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Investing in the future of the drinks industry

Jamie Walker, one of the co-founders of drinks brand accelerator Sip & Savour, talks about the company's first year in business

Jamie Walker Sip and Savour

How did Sip and Savour start?

Sip and Savour formed from five people. Chris and Lewis Bowen have strength in the off-trade and online... The rest of us come from an on-trade background. I have worked for Bacardi and Diageo to understand the super-premium category. It has become so saturated here in the UK. We pulled ourselves together to say, what we want to do is build a brand, feed it and push it. But we need to build a foundation of trust to ensure that we can deliver. 

Our portfolio of premium drinks brands had grown quickly since our launch in early 2020. Sip and Savour now looks after Amaretto Adriatico, Fercullen Irish Whiskey, Gincarte Gin, Sprezza, Oxford Artisan Distillery, and Ron Colon.

Tell us about how the business functions as a 'brand accelerator'.

We look for brands with a story where production channels are strong... We build things on a point of difference and have a bit of fun with it. Now everyone wants to have a point of difference, but sometimes they try to over-educate the consumer.

We would look at each brand, and the quality of the product. We have more of an 'outside-in' approach. The liquid itself has to be phenomenal - of course the packaging is important, but the quality of the liquid is paramount to us, in terms of production values and flavour. Then we look at communities where we want to spread the product. The influence there is super-important. You want to get it in front of the right people who can influence in a sincere way, where the opinion matters because it has been built on trust. Once we have that, we can start creating some wins.

It is about trying to understand the kind of activity the products have - tastings for bartenders and consumers, any bar events they have organised, inspiring the on-trade by telling them about the product. Menu placement and visibility is really important to us; it is not just [about] sitting on the back bar, it is about being used. Bartenders are so important when it comes to brand building because they are the gatekeepers and the conduits. 

In my experience each brand is different. We may have one strategy written down on paper, but if a new strategy comes to you that fits with that brand, you should run with it. And we have partners on the ground - understanding how to work in partnership with accounts is so important.

What is the brand-building business like in the UK today?

You walk into a lot of bars which say they are saturated and can't build any more brands. It is the beginning of the journey that I find really exciting, building brands into something that has critical mass and can drive itself forward. I think there are so many great online wholesalers out there, but they don't really have the brand-building capacity. People have to be asking for your product and brands need help building that footprint. We have capability for trade engagement programmes, social media promotion - it was that element that I thought there was a gap in the market for. We saw there were good brands out there that didn't have representation, and there are some out there who have had representation but had their fingers burned. Brand building is an expensive market - you need to make sure you create bang for your buck.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected the business?

We want to support, celebrate and reward the on-trade network in these challenging times. We would normally launch through physical activations and events into on-trade and off-trade channels, but we have had to adapt and change our approach.

As opposed to carrying out launch events at bars and restaurants, we made a plan to partner with the best bartenders and drinks culture experts, established and up-and-coming. Programming for this kicked off in September. These partnerships are key in ensuring we can give bartenders a voice and also support them through added value. 

Our trade has been hit very heavily by the situation. Once we turn a corner and there is a solution people will want to be out and celebrating, bars and restaurants will be busy again, but for now it is about making sure that we have a lifeline for them through the tricky times.

What does the future have in store for Sip and Savour?

We want to be the best brand-building distribution company we possibly can. We are looking to add two or three premium drinks brands to further enhance our portfolio. When on-trade and off-trade reopen, we will be driving forward in these channels. Our main focus lies in the UK at the moment. We have a bonded warehouse in Holland; when things are less volatile, we will focus on export.

8 January 2021