We’re always on the hunt for businesses who stand out and genuinely do things differently.
Last month (January) Factory Pattern caught up with Felix from Sibling Distillery to listen to their story and find out how they’ve become 1 of the top 5 Gin brands in the last 18 months. Felix also kindly shared his 3 top business tips (you can skip to them here)
So when did you start Sibling Distillery, how many people? key milestones, etc? and then lets lead on to your business advice.
Okay. We started the planning for Sibling Distillery in summer 2013, I think. It was a point where my younger sister was leaving school. She was 18, so she could get her personal license. My middle sister and I had been working in full time jobs for a while and had been getting to the point where we were ready for a new challenge.
Our family has been in the brewing industry for over a decade. My first job when I was 12, was working in the family brewery – Battledown Brewery. I’ve grown up surrounded by this industry and this way of thinking, as much as anything. Our parents run the brewery together, so for us, it’s been our lifestyle from a very early age.
When it came to launching our own business, my sister’s, brother and I always fancied trying to do something together. It was obvious that the alcohol industry was something we knew a lot about. Certainly we knew an equal amount about it, as well. It was certainly something we knew an equal amount about and were all equally certainly interested, but we didn’t want to go into the beer side of things because we’d obviously grown up around that. It would have been an easy option to take the reigns on the brewery, but we wanted to start something from scratch and do something new and exciting. A completely new challenge.
Distilling is the pinnacle of the alcohol industry, so we thought let’s apply for a distiller’s license and see how far we get, kind of presuming that we’d probably not get approval to open a distillery on a residential road, which is where we are.
What’s the problem with setting up a distillery near a residential road?
Well, it can explode. Worst case scenario, and this does happen, thankfully not quite often. Thankfully it doesn’t happen all that often, but you’re essentially working with explosives. The other reason we thought we may not get the licence was because, at the time we were 22 or younger, actually 21 or younger when we first started it. That was, obviously, a concern for us, but we got granted the first full distiller’s license in the area and that was when it started to get real.
We thought let’s take this seriously so we worked on it for the winter of 2013 and we launched in June 2014.
We put the launch back a few times because we wanted to make sure everything was bang on (no pun intended) before we did. We launched Sibling Distillery Gin and it had fairly early success. It coincided with the booming popularity of gin, which is always helpful. Which also brings me to the challenges because the more successful an industry is, the more people try and get into it. It makes the legitimacy of what you’re doing quite difficult.
Luckily, it did work out nicely for us and there was a lot of interest when we first started. The fact that we were all 22 or younger, by the time we launched was one part of the interest, but also because we were handling the whole process of making Gin in house and not outsourcing a single part of the manufacturing.
That’s simply very different. The combination of the 2 made it quite unique for people. Then, obviously, the gin itself which is currently highest ranked in the UK.
All 3 things adding together meant that it was successful earlier than we thought it would be. We’ve been going now for 18 months and just had our second Christmas, so it’s all been pretty manic and amazing.
Let’s talk more about those selling points, such as your age and how you manage the whole manufacturing process. How did you get that across to potential buyers and how did you get to them?
First of all, the product itself has to be appealing. Before they’re interested at all in the back story, it’s got to look right and it’s got to taste right once they’ve opened it. For us, we spent a lot of time in the lead up to launch developing the design, working on the image of the bottle, and also working on the brand to make sure it was a brand that was actually appealing. We wanted it to have general appeal, but then something which was really appealing to the type of people we were aiming it at.
We wanted it to look pretty but also have a resonance and meaning behind the design. The design of the brand and product is your first foot in the door, in our first few months, Sibling Distillery Gin was voted one of the top 5 gin brands that you buy just for the bottle. Even if at that point, if it tasted awful, they’d at least sell their first load of bottles because people like the look of it. Then, to really seal the deal, it has to taste great, as well. That goes without saying.
You sell something once with nice packaging, but if you want repeat customers, it has to be as good as it looks.
Where did the look come from?
The design is kind of an amalgamation of a lot of difference influences. First and foremost, we wanted everything to be 4 sided because there’s 4 of us who started the business. Myself and my 3 siblings, so everything on it has 4 corners. It’s also got a roughly equal amount of pink and blue on it to echo the equal male and female mix – my brother and our 2 sisters. Later on, we decided instead of pink and blue, we developed it to be more of a red and blue because a big part of our business is export and we wanted it to appeal to a more international audience.
