We’ve all watched Dragon’s Den and wondered quite what the businesses that win the backing do with their money. For Liam Manton and Mark Smallwood, founders of local craft gin producers, Didsbury Gin, it has helped them push a brand that was only launched in January 2017 onto the next level with listings first in Harvey Nichols and then a partnership with the UK’s biggest pub chain Wetherspoons. Helen Arnold talks to the duo about how they have managed to make such a success of their gin brand in less than two and a half years.
£75,000 may not have been the biggest investment made in the hit TV show BBC’s Dragon’s Den but it has been crucial in the initial success of Didsbury Gin.
Fortune, as they say, favours the brave. And you have to admire the sheer chutzpah of Didsbury Gin co-owners and enterpreneurs Liam Manton and Mark Smallwood for their cheeky approach to gaining listings for their Didsbury Gin brand.
Within a week of launching the gin they had managed to secure a listing with upmarket department store Harvey Nichols on a three-month exclusive basis by directly messaging the head buyer – along with the buyers for Selfridges and Fortum and Mason. “We said we were coming to London and slightly played them off against each other,” says Manton, “Fast forward a week later and we were in Harvey Nichols office doing a taste test. We walked away with an exclusive order.” An amazing coup for a start up – but there was only one problem – and a pretty big one at that.
“We had an order for 150 bottles on a three month exclusive deal, but no product, and we needed to do something about it – and fast,” recalls Manton.
A £20k grant from a government start-up scheme helped with the initial investment required to get the business up and running. “We didn’t have the infrastructure to distil gin, had to buy glass, labels, and outsource the distilling,” says Manton “We came up with a recipe ourselves but then we didn’t have the capacity to fulfil the initial order from Harvey Nichols. We spoke to a few distillers with big capacity and we partnered with them.” Didsbury has now teamed up with Union Distillers in Market Harborough which produces a number of craft gins.
Established just over two years ago by Manton and Smallwood, the brand has already secured a listing in national pub chain Wetherspoons, while the duo have just been nominated in the highly prestigious NatWest Great British Entrepreneur’s Awards.
Business set up as sideline
Self-confessed gin drinkers and aficionado’s Manton and Smallwood set up the business in Liam’s Didsbury sitting room as a sideline while both were still working full time, Smallwood as a restaurant manager and Manton as corporate social responsibility manager for a construction firm.
“On a personal perspective, I love the spirit, and have always been a big gin drinker,” says Manton. “There are loads of varieties out there and you can do a lot with the flavour profile.”
Smallwood too has been a longtime gin fan “When me and Liam met I was managing a local restaurant and gin had always been a popular spirit for cocktails,” he says. “It’s diverse and used in so many ways.”
Within a week of launching the brand in January 2017 the pair managed to gain a listing in Harvey Nicholls, while other on-trade listings soon followed, including a partnership with the Botanist chain. And within a year of setting up the business Manton and Smallwood were made redundant from their respective jobs and the time seemed right to throw their combined weight behind Didsbury and make a real go of it. And they’re certainly doing something right judging by the figures – last year they were turning over £70k, but since the start of 2019, Manton claims they have seen turnover increase by “seven or eight times that figure”
Didsbury Gin is an exemplary example of a small start-up that has taken the market by storm, and to describe the success it has achieved in a short space of time as impressive would be something of an understatement.
But with literally hundreds of gin brands jostling for space in the UK market, incorporating a range of increasingly esoteric and exotic ingredients, how has Didsbury Gin been so successful?
Manton believes that the huge variety of gins currently available on the market make it an exciting time to be a gin drinker, but says that Didsbury’s appeal lies in its quality and the story behind the brand which currently offers two varieties – Didsbury Gin Original and Rapsberry & Elderflower, while plans are in place for the launch of a new variety for summer.
“We’ve been very conscious not to build our brand around gimmicks or novelties, but tried to innovate with quality flavours and the odd twist on the much loved original,” he says.
“I think people like our brand because it’s a gin created by gin drinkers and people seem to have an affinity with our story and journey so far.” He admits the TV exposure has been “great” and has certainly driven demand for the product.
Into the Dragon’s Den
Ah, the TV exposure. Manton and Smallwood would be the first to admit that what has really helped to propel Didsbury Gin into the stratosphere was an appearance by the partners on the popular BBC 2 TV programme Dragon’s Den earlier this year, where they managed to successfully secure £75,000 of funding from Dragon Jenny Campbell in return for a share of the business.
“From auditioning for the show to us being stood before the Dragons was only a couple of days,” recalls Smallwood. “It was nerve wracking to say the least, as we didn’t actually film till 5pm and we were there from 6am with a full day ahead. Lots of people were rehearsing their pitches, but we decided to take a more relaxed approach. We knew the numbers, and we knew what we were going to say. We also knew what the challenges were going to be and had a good idea of what the negatives were going to be.”
