Juniper, But Not Technically Gin
(All images courtesy of LoCa Bev.)
The gin industry is booming, its resurgence in the UK benefiting hugely from pioneering companies like Sipsmith, 2011 Bronze-Medal winner at the New York International Spirits Competition. The trend has spread worldwide too, as a recent article in the drinks business highlighted. The report shows that global exports of British gin, encompassing 139 countries, have grown by 37% in the last five years, while the volume exported to the US has increased by 20% over the same period.
Last month, I visited Food Matters Live, a trade show for the food and drink industry that explores the relationship between food, health and nutrition. The few hours I had were not enough to do the event justice, but while searching for information on salt, sweeteners and other components of the modern diet, I came across an unexpected new product that gave me pause!
LoCa Bev, based in Scotland, is a new UK distillery that makes Minus 33, a spirit distilled from juniper berries and flavoured with nine botanicals that looks and tastes like gin but isn't! In fact, it has a smoother finish and beautifully fresh, floral and citrus notes. The company was founded by 26-year old entrepreneur, Sam Trett and I caught up with him after the food show to find out more about his unique product.
Robin Goldsmith: How did your company start and who was involved?
Sam Trett: Having spent a few months studying the alcohol industry, I decided to create my own spirit. I spent a year working on the recipe, creating a team and raising funds. Initially it was myself, Stewart Lawrie, the former MD of Whyte & Mackay and a Glasgow-based design agency called Good Creative. We have three investors - two from the retail sector and one from the media sector. In addition, we have another former W&M exec. and a part-time member of staff who we are looking to bring on full-time in the near future.
RG: Where are your markets?
ST: UK currently - though we are looking to export in the New Year. We have had some interest from foreign markets and are looking to work with the right partners overseas to help fulfill demand from foreign consumers.
RG: Why not create a 37.5%-40% ABV gin?
ST: We spent a year working on the recipe and, after creating countless recipes and running taste tests weekly, we found that the 33% ABV recipe was the most popular. Rather than compromise on the flavour of the spirit just to make it a ‘gin’, we kept the product where consumers told us they preferred it.
RG: Do you have a specific target consumer base?
ST: Minus 33 seems to appeal to most spirit-loving audiences. We created several great recipes over the year with the support of consumers, many of whom fall into a non-traditional category. Our consumer focus groups were wide, but there was an emphasis on young professionals and so they tend to be our largest customer base. Both the taste and design were chosen by these groups and as a result, the packaging has a modern look and feel with the recipe tailored to the needs of the modern ‘gin’ drinker (i.e. less spicy overpowering botanicals and a better balance of flavour allowing the floral and citrus notes to come to the fore). Also, although we have never specifically focused our branding on any particular gender or age group, we've had good interest from the female market with many young women professionals willing to try out the product.
RG: Apart from the alcohol content, are there any other differences between your product and traditional gins and what botanicals do you use?
ST: We do have a less dry taste than some gins. However, our real point of difference is that we are not a gin. As for Minus 33 itself, we have nine key botanicals: juniper, angelica and orris which provide the dry notes; coriander seeds, lemon and orange for the citrus notes; lavender and elderflower for the floral character. We choose not to add sugar, so sweetness is provided by liquorice root.
RG: Can you tell me something about the packaging and how it developed – the bottles seem to have elements that are modern, traditional and scientific?
ST: We took a lot of inspiration from what the consumer wanted. We also wanted to stay true to our story and our principles (innovation, experimentation, consumer focus etc.). The modern elements are in tune with the desires of the young professionals we enlisted. Traditional elements provide some familiarity with what can be expected from the product and the scientific elements are inspired by our roots. I spent a year working in a lab creating the recipe. Not having a distinguished heritage to play on, the decision was made to bring in the more recent history of how the product was created and to build on the LoCa Lab themes.
RG: How important is the fact that the spirit has only 46 calories per serving? How does this compare to traditional gins?
ST: It is important to some consumers, though ultimately the product is bought on taste. I feel the main advantage here is the fact we disclose the energy content. EU rules look set to change and ultimately providing our consumers with as much information as possible about the product is how we feel we can best build a relationship and establish trust with them. Some alcohol businesses are reluctant to disclose their figures and so the information can be hard to get hold of. Sugars are used widely in spirits (though in gin, there is a cap), but of the spirits we have tested, we have found anywhere from 52–85 calories per 25ml..
RG: Where does Minus 33 fit in the growing world of craft gin?
ST: I’d like to think we could carve our own niche within this growing sector. I think one advantage that we have is that as one of the younger craft producers, I feel I have a good understanding of our core target audience and so we are able to cater well to that area of the market. We are looking to expand our offering and by being innovative, I feel we can build and maintain a loyal set of craft spirit lovers.
RG: What response have you received from mixologists for using Minus 33 in cocktails? Do you have a favourite cocktail?
ST: Mixologists are great - they are very open-minded and are always willing to try something new. Crucially, they interact with consumers on a daily basis and so are in tune with their needs. As a result, the feedback so far has been very positive and I am very grateful for that. There are many venues that are looking at lower ABV cocktails and Minus 33 works well to fit that need. Initially, I thought the lower alcohol content may scare off some purists and there was some slight push back from a few who hadn’t tried the product during the early stages. However, once they give it a go, both neat and in a cocktail, they understand what we are doing and why consumers tell us they enjoy it as much as they do.
RG: Where do you see Minus 33 in 5-10 years' time and do you have any other drinks or flavours in the pipeline?
ST: We’re just getting started and launching a spirit isn’t without its challenges. That said, we are very ambitious and in five years' time, I’d like the brand to have a global presence and a large consumer following. I’d expect us to have several products on offer at this stage and within the portfolio - something for everyone. Our biggest challenge is ensuring we maintain the same approach for the development of each product – a lot of recipe production and crucially, plenty of interaction with the end user.
I draw inspiration from large private manufacturers such as William Grant & Sons. I’d be delighted if in ten years' time we had created a large workforce and were contributing in a significant way to the UK economy. Ultimately, I’d like to see changes in the way manufacturers create products. I feel the law makers have their part to play in this. More innovative products would ultimately make the spirits industry a more exciting place to be with a wider variety of products on offer to consumers. With experimentation and a willingness to challenge the norm at our heart, we believe real innovation in the drinks industry can only be brought about by breaking the current rules which we feel inhibit true innovation. So expect some more unusual concoctions to come in the future!
Sam is a great ambassador for the new spirit (literally!) underpinning the modern drinks trade. Consumer-focused, forward-looking and thoughtful, his positive attitude towards innovation has to be good news for spirit lovers. As a young professional himself, Sam is in the ideal position to engage with his consumer base and emphasise the key qualities he espouses – taste first and foremost, high quality natural ingredients, transparency, broad appeal and social responsibility. While the future may point to increasing industry consolidations, any company or product that can hold its own against the competition on taste, originality and relevance is something to which we can all raise our glasses.
Right, it's time to chill in front of the TV, glass in one hand – Minus 33, tonic, ice and lemon. Sorted!
Sam's suggestion: serve Minus 33 neat with ice, or with a light tonic like Fever-Tree Naturally Light. Add some lemon or orange plus dried hibiscus flowers and enjoy!