We wanted it to roughly replicate the red, white, and blue. The union jack, but in a more stylised way. When it sits on a shelf it still has that British look about it. We also wanted to incorporate the Scandinavian pureness to it. The logo itself contrasts with the traditional British styling and has a Scandinavian look.
Just because everything that we do is aimed at a pure, clean flavour and those pure, clean ideals that are synonymous with Scandinavian design. Then, the 4 dots on the logo itself is a timeline of our dates of birth. My youngest brother is 4 years younger than my younger sister. She’s in turn 2 years younger than my next sister and she’s 1 year younger than me.
We wanted something that was symbolic without having to use the words all the time. The dots are a nice way to get that across. We wanted to use the gold instead of anything because we were sick of the gin industry never seeming to be as luxurious as the whiskey industry. Whiskey has a lot of golds and reds and rich colours.
Gin, traditionally, has been green and silver, which I think symbolically doesn’t make it top notch. The amount of work, cost and skill that it takes to make Gin, you want it to be seen as the top level. That was the reason why we wanted to include gold.
We tried to essentially make sure everything printed on it was there for a reason. We’re not just doing design for the sake of design. Purely cool shapes and stuff that have no meaning only have a limited shelf life. Also, the inspiration for the actual crest and design, is because we’re from Cheltenham. We wanted to represent that, but in a way that wasn’t putting the word Cheltenham in the brand because I really hate geographically based names for food and drink brands.
I think the idea behind something is going to be good because it’s from a certain place, which, okay, fine, Cheltenham’s a nice place, but it doesn’t mean that the liquid is going to be any better than one made in Scunthorop or Brighton or Manchester.
What we wanted to represent, is the most famous thing in Cheltenham – horse racing. So, old fashioned jockey silks inspired the crest. The harlequin design that’s quite commonly used on silks make up the cross hatching which can be seen on all 4 sides of the bottle.
So if it wasn’t for the design, your gin wouldn’t have made it?
First and foremost it’s a great looking bottle, and that won’t matter to people who just care about the drink, but a lot of what we do is talking to people and explaining the Sibling Distillery Brand. When you’re having meetings with buyers and when you’re at trade shows; if somebody asks why have you done this on your bottle, you need a reason. You can’t just say, “Well, I don’t know, because our designer told us to.”
If the buyer for Fortnum and Mason comes up to me, which he did, at a trade shows and says, “I really like your bottle. Tell me a bit about it.” I have to be able to explain all of it. People want to know the thought process behind things. In design, the process is as important as the finished article. It has to look great.
The other advantage of having so much thought behind the brand and design is that is gives us a solid foundation when we’re marketing or doing events. For example we’re going to be doing a window display at a prominent place in Cheltenham, in race week. We’ll have things like jockey silks printed in our colours and the theme, so further down the line having a strong design foundation does matter.
The nice thing about all that, as well, is that if you are asked about the brand or Gin, the story comes from the heart. You don’t have to try to remember a made up story.
That leads nicely on to the next question which is what does customer experience mean to you?
We have several types of customers: Direct consumers, retailers, wholesalers, and buyers who we work directly and indirectly with. A big part of our task is getting the story across. So we have a lot of printed collateral that we send out, so when we have direct orders online, events, through online retailers, or sell it into shops, we always have a lot of literature to go with it.
Also, our gin is quite frequently bought as a present. Obviously, the name lends itself quite nicely to be bought for family members and things like that. We always make sure that nicely designed print material goes out with every bottle.
For us, when you’re selling luxury goods, it’s first and foremost, a liquid to be enjoyed. The second priority is the experience. They’re parting with a lot of money for a bottle of drink. Essentially, just having a nice liquid is not enough. People want to know more about it, how to serve it, they want to be able to tell people about it because it’s being bought for dinner parties or birthday parties.
We do have people who drink it every week, but our market is mostly occasions, so people want to be able to chat about it. So you have to be able to have an amazing experience to attach to it, so that people can tell our story.
In terms of customer care with our indirect customers, it’s everything to us because they become our salespeople. Once it’s left our base and it’s gone to a shop in say, Sheffield, the people in that shop then become our salesforce. For them, we always make an effort, if we can’t meet them in person, we have a phone call with them and talk through everything. We send them all the collateral they’ll need. Everything we can to help them. Especially as a young brand, you need them to be singing your praises and you need them to be pushing you against the other 10 gins they’ve got.
