James Van Tromp and Nathan Aylott have both spent their careers up to now advising big corporates, including major drinks brands, large retailers and flagship shopping centres on what they need to do to attract consumers to their products and sites. Now they have decided to take all those experiences and create a drinks brand for themselves. The result is Hitchhiker, a small batch botanical rum, they believe can sit at the forefront of where the rum category is going to next.
Hitchhiker rum’s heritage might come from the Caribbean, but it is a brand that also leans heavily on the botanical-driven boom in the gin market. James Van Tromp and Nathan Aylott explain how.
You have created a new rum brand but your backgrounds are not directly in spirits. What were you doing before?
Our background is a little diverse, and I guess unique. In short, we’re architects and designers. We have come from years of dealing with big brands, those in the drink industry included. We sit at the junction of brand and customer, creating everything from flagship stores, visitors centres, retails stores, logos, graphics, identities and experiences and the strategies to go with it. If a brand wanted to change direction, we would assist with the new positioning, if another wanted to celebrate a launch of a new product or offering we’d be on it too.
In what way do you think your backgrounds have helped in thinking about creating a spirits brand?
Our entire career has been the re-positioning or the shaping of brands. When it came to creating Hitchhiker, we used the exact same formula so to speak – a deep dive into the industry and similar products – whether that be their evolution, their strong and weak points, their audience and most importantly, why they became successful. As we all know, when creating a new product, or brand, you need to be ahead of the wave, not chasing and riding it. Using our skillsets, we identified the white space and set about creating a product which could blossom.
Why did you think there is such potential in the rum drinks category?
We’ve seen gin boom in the last decade or so, but we felt it had got to the point where brands were having to create strange and bizarre products just to get market traction and a USP. It is, particularly in the UK, a burgeoning market with few places left to fill.
Rum, however, is essentially in its infancy, not in regard to rum itself, but the current market. Rum sales and popularity is on the rise. There is enormous potential to grow this market, particularly in regards to botanical rum – we see this space growing substantially in the next five to 10 years.
You are also looking to appeal to gin drinkers and move them over to rum?
The majority of gin drinkers are gin drinkers because they love the refreshing taste of G&T in the summer sun (or winter sun for that matter). This market is still burgeoning, and customers will surely be looking to venture and try something new. Our gin cross over, the Sicilian Pine, allows someone to dip a toe into rum without completely changing their palate.
How did you go about coming up with a style of rum to make?
When we first started this journey, we both agreed we wanted to create a quality liquid together with the utterly carefree nature of travel. Whilst with our product we wished to lead the crossover and departure from gin, there was something equally important we wanted to establish with the brand – and that was to become a point of difference and broaden the rum market.
A botanical rum made sense. The destination of the rum’s journey is tied together with the British coastal botanicals that we use, a nod to the brand origin and a celebration of Great British horticulture.
This slightly lighter more herbaceous style of rum has allowed us to embrace the raw and natural products used, highlighting their sustainable nature and how they are harvested and utilised.
What is the inspiration behind the name of the brand – Hitchhiker?
We wanted to create a brand which really emanated the raw nature of rum and celebrated the beauty of ‘journey’. We always highlight the destination but rarely the journey, hence ‘Hitchhiker’ – this idea that every drop has taken a path from source to bottle is really thought-provoking. It’s also two-fold, as the Hitchhiker of each flavour variant is the signature ingredient (signified by a local creature).
Why are you making the rums in Guyana and Trinidad?
As per the brand, Hitchhiker is all about the journey. A journey which starts at the birthplace of rum, the Caribbean. Using a base from a place which carries worldwide acclaim for producing rich and full-bodied rums just made sense when looking to produce a quality product that we hope will stand out in this strong market.
You are also using British botanicals – why and how are you sourcing those?
The story behind Hitchhiker is we wished to infuse the different flavour profiles with a local touch, basically just like any food or recipe it would take on a note that was extremely specific to a location. We also wanted to couple this with the idea of a journey, the lovely notion that the rum has taken a voyage, not just from A to B but a long and winding path, it has taken time, and through the course of its passage has been enthused with a distinct style before landing upon the British shores where the final touches are applied. This has meant that the final ingredients added are very distinctive to our native coastline and hedgerows.
You are also working with Circumstance Distillery to make the different rums in the range – how did that come about and what are they doing for you?
We wanted to work with someone who not only produces quality products, but has a creative mindset to match ours. As a smaller distiller, they are more focussed and innovative and as such we believed we would get a more bespoke product to match our ideals and that is exactly what has happened. Liam Hirt and the team have been great and supported us on journey with the brand.
How are you looking to distribute the rums?
We believe strongly in what we’ve created and are quite mindful that it is quite different to the other rums on the market, being neither of a pirate or colonial style that are so dominant. This has meant we’ve had to be quite adaptive and patient as it slowly grows traction. Our immediate aim is to distribute to a customer base that gets the product and see’s its value as a point of difference then grow from that solid footing.
Who do you see as your core customers? Premium bars and specialist retailers?
I think it is a bit of both. Our background is designing great bars and restaurants so we certainly see the value in this setting, however, in terms of marketing, we like the specialist retailers and ecommerce platforms as they tend to be a bit braver and lead from the front.
What are your marketing plans?
To keep being a challenger. We know and understand that our background and product are different. However, we don’t see this as a hindrance and want to keep pushing our brand and liquid in what is potential unconventional ways.
Considering your background as hospitality strategists what have you found most surprising and challenging about creating your own brand?
It’s been incredibly interesting, even though we’ve worked around the edges of the F&B market for years and the sectors do intertwine, the business and individuals within this sector are completely different. What has taken us by surprise is just how friendly, relaxed and open people are within the drinks industry. It’s certainly refreshing coming from the design and brand industry which is dominated by ego’s and a dog eat dog mentality. We certainly know which we prefer.
Do you have plans to look at other spirits and create more brands?
Not presently. We certainly have ideas for further flavour profiles that would compliment the existing product range and also work with the geographic references Hitchhiker uses. We want to garner further market feedback before we distribute these. It’s quite unusual to have created an original trio which we dedicated to three customer profiles, so in future we’ll let the consumer dictate and then create to demand.
- The three brands in the range are as follows and are priced from £37.50 RRP and is currently
- Sicilian Pine ( ABV 40%)
Paired and gently blended with a meticulous selection of Mediterranean herbs and British coastal botanicals. Beginning with fresh citrus notes, developing distinctive herbaceous undertones and finishing with a flash of saffron and black pepper, the result is a fresh, vibrant and utterly unique botanical rum.
- Breton Sea Salt ( ABV 40%)
Paired and gently blended with a wide selection of stone fruits, soft spices & British coastal botanicals. A rich, sumptuous rum that balances stone fruit and soft warming spice, evoking notes of apricot and almonds combined with the floral highs of honeysuckle, all contrasted with the tang and touch of Breton sea salt.
- Azores Orange Blossom (ABV 40%)
Paired and gently blended with a careful selection of Azorean fruits & British coastal botanicals. A soft, easy drinking rum that delivers big toasty chocolate orange notes combined with pineapple and cassia to create a drink that is smooth and decadent.
- If you would like to find out more about Hitchhiker then go to its website here. It is currently seeking distribution.