The last year of lockdowns and restrictions across the hospitality sector has been brutal for so many companies that have gone out of business through no fault of their own. Yet, amidst the decimation, some have innovated and risen, as Braden Saunders at Doghouse Distillery beautifully describes, like a phoenix from the ashes. Battersea-based Doghouse Distillery has worked hard to keep innovating and make sure it has the right brands and spirits to come out the other side. It has even found time to launch its own whisky. To get the finer details Jessica Broadbent caught up with Saunders, Doghouse Head Hydrator who founded the distillery with his wife Katherine in 2018.
Braden and Katherine Saunders have had a good lockdown and used the time to push their Doghouse Distillery to the next level.
If you’d told Braden and Katherine Saunders 12 months ago that in a year’s time they’d have produced three new spirits and a hand sanitiser, you’d have probably got startled looks and some fantastic Aussie slang directed back at you. One pandemic later though, that’s a reality for the couple’s Battersea-based business, Doghouse Distillery. They’ve made an aperitivo called Doppelgänger, a chilli vodka, and a whisky. Oh, and don’t forget Defender hand sanitiser.
One of the most impressive things about talking to producers during lockdown has been listening to their stories of resilience, and the ability to innovate when day-to-day routines were stripped away. Doghouse is no different. Katherine and Braden jumped right into the opportunity for development, and they say keeping busy was a godsend.
Braden explains: “We had a bunch of new product development that had sort of stalled because we were so busy doing our day jobs. When lockdown happened we worked three weeks straight. So it’s not like we’ve been sort of relaxing at home doing product development, it’s been a little bit crazier than that. For us it’s very much been about moving the business forward.”
Katherine and Braden opened Doghouse in 2016 with two main product lines, Baller Vodka and Renegade Gin. For Braden, coming out of lockdown with positive news and something to grow the business with was crucial. “When Covid kicked in, it gave us an opportunity to reflect on everything. One of the things we realised was if we are going to rise out of this – like a phoenix from the ashes – then we need to have something to tell people. There’s no point jumping up and down about Baller and Renegade, as much as I love them as products. They’re now three years’ old. They’re not new news.”
A baby whisky…
But now they do have some news. In September Doghouse will release its first new make spirit – a baby whisky straight from the still and un-aged (so it can’t be labelled as whisky yet). The identity of the spirit is yet to be revealed but we do know this – Doghouse it releasing it in typical fashion and not following many ‘rules’.
It’s planning to release the spirit every six months, so consumers can taste the malt spirit as it develops – like distillers do. “The reason we want to release it as a new make is one: to sell a few bottles, but two: because why do we get all the fun?” he says. “As distillers we get to taste our new make at three months and six months etc., and if you make a good young whisky, they’re enjoyable all the way along.”
Although releasing new make spirit is not a totally new concept, Doghouse is the first distillery in south London to even be making its own whisky, and there are only a handful in other parts of London.
The distillery’s USP is its grain to bottle method. It is the only full turn-key distillery in London, making all its spirits from scratch rather than buying in a base. The multi-grain new make has also been made from scratch by Doghouse, and is around 45% abv.
Braden says: “We are going to make what we hope to be a London style of whisky, in that we’re not going to try and emulate Scotch. We also have some pretty cool tricks up our sleeve in using various different oak barrels in our maturation process to create a uniquely London flavour – or uniquely south London flavour to stay on point.”
It’s taken the team three years of development to come up with the final product, doing trials and building its mash concept. They have laboured over the selection of yeast, grains, fermentation temperatures and distillation cuts to try and create something Braden feels is “truly novel in the whisky space and truly unique to London”.
“Who knows, there might even become a London whisky category in years to come out of some of our work. We are so excited about sharing the first new make spirit from Doghouse this year.”
A London aperitivo
Earlier this year Doghouse launched Doppelgänger Aperitivo, an herbal liqueur Braden describes as sitting between Aperol and Campari. The label was designed by Braden and depicts a two-sided head, the pre-aperitivo “good” side and post-aperitivo “fun” Medusa. The final product has been about two and a half years in the making.
Braden has experimented with botanicals and maceration techniques to produce something “pretty special”. It can be drunk neat, mixed with soda, or used in a spritz. Doppelgänger is infused with 19 botanicals including bitter orange, red grapefruit and hibiscus. The hibiscus, or rosella, was inspired by Braden’s grandmother.
“In Australia we call hibiscus rosella, and it’s actually the part that is left after the plant has died. It leaves this little fruit, it’s very tart, like really tart rhubarb. In fact my grandmother used to make jam out of it, which is how I knew about it,” he says.