“Especially as a young brand, you need them to be singing your praises ”
For us, being friendly with people, giving regular calls and regular visits and impromptu stops to say hello, and sending people birthday cards, remembering information about people is hugely important. Although we’re confident that the gin will get people coming back for it, as a young company, we need everybody on board. When they’re faced with a wall of spirits, we need ours to be the one that the shop assistant is pushing because they like us and they think the gin is good. We give them the tools so that they know everything about the gin and they can confidently talk about it.
I suppose the larger companies wouldn’t do things like sending birthday cards and talking to every customer. They just wouldn’t have the time, so a personal touch can give a small company such as yours, the edge.
Personal touch is hugely importantly for us, it keeps it all really legitimate. Obviously, the brand Sibling, the name of it suggests people based here, so to have that human contact with people all the time is really important. There’s been examples where it’s done really well, like Sipsmith for example.
No one has a bad word to say about the blokes who started Sipsmith because at the outset, they were very helpful with everybody. They were very hands on and very customer facing. It’s 3 guys and I’ve never met anybody who’s got a bad word to say about them and that’s put them in a really good position commercially, because people want to work with people they like. That goes without saying. That’s how you have the edge as a small company over a big firm.
Following on with the customer experience, do you do any research to find out what your customers want?
We did a lot of research in the build up to launching. There were a lot of tasting groups! In particular we found that blind tasting is really valuable because, we realised how huge the power of brand is. When someone sees a bottle of Bombay Sapphire, they think that’s something that they need to like. When they taste it, they say, “Yeah, I really like that. I like that much more than I like this Hayman’s or Old Tom or whatever.”
When they’re faced with 10 unbranded glasses of gin and they have to try them, the results are very different. There was a study a while ago on coffee. Well, it was actually a psychology study, but they used coffee as the testing platform. They asked people to describe what they wanted from their coffee and as you can imagine, most people said I want a really rich, dark, strong coffee full of character and body.
When they carried out blind tasting, the highest scoring was the blandest, weakest coffee that had got very little flavour to it. What people want and what they think they want, are 2 very different things.
We found and equally interesting result with our gin testing. Although people said they wanted a dry, aromatic gin, what people actually liked the most was the sweeter flavoured gin. We found that gins like Hayman’s Old Tom, which has added sugar came out above popular branded gin such as Bombay Sapphire and Hendrick’s.
We didn’t want to recreate a sugary gin, that’s just not us. However, it did steer our flavour choices. Flavours we added such as vanilla and blueberries give it that rounded, smooth light flavour that people liked in the tests.
It also steered us away a little bit from having a really full on juniper flavour because very few people commented on liking gin that was strongly “junipery”. You’ve got to strike a balance because you’re never going to please everybody, we’re in pretty subjective industry.
Everything we do will have huge fans and huge naysayers. We’ve experienced that. All you can do is try and cater for the majority of people. In terms of flavour, we continually test it. We do a lot of events where we’re face-to-face with people so we can see real reactions. And so far they’re still hugely positive.
“In terms of flavour, we continually test it”
Occasionally, we do get the someone tell it’s not for them because they’re used to Gordon’s and that’s all they’ll ever drink. You’ll always have that. We’re very aware of this aren’t oblivious to the fact that whilst the design is good, it could always be improved. We’re constantly asked bartenders and what they’d changed about it.
Whether they like the shape of the bottle, whether they think it stands out enough. We’re actually going to be going through a change fairly soon on the design because we want to make the logo stand out more. I think you have to constantly be looking to improve and using your customers to guide that.
Especially in a family business, you can become quite stuck in your ways and think that what you’re doing is right because you all agree with each other and it’s easy to say, “No, what we’re doing is right and we’ll plow on regardless.” You do have to listen to what people say. We had a few comments from bartenders who said that the logo could be more prominent. In bars, especially dark, dingy bars, it was hard for people to read the logo, so again, act on that and change it. We don’t have a business if we don’t have customers, so it’s vastly important that their opinion comes before ours.
So, from the testing and feedback, you gained valuable insights into what to avoid and used the feedback to craft and perfect your gin.
Exactly. By testing before launch, we knew which flavours consistently scored low, and this insight showed us which ingredients and flavours to avoid. We also knew that sugar was popular but decided that adding sugar would take away the purity that we wanted. However, if you see 10 people in a row saying the same thing, you have to take notice of it. You’ll get the occasional person who says, “That was too liquoricey,” or, “That wasn’t dry enough for me.” As I mentioned earlier, you will never please everybody, but if you see consistent messages such as that one was too piney (juniper has a kind of piney flavor) then you know a lot of people are thinking the same thing.
