In good spirits: Nick Dymoke-Marr
Juniper is the main flavour component in gin. It has to be – that’s the rule. “It’s like licking a Christmas tree”, says Nick Dymoke-Marr, co-founder of Langton’s No 1 gin, describing the taste of the berries in their raw state. “It’s really rather unpleasant,” he adds. “The pulp inside the berries has got a nasty, greasy character to it.”
Not a great advert you might think, but he’s working round to what makes Langtons stand out. The juniper is dialled down and other seductive fruits and spices turned up – including Amalfi lemons, liquorice, anise, coriander seeds and Seville orange peel – to create what, in his own words, is a “light, citrussy, floral” gin that can be sipped as much as mixed.
It has a unique botanical, as is the custom of USP-seeking gins – seasoned bark chips from young oak, intended to perform a harmonising and enhancing role, just as in wine. Or, as Dymoke-Marr puts it: “Like adding a tablespoon of double cream to some mushroom soup”.
It’s no surprise to find a wine influence in Langtons, as that category is where Dymoke-Marr forged his reputation. After working in a morgue for six months and having a “truly indescribable” job in an aluminium reclamation plant, he walked into Beaconsfield Wines in Buckinghamshire in November 1982, to ask for a Christmas job – and ended up staying for three years.
“Wine interested me,” he says. “My grandfather had, not a huge cellar, but some quite nice bottles. For my 18th birthday he gave me a copy of Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine. I’d always been interested in maps and there was a magic with all these labels alongside them. I’d hunt down the odd bottle when I could afford to.”
Eventually he was lured away by a high-spending customer to co-found their own store – the Marlow Wine Shop just down the road. After his business partner died he worked as a buyer for a City wine bar chain before spotting an ad for a wine buying post at Asda.
He applied and was amazed to get the job. He was there for eight years from 1990, eventually becoming category manager for wine.
“It was pretty chaotic to be perfectly honest – an extraordinary time. The wine department were treated like weirdos dealing with this fancy product and we were left to our own devices.”
Asda was then a labouring also-ran in a supermarket race where Sainsbury’s and Tesco were the thoroughbreds.
“You knew that whatever you did was probably going to be better than what had gone before,” he recalls. “You just got your head down and did the job you had to do and eventually we pulled ourselves out of the mire and became very successful.
“It still sounds to me like a lot of money, but our retail sales in wine were about £50-something million a year when I joined. But when I left we’d just gone over £200 million. It was an amazing time in the wine industry’s history.”
Eventually he decided to have a crack at doing something on his own and turned supplier as co-founder of Orbital Wines, which built the Stormhoek and Camden Park wine brands.
After years of impressing the industry with its quirky approach to marketing and brand building the business folded in 2008. Even six years on, Dymoke-Marr declines to talk in detail about its demise, other than to note that it was “no fault of its own”.
It was perhaps no surprise that his comeback in brands was in a product category other than wine. “I’d got a bit disillusioned with the way the wine business was going. Spirits are so exciting at the moment. The gatekeepers who work in bars are just so passionate about what they do. It’s lovely to see that passion and real determination back in the drinks category.
“I think it exists in beer, and I know it exists in spirits but I’m not so sure it exists across the board in wine. In individual cases it does without a shadow of a doubt, but it does sadden me when I walk into a supermarket and see 10 wines that all taste the same. There’s no adventure any more.
“In Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose in [the 1990s] there was a ladder. Of course there was a day-to-day standard offer but we’d also promote wines up at every price level. That doesn’t seem to be the case any more.”
Some might argue that, like wine, trendy fixtures such as craft gin or beer are in danger of becoming over-populated.
“It depends what you view as over-populated,” says Dymoke-Marr. “If we spent a whole day on the internet and tracked down every gin we could find on the UK market we’d probably end up with 150.
“If we walked into a massive supermarket with a big wine range there’d be 1,000-plus bottles. I’d call that over-populated.
“The growth is steady in gin but at the premium level it’s quite steep.”
Gin could just be the start for Dymoke- Marr, who admits to a nagging ambition to make tequila – but one thing is certain, that if a supermarket chain came calling there’d be no turning back the clock.
“The great thing about the time I worked at Asda was that you were encouraged to offer your opinions. These days there’s too much fear [in grocery generally]. We were left to our own devices. Nobody interfered with us too much.
“It’s different now – you’ve got loads of other departments who’ve all got a slice of your action and. Although they’re not responsible for the success or failure of your sales, they can put their thumbprint over pretty much everything you do.
“I loved that time and I’ve absolutely no regrets. I had a ball when I worked there. But I’m enjoying this now. Every day is an adventure.”