Stewart Hainsworth, Halewood CEO, changed the recipe of Red Square vodka

Stewart Hainsworth, Halewood CEO, changed the recipe of Red Square vodka

Having set out his strategy for Halewood Wine & Spirits and its international units in the first of this two-part interview with just-drinks, CEO Stewart Hainsworth today discusses getting the group's brands in order ahead of laying out plans for acquisitions and launches.

When it comes to Halewood's portfolio, the position of flagship spirits brand goes to Red Square vodka. Despite annual global sales of around 3m cases, the brand has provided Hainsworth with more than its fair share of headaches since he joined Halewood a year ago. "When I walked in," he says, "the UK didn't have a Red Square brand manager, we didn't have any Red Square in stock and we had delisted the RTDs."

Having previously spent time working for vodka companies such as Russian Alcohol Group, CEDC and Russian Standard, Hainsworth decided the liquid wasn't up to scratch. "The first thing I did when I came in was change Red Square from a molasses product - this isn't good enough. I spent the next two months getting the best possible liquid I could get. Now, it is 100% grain and is seven times distilled."

These changes have been communicated through trade marketing and trial, he says. "The brand has been revitalised in terms of image, design and liquid quality. We've also done some bespoke Red Square packaging - in South Africa, the red bottle is doing really well against Campari's Skyy."

Hainsworth has switched the focus of the brand to the on-trade and he hints at a pouring deal with a major music venue, without giving specific details.

Stewart Hainsworth, CEO of Halewood Wines & Spirits

Despite moves to improve the liquid and boost its on-premise presence, the CEO is standing firm on its market position. "I'm not going for upper mid-price or super-premium because Red Square is what Red Square is," he says. "But, it can be a very good mid-price vodka and it can challenge Smirnoff, which I think is looking tired."

Earlier this year, Halewood made its direct entry into the Irish whiskey category through its purchase of a 50% stake in West Cork Distillers' The Pogues brand. Hainsworth is keen to point out that the company's whisk(e)y ambition remains. "We have aspirations for Scotland and dare I say it, in the UK," he says. "We've purchased a still that we're waiting to set up in Liverpool."

In gin, the group added to its Whitley Neill brand in May, when it snapped up Liverpool Gin. At the moment, the gin is produced in stills that were part of the acquisition. "They are not on a commercial scale," flags Hainsworth. "The volumes we can do are just tiny. It's frustrating, because we have got demand for Liverpool Gin, but we just can't service it.

"From an international persepective," he adds with a smile, "we're looking at a Liverpool vodka, with a red label surprisingly close to Liverpool Football Club." The company, which is based on the outskirts of Liverpool, is also "looking at a rum" that is linked to the historical trade route between the Caribbean and Liverpool.

Turning to Crabbie's, the group has streamlined the brand since Hainsworth came on board. "To be honest," he says, "I think Crabbie's went a little too far. There's the Orignal, then Crabbie's with some flavours - all true to the six-week [fermentation] period. Then, past management got into what they called Crabbie's Fruits, which didn't contain ginger and therefore didn't remain true to the recipe. I think they were hitting a different type of product at a different price point and they were creating some confusion with consumers," he says. "I delisted them. It was a brave thing to do in my first year but, it seemed to me, they were diluting the quality of the product."

The US is an important market for Crabbie's. When founder John Halewood invented the brand in 2009 - having acquired Crabbie's Green Ginger Wine in 2006 - the concept of 'alcoholic soft drinks' was little-known. Now, the market is awash with hard soda brands. Even major players including Anhesuer-Busch InBev and Boston Beer Co are playing in the increasingly-crowded marketplace. But, Hainsworth doesn't look worried. The Crabbie's brand has been in the US since 2011, with annual sales in 2015 of 0.5m cases.

The price of hard soda in the US is generally a lot lower then Crabbie's, argues Hainsworth. "It's between US$6.99 to $9.99 for six-packs (of bottles). We sell Crabbies over there for $9.99 for four. We're at the craft beer kind of price. We're premium to those guys."

Towards the end of 2015, Hainsworth made his own innovation mark on the brand with the launch of Crabbie's Light, which contains half the ginger and slightly less alcohol. He clearly sees healthy traction for the brand in the years to come.

But, simply selling more is not his game plan. "I'm not volume focused," he tells me. "I'm aware that our top-line in fiscal-2015 was down on the prior year (by 14%). But, what's important for me is growing the bottom-line and growing the long-term stability - and the cash generative side - of the business.

"The top-line can almost be like vanity."

To read the first part of this interview, click here