We couldn’t use the things people said to make a recipe, that’s up to us. However, you can use feedback to eliminate things from a recipe and you can use it to guide you a little bit. You can use it to really eliminate certain pitfalls. You need to research as much as possible when you’re starting a new product or service.
Do you have a process where you’re regularly testing the gin? Are you doing it all the time or do you have a process to phase it?
It’s a mindset, really, so all the time we’re thinking about our gin and our business. We’re always testing and developing. At the moment (the start of this year) we said “let’s work on alterations to the bottle design”. Today I’m going to be rewriting the copy on the side of the bottle, and we’ll go through a week long process of editing to get it to the point where it’s right.
We don’t have the luxury of having someone on R&D the whole time. We just have periods of time where we know sales are going to be slow or where we actually tied up a load of bits and pieces, so that we can sit down and work on the things in the background that we know need work on. It would be nice if we could pause regularly, because that would be the best way to do it, but you have to be realistic.
Do the 4 of you work on Sibling Distillery Gin?
Three of us are full time, my youngest brother is still going through college so he’s not full time. Obviously, our mum and dad add their input, when we ask (or when we don’t ask) because they’re right next door.
Why do you think all 4 of you wanted to create Sibling Distillery?
Each of us has had different companies before this. All of us have always had that kind of self employed mentality. It’s been the way we’ve grown up. Neither of our parents have ever had a regular job. For us it’s more normal than going to work 9 to 5.
For other people, it seems very strange or like an alien concept, but for us, it’s genuinely very normal. That helps. I think you have to have a very different mindset to be able to work for yourself than to work for somebody else, because you have to stop thinking of it as work.
That is very important to me, for my own mental well being, that I don’t think of this as a job because if you thought of it as a job, it would be the hardest, worst paying job in the world. You have to think of it as a lifestyle choice. You have your life and it’s part of it. My sisters have both been on board with that, as well.
“I don’t think of this as a job because if you thought of it as a job, it would be the hardest, worst paying job in the world.”
You understand that stuff just doesn’t magically happen. The problem with a lot of people coming out of school, nowadays, especially, sometimes they expect everything to happen for them.
We, fortunately, never really fell into that trap of expecting stuff to just work out.
So do you think that’s where the creative, R&D mindset has come from? Working hard and constantly developing.
Yes. It’s all part of the mindset that you need. Never be happy with what you’ve got, because if you’re not making it better then you’re not doing your job properly. The minute you stop and think that everything is sorted, then that’s when something bad’s about to happen. I think you always need to be thinking of ways you can improve it. For us, we haven’t done anything drastic to the recipe because I don’t think there’s much we could do to improve it, but everything else around it, constantly needs improvement.
The recipe one is a difficult one because people have got used to it the way it is and like it the way it is, so it’s quite a risky thing to tamper with it.
Would you diversify though? Would you say, “We’ve got the Sibling gin sorted, what next?”
For us, I think we do want to diversify, but at the moment we’re very limited on capacity to be able to do that. I’ve got ideas of stuff I want to do. For instance, because our gin is very contemporary in style and different from a traditional London dry gin, sometimes we get comments from gin purists that it’s not proper gin. What I’d really like to do is make what they refer to as a “proper London dry gin”. Make it export strength and really traditional, because we can do it, it’s not difficult to do that, we just chose not to. I’d like to do that to prove that we can do both.
I presume you’ve been really busy up to Christmas that’s when you get most of your sales. Do you have a process for recording what you’re learning? I.e. what went really well before Christmas? Where did you make sales? How do you, in this phase, build up for next Christmas?
Absolutely. Christmas in the alcohol industry is always going to be the biggest time. I think Bailey’s do something like 95% of their annual sales in November or December, it’s a staggering amount. They’re obviously traditionally Christmasy. Even for us, gifts and things like that are huge part.
Also, people like to spend a lot for Christmas day and New Year’s eve. It’s the time of year where people splash out on food and drink. In the luxury sector, it’s going to be massive. This year we started planning it in June. We started to work on the packaging in August and it never got done in time for Christmas because the company we were working with went bankrupt! It was a bit of sh*t storm, but the lesson is we need to do it now so if it all does go wrong, we’ve got time.
As it happened, it didn’t matter because we actually sold out on Christmas Eve!.
Thankfully, it wasn’t catastrophic to us, but it’s lesson learned you need to plan way in advance. We thought starting production in June was plenty long enough, to be honest. Six months to Christmas to deliver some frigging boxes, I thought it was manageable.