The couple’s polished pitch clearly made a good impression on the Dragons, as they received not only one, but two offers, from Vitabiotics CEO Tej Lalvani as well as from YourCash Europe CEO Campbell. However, the entrepreneurs said they felt an instant rapport with gin-loving Campbell’s down to earth approach.
“We loved having the opportunity to appear on the show, and when Jenny offered to invest, everything just seemed like it was coming together,” says Manton. “Her no-nonsense northern personality fits really well with the brand we are building, and we really liked how straightforward she was with us. She has some great ideas, and saw the growth opportunities for Didsbury Gin both nationally and internationally. Plus, we know she has a genuine interest in the product because she is a gin drinker herself.”
After braving – and surviving – that particular “terrifying” ordeal the duo have gone on from strength to strength and Campbell’s input into the business has been enormously beneficial says Smallwood.
“It has given us the confidence to believe in ourselves even more, and the strategic advice we get from someone who has been there, done that and worked in a number of different sectors – you can’t put a price on that. We have structured board meetings with Jenny, but are in constant touch.”
“The programme will be on air again this year so it will only enhance our profile and showcase the product more,” he adds.
Another huge coup for Smallwood and Manton was in securing a partnership last month with Wetherspoons pubs, where their premium raspberry and elderflower flavoured gin will be stocked across the chain’s 775 outlets, offering unbeatable exposure for the brand across the UK.
The team at Didsbury Gin were originally approached by Wetherspoons to take part in the pub group’s gin festival, and after blind tasing over one hundred gins selected the top ten brands who were then invited to pitch for just five spaces at the event. Wetherspoons were so impressed by Didsbury Gin that Manton and Smallwood walked off with a deal to become the chain’s newest premium flavoured gin.
“The listing with a pub chain as large as Wetherspoon gives our brand a significant national footprint as we look to scale throughout 2019/20,” says Manton. “We are now seen by over two million potential customers each week and are actively being promoted through the chain including within ‘Wetherspoon New’s’ which we recently featured on the front cover of.
“To be asked to pitch for an initial one month listing, and come away with a national menu listing is testament to the quality of our gins,” he added. “It’s great to see Wetherspoons championing new young British businesses and showing the same belief and passion for our products as we do, this will be a great partnership. They have been very supportive throughout the procurement process and we are thrilled to be working with them on such a large scale”
Smallwood added: “It is great to see the Didsbury Gin brand growing nationally with the trade partnerships we have put in place. JD Wetherspoons Pubs is such a huge household name, it is a great win for us to be included on their menus. We have been working hard behind the scenes since the show was recorded last April to put some great deals into place.”
And feedback from customers so far has been overwhelmingly upbeat, according to Smallwood. “Feedback from management of local (and not so local) Wetherspoon sites has so far been incredibly positive, with lots contacting us directly to organise talks, events and tasters,” he says. “We hosted a gin tasting evening in a local Wetherspoons and we were overwhelmed by the feedback from the customers and how happy they were to finally see our gin behind the bar.”
Of course, Didsbury’s success is not unrelated to the simple fact that the gin market is still burgeoning. Sales in the UK have never been higher, with Brits buying over 73 million bottles and spending over £2bn in the process last year. And in the 12 week run up to Christmas 2018, sales were up by a whopping 40% compared to the same period in 2017.
And according to HMRC, the number of distillers registered in England overtook those in Scotland for the first time, with the equivalent of one a week opening with a total of 361 distilleries making spirits in the UK, 166 of which are in England, 160 in Scotland, 19 in Wales and 16 in Northern Ireland.
As for Didsbury, its future looks positively sparkling. While the gin market is not guaranteed to continue growing at the pace it has enjoyed in recent years, “we can only kneel down and pray that it will” joked Manton, “only time will tell and there is definitely room for us in the market as there is clearly an appetite for our product.
Eyeing up the export market
So will Didsbury Gin be winging its way to foreign climes any time soon? “We have looked into it and have been working with the Department for International Trade,” says Smallwood, adding that Spain is the most likely first destination. “The bias to entry is not as great as for other countries,” says. However, that’s not to say that the enterprising duo aren’t open to offers from further afield. “We are definitely open to other markets, and we think the US also holds huge potential, where we have done a bit of work exploring opportunities. We are ambitious, and don’t just want to be a niche artisan gin.” The pair will be attending an international gin expo later this year, and hoping to drum up international interest in their products, while continuing to expand in the UK market. “We are currently in talks with various big hitters in the supermarket world, with product going out in the summer” added Manton.