"Launching a brand new gin now would be a tough ask" - Interview, Wemyss Malts MD William Wemyss

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Late last month, Wemyss Malts announced plans to move its Darnley's gin production to its own, newly-created facility in Scotland. The gin, which launched in 2010, is currently produced at Thames Distillers in London. At the same time, the firm announced that it has dropped 'View' from the brand name and rolled out fresh packaging as well as a Navy Strength version of its Spiced Gin brand. just-drinks sat down with Wemyss Malts founder and managing director William Wemyss in Edinburgh to find out why being "made in Scotland" is important.

Wemyss Malts MD William Wemyss with the new Darnleys gin bottle

Wemyss Malts MD William Wemyss with the new Darnley's gin bottle

just-drinks: Why have you taken production in-house, and to Scotland?  

William Wemyss: The market has become much more competitive in terms of premium gin and it is moving towards 'small batch' and 'authenticity'. We felt that moving the distillery would give us more control to produce our own gins - to experiment with different botanical flavours as well as different bottling strengths.

From a provenance point, this will be a Scottish gin, created by a Scottish family, distilled and bottled in Scotland. We also have an opportunity now that we didn't have ten years ago to communicate directly with the consumer - such as share images of botanicals being loaded into a still.

j-d: Where is the new site and when will it open?

WW: There was a derelict cottage next door to our Kingsbarns single malt whisky distillery in Fife, which we are converting. The site will also have a visitor centre experience - it's seven miles from St Andrews, so there are a lot of golfing tourists, as well as whisky tourists, in the area. It wasn't going to be just a distillery; it had to be able to engage with the consumer as well. The distillery should start production by the end of June. 

Phase two will also include a micro distillery for master classes, NPD and more trade-focused activity.

j-d: Why build a visitor centre?

WW: We're not going to have the same marketing budget as William Grant or Diageo in the near future, so getting the trade there and getting them to engage with a brand, rather than just taste the liquid, we feel is very important given how competitive the market has become since we launched Darnley's.

A lot of the cues - limited releases and visitor centres - have come out of our learning from the Scotch whisky industry. People see visitor centres as an extension of their marketing.

j-d: How much did you invest in the new site?

WW: I can't tell you the figures but I can say we're selling about 8,000 cases per year at the moment and we are looking to take that to 20,000 in the next three years.

j-d: Where are the exciting export markets for Darnley's?

WW: Premium gin consumption is growing in the US, where we are imported by Palm Bay, which also handles [Walsh Whiskey Distillery's] The Irishman and [Chase Distillery's] Chase vodka. Craft spirits are about 5% of company turnover and they want to, within five years, get to 25%.

Gin is gaining traction in many overseas markets - Dubai on-premise has a really big interest in gin. Our importer there has a craft gin portfolio. That's replicated in markets such as Belgium, Italy and Germany.

We are also launching in Malaysia in June and we have just recruited a sales manager in Asia.

j-d: The gin landscape in the UK is changing, with more established brands being snapped up by larger drinks companies, while new brands continue to launch. What do you make of that?

WW: The fact that you've seen Sipsmith, Edinburgh Gin and Bulldog being bought up by bigger drinks companies [Beam Suntory, Ian Macleod Distillers and Gruppo Campari, respectively] - it's these big companies that have said 'look, the premium gin brand is here to stay' and they have paid big EBITDA multiples to buy these brands. Now they are putting them through their distribution so they are going to keep building the category, which is a positive for us.

Launching a brand new gin now would be a tough ask. What people forget is that it's all very well and good owning a gin distillery but you still have to sell and market a proposition - and that's the hard bit. If you haven't built the distribution network then it's a lot harder than any of these people can ever believe. A lot of these very small brands, if they are not attached to a bar or something similar, will struggle to pay the bills.

j-d: Would you sell the Darnley's brand?

WW: We're a family business so we're not doing this so we can ship off to the Bahamas. That's not part of the game plan. We see it as a generational-style investment to fit with our single malts. That's not to say that we would never, ever sell - never say never - but that's not the intention.

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