Doghouse’s Covid Defender
As well as jumping into product development in lockdown, the team also tuned their hands to making hand gel. Braden says he was horrified at the high cost and poor quality of hand gel he was seeing and, with sales of their own vodka on hold, was inspired to see if they could do better. How hard could it be? They felt it would be a good way to boost business and find new potential customers. “At the same time we got a good feeling being able to supply it locally because you couldn’t buy it at one point.”
It turns out hand gel is quite tricky to produce. Braden says: “Little did we know they’re actually quite hard to make if you’ve never made cosmetics before, which I haven’t. It took about three weeks of messing about to jellify it. It requires an understanding of polymers, so I had to learn about all of that. In the end we got one that’s quite good and it’s a gel. A lot of people were just selling it as a liquid which is completely impractical.”
While they still produce Defender in small amounts, Braden says that it was a bit of a distraction from their other work, and he’s glad to be back to making spirits to drink.
Adapting to the pandemic
“When lockdown hit we immediately shifted the business into a retail focus,” says Braden, who says the on-trade accounted for two-thirds of its sales pre-Covid. “But getting attention from big off-trade retailers is very difficult. So we went right direct to consumer. And then from summer on, we moved into independent retail.”
This shift to retail is a common tale following the closure of the on-trade. During the first lockdown the small team found themselves hand packing 50-60 parcels every day and sending them out direct to consumers. Doghouse managed to win around 40 new retail listings, mainly independent shops in London, and started selling via Amazon too. Without those extra sales, Braden thinks the business would have gone under.
“Retail has had a big comeback,” he says, although it’s big retailers and the more developed brands with national supermarket listings that he sees as the “only winners” in the pandemic. “Between the independent retail and the direct-to-consumer sales, we got sales from places we hadn’t got before and we partially covered the hole that the on-trade had left.”
Braden says the reopening of the on-trade last summer didn’t make much of an impact on sales. “The pubs reopening in July didn’t really help us because everyone was drinking beer, wine and cheap spirits. It wasn’t like people were going out and splashing around on the backbar, having a blast. So it was a very tough time for us, even when the on-trade did reopen.”
In the Doghouse…
Braden and Katherine met during Braden’s first “tour” (working holiday visa) in London in 2003. In 2011 they opened a bar together in Brisbane called Bitter Suite – the city’s first craft beer bar. Despite the success of Bitter Suite the couple missed London and, inspired by Australia’s craft brewers, decided to return and create something of their own.
They put much of Doghouse’s success down to being authentic and channeling their personalities into the brand. Most London distilleries sit north of the Thames but they felt that the industrial feel of Battersea reflected them better – and was one of the only areas they could find a building tall enough to house their 7.5m-high still.
“Lots of people are north of the river because it’s cool, but south of the river has a lot going for it,” says Braden. “We wanted the brand to be grungy and reflect London and us – we are grungy people. It’s about being individuals and about being true to your brand. Our brand, as people, is that we don’t want to blend in or make pretty gins because that’s what everyone likes. We want to just speak our mind and be who we are.”
They think of each spirit release as an album release, each with its own artwork and distinctive branding. “Our brand is still young but the biggest thing that we always talk about at Doghouse is music,” he says (with a wall full of framed album covers behind him on Zoom). “Our brand is built off music. I always think of each brand we put out as an album cover. Album covers are quirky and they’re unique, and they don’t really care what you think of them. They’re just a piece of art that the musician has come up with to show off their next album. Our brand is about music and art and booze – it’s a convergence of all those passions. We make funky, non-traditional labels because we want people to know who we are.”
So what’s next for Doghouse? Braden is certainly keen to explore the beer category although is conscious that the business is still young. “Beer is very much still a passion, and it’s something that we hope to make. For me beer is a natural evolution, because spirits are the next phase of beers. I’d like to have beers for when our open days start again. We’re still crawling, so we don’t bite off too much.”
And the most important lesson he’s learned on the Doghouse journey? “The biggest lesson I’ve learned over time is that things take three times as long and cost three times as much as you think. So my biggest advice for anyone starting a distillery is plan for three times as long and three times as much. And then double that.”
Passion is clearly the key driver for Braden and Katherine and it oozes from both of them when you meet them. Braden says: “The thing that I got from all the brewers I dealt with in Australia before we started Doghouse, was that there’s something more to this than making money. It’s about having a passion. No one loves every day at work, right? But the underlying reason for what you do has to be passion. I think that was the key thing that we saw and we liked, and we thought: we want that feeling.”
- You can find out more about the Doghouse Distillery at its website here.