Didsbury gin: Dragon's Den success

An appearance on top TV show Dragon’s Den saw the owners of Didsbury gin gain a £75,000 investment. Martin Green catches up with the duo to see what the future holds

The gin category has enjoyed phenomenal growth over the past five years as a result of a huge number of exciting brands hitting the market. Brits enjoyed a record-breaking 66 million bottles of gin in 2018 – a 41% rise on the previous year – and the juggernaut shows no signs of slowing. But the category is crowded and it is difficult for any newcomers to break into it.

However, Liam Manton and Mark Smallwood appear poised to thrive after heading into Dragons’ Den and emerging with a £75,000 investment in their business. They set up Didsbury gin as a side hustle while Manton was working at a construction firm and Smallwood was running a gin bar. They were both made redundant at the start of 2018 and they decided to throw themselves into the gin business full- time. A couple of weeks later they were thrust into the den, face to face with investors Touker Suleyman, Jenny Campbell, Deborah Meaden, Tej Lalvani and Peter Jones.

“It was terrifying, especially when minutes before we went in front of the Dragons we realised that our glasses smelled of egg,” says Manton. “Sulphur in the washing machine water had made them disgusting and our gin would also be disgusting. We had to wash everything very quickly before our chances were ruined.”

They rallied and managed to win the investors over with the quality of their gin, their enthusiasm and the strength of their business plan. “To be honest, we didn’t have much time to prepare,” says Smallwood. “We were made redundant from our day jobs the previous week, and at an event in London the weekend before we were invited in to pitch, so it was all a whirlwind experience. We were in Liam’s living room the day before, pulling together bullet points for our pitch.”

Yet they were confident in their numbers, so they sat watching Only Fools & Horses for six hours while their fellow entrepreneurs stressed over the finer details of their plans in the green room. After some initial banter between the multi-millionaires, the duo hooked in rival offers from both Campbell and Lalvani. Campbell is a gin lover who went to school in Didsbury, the part of Manchester the gin hails from, so they decided to go for her bid. She took a 33% stake for £75,000, with the promise of help to scale up the business and reduce costs so they could increase production.

They had to keep quiet about it until the show aired last month, but they can now reveal how the business is going. Campbell has already guided them through a rebrand and an upscale of the business, while providing legal and financial advice. They have now secured listings at Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Wetherspoons, and are targeting the off-trade for sales growth.

“Didsbury gin is all about Mark and Liam,” says Campbell, a former banker and business turnaround specialist. “They instantly drew me in with their charm and I thought this could work. I also went to school in Didsbury so I thought that was a good omen. They knew their product and the numbers behind the business, they stood their ground when my fellow Dragons attacked and, most importantly, I liked them. I think gin drinkers across the UK will too. They have a great brand, which will be taking on the classic names by the end of the year. Watch this space.”

EXPERT HELP

The duo also brought in former Bargain Booze managing director Keith Webb to help them with the business plan, understand the dynamics of drinks buying and provide introductions within the trade. He is equally confident in their ability to flourish in the growing gin category.

When asked what convinced them to enter the crowded gin category, Manton says: “At first we wanted to create a product that we wanted to drink. We knew what we liked about some gins and weren’t so keen on in others. Realising it was actually pretty good, we began to make it to sell instead of just drink. I think people have really taken to our original gin because of its unique vibrancy. We use a blend of fresh, hand-peeled and sun-dried citrus botanicals, which give it a real clean, crisp and zesty characteristic.”

Smallwood adds: “Initially we produced a small batch of gin on our 1-litre copper still, which we took as a sample to a number of buyers after some really positive feedback from our network of friends in hospitality.”

To scale it up, they looked into working with a number of contract distillers. “We’ve been working with Union Distillers on our products,” says Smallwood. “They have a wealth of experience, procure ethically and sustainably in terms of botanicals etc and we have contributed to their growth over the past 18 months.”

They have also just installed a bottling line, which can churn out 10,000 bottles a day. “We ended last year having grown around 500%. We’re expecting much more than that this year and we’re ready to meet demand,” says Manton.

When asked why retailers should stock the gin, Smallwood says: “We’d welcome anybody who wants to try the gin to try it. We’ve not yet met a buyer who has declined to stock the product, and this was before the Dragons’ Den media hype. We’re also working on a bespoke gin commission for one of the UK’s most popular supermarkets, which is really exciting in terms of the product and the scale.”

Manton adds: “We’ve got a number of exciting projects and collaborations in the pipeline and are really keen to work with people who share our passion for gin and its commercial possibilities. If you’re interested in riding this rollercoaster with us, get in touch.”

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