met up with Bulldog Gin Co's founder & CEO, Anshuman Vohra, in London earlier this month

It wasn't until late-2008 that the brand finally got a foothold, in the long-established gin market of Spain. "Within a few months of taking a call from a Spanish importer, we were selling more in Spain than everywhere else combined," he says. "When I visited, I saw that the bars had 40 gins, one vodka. It was my utopia."

Today, Bulldog is the fourth-largest premium gin, in volume terms, behind the well-known brands of Bombay Sapphire (which has Bacardi's marketing muscle behind it), Diageo's Tanqueray and William Grant & Sons' Hendricks. "We're looking at annual growth of almost 30% this year," says Vohra.

Looking back to the start of the story, then, what advice does Vohra have for the folk entering the gin category in their droves? "Firstly," he says, "if you're looking to make a quick buck in this industry, good luck to you. Second, you have to be long-term focussed and you have to have a differentiated proposition; that applies in any category. If you don't have that, then the only way you're going to succeed in today's hyper-competitive environment is if you have a lot of money, a lot of resources and about 50 years. 

"We're not looking to supplant brands that have been around for a long time, they're not our focus. In the tech business, you can scale up: your distribution mechanism is a smartphone. In this industry, it's still very traditional. You have to have resources, focus and time."

With new gin brands making just-drinks' pages on a near-daily basis, I suggest to Vohra that he'd probably appreciate the tap being turned off soon. "As an entrepreneur," he says, "I generally support other entrepreneurs, in the same way I'd support the underdog. The thing that sometimes frustrates me, though, is when you have stupid money entering the sector. If you don't have a differentiated proposition, if you're just coming into gin because gin is now hot, then that's very reactionary, and risks taking attention away from those that are trying to build a brand for the long term. It closes out space and it causes confusion.

"If the proliferation of gin brands were matched by an expansion of the size of the bar, then I probably wouldn't have this problem."

In the second part of just-drinks interview with Anshuman Vohra, which can be viewed here, we discuss the broader gin category, what's gone wrong for gin in the US and Bulldog's relationship with its global distribution partner, Gruppo Campari.