“you need to plan way in advance”
Seriously though, it was a lot of money wasted. The more you get into it, the more you realise planning’s everything. You can’t just launch a brand and hope for the best and that people magically buy from you. Even if it’s the best gin in the world, if you don’t have a proper plan of how to get it to market and how to make the most of opportunities, then it won’t ever go anywhere.
That’s one big advantage we’ve got is that we are full time. Normally, you’ll find these kind of small batch gin brands are run by people who also work for GSK or something like that, or do this in their spare time on weekends and get around selling it at shows or to the occasional hotel bar. For us, it’s very different. We were full time from the outset and wanted to make a go at it properly, for the next couple of years and see where it takes us.
Planning has to be a major part of it. Also, thinking of the next thing you’re going to do. Although we can’t do them at the moment, you have to have stuff on the horizon all the time because you’re not suddenly going to take over the market by just doing the same thing over and over again. We have to keep this consistent and we have to keep it doing well.
Even if it’s things like doing different types of events and selling to different types of customers, you have to keep trying new things to see what works. You’re constantly learning about your own business.
We started with a mission statement and an ideal customer and all the things you have to do to get a business off the ground, but it’s constantly evolving and we’re finding out that we might think 25 to 40 is our main market but it might transpire it’s the 50 plussers are actually who come buy it. You have to constantly be aware that what you think is right, may not be and that your intuition sometimes gets the better of you.
Things can surprise you, constantly.
At what point did you break into the market?
I’d say around March, April last year (2015) was when we started getting noticed. That was a year after we launched. Spring of last year is when we started getting big customers coming to us. For the first year, you’re desperately trying to get your foot in the door. Spring 2015 was the first time we noticed bars and shops coming to us saying, “We’ve heard about your gin, we’re really interested in stocking it, can you give us a price list, can you drop in and see us?” As opposed to us emailing, calling, 20 times to the same restaurant to try and get our gin in front of people.
That was when I first started thinking this is working. We’re obviously doing something right because we’ve got people from all over the country getting into contact saying, “I’ve heard about Sibling Distillery.”
So you broke into Europe, as well?
Yeah, we sell our gin in 5 European countries as well. That was the point where I started believing that it was working.
Also when I started going into places like Majestic, for instance, and they were saying, “Oh yeah, we’ve had about 10 people come in asking for Sibling Distiller Gin.” Then you think, oh, it’s working. We’re surrounded by our gin all the time. We know all about it. But, we don’t know how many people know all about it. It’s constantly surprising to us that we speak to people or we find out that people have been discussing us without us prompting them. That’s when you start to think it’s a legitimate business when you’re not having to force it on people.
What are your top 3 tips for business leaders?
Number 1: be nice to people because you don’t get anywhere by being a d*ck.
“be nice to people because you don’t get anywhere by being a d*ck…”
We’ve worked with people who are d*cks and we won’t work with them again, and vice versa. We know shops who’ve stopped stocking people because they’re a pain to deal with. People have to like you, first and foremost. I also think it’s just a better way to do business, do a deal that works for everybody and enjoy doing business with you. If you have to play hardball with people, the deal’s probably not a good one. You might have one deal, but it probably won’t happen again.
If you can’t do a deal in a nice way, then it’s probably not worth doing.
Number 2: Do the other things people won’t do.
Our whole business has been set up in a very difficult way. It’s very difficult to make gin from scratch. It’s why people don’t do it. It is why we do do it, because other people don’t.
Felix: We print our bottle on all 4 sides. It’s a pain in the ass, except nobody else does it because we’re aware that we have to do the things that other people won’t. Otherwise, you fall into the same group as everybody else. You can make a business by doing the same as everybody else, but it won’t be a business I want to run.
It’s going to be much more difficult to break into a market by doing that something is everybody else is doing as you’re just battling on price.
Yeah, you’re basically battling on being the most tenacious salesman in the world and being the cheapest option. Neither of which we are. I’m a lazy salesman and we’re quite expensive. We have to go the extra mile on things and make sure that we’re in there because people desperately want us in there, not because we’re convenient or cheap.
What was the third piece of business advice?
Number 3: Don’t think of it as a job. As I already said, it’s not a job, it’s your life. It is work, it’s hard work, and a lot of it’s not enjoyable, but you have to get out of that mindset of going to work and coming home from work or whatever. It has to be ingrained in you. It’s just a part of you. One of many parts of your lifestyle. Until you think like that, you won’t be successful because you’ll only put in the amount of work that you would if you were doing a normal 9 to 5, which is by no means enough to get a product off the ground.
Thanks Felix. I’m inspired! Where’s my gin?