Maverick Drinks: “There’s much more to come from craft”

Craft spirits entrepreneur Michael Vachon has shrugged off the notion that the UK is on the brink of reaching peak gin. It has been the star performer in the spirits category for several years now and some have started to question whether its performance will peter out. “The UK is nowhere near peak gin,” Vachon says. “In fact, we are so far away from it that the peak isn’t even in sight.”

Vachon is co-founder of Maverick Drinks, which supplies Ableforth’s Bathtub, Bluecoat, Kyrö and Origin gins.

He points out that there are whole segments of the retail community that have not even entered into the world of craft gin yet.

“If I can get free-from mince pies at my local convenience store, then I should be able to get at least one decent craft gin, but we are not at that place yet,” he says.

“Craft beer has now made its way onto the shelves of most off-licences but it took a while. Craft beer was practically mainstream before convenience caught up, but it’s now hard to find a store or a pub that doesn’t have any craft beer.

“I think we are at peak fried chicken shop – that’s where we are at. The concept of the high street has evolved and independent businesses are increasingly doing well. If you look at traditional high street retailers like bookies, they are struggling, but the independent record store sector is booming.

“It’s a shift towards people wanting to know if their money is going towards somebody, and especially coming out of recessions people want to shop local.”

Vachon says Maverick Drinks is keen to break down the barriers that prevent craft spirits from reaching new consumers.

“Convenience stores haven’t got a lot of access to products outside of what a cash and carry or wholesaler stocks,” he says.

“Another problem is that spirits are often behind the till. Retailers are worried about theft and I totally get that. And they tend not to hold any stock above a certain value, so this poses another challenge. Plus, they often don’t have access to theft security devices like the bottle neck-tags that multiple grocers use.

“For whatever reason cash and carries seem to be this kind of no-man’s-land of craft spirits. I spent some time with one particular depot of a large national cash and carry and they asked me what I thought was missing from their depot?

“I replied: ‘‘Anything interesting – what you have here are literally the things I can get anywhere’.”

Convenience stores often have to offer value products alongside luxury items, to suit different shoppers and this can be a headache for smaller stores, but Vachon believes it’s an easy problem to resolve.

“Space shouldn’t be a problem,” he says. “You can replace something that’s a low seller with something that could potentially be a high seller.

“What convenience retailers need to understand is the value that exists in these spirits.

“If a store says to me that a £35 bottle of gin is too high a price for their customers’ baskets, then I do take that on board, but we could trial different formats.

“We could change the format of our bottle tomorrow with a 50cl or a 25cl version, so that people can afford to buy them. It might help to get someone to trade up from a 1-litre bottle of Gordon’s to something more premium.

“We are very agile and we want to talk about how we can make craft spirits work for each store and their end customer.

“People have kind of written off convenience and there is a belief that people only go to convenience stores to buy cheap things but this is not true. I am seeing the difference in food.

“We could also consider waiving a store’s minimum order so that they didn’t have to keep a lot of stock.

“It just requires a conversation. We want anyone who wants to have access to our products to have a fair and equitable chance of doing it.

“We do want to have that conversation because we don’t want people buying things that might not be right for them.

“We try to get a feel for everybody we work with so that we can advise what brands we think would work for that store.

“If we sell something to a store and it doesn’t sell at the other end then that’s much worse for us, so we have to have a more meaningful understanding of how that business works.

Group links mean interesting times ahead

Maverick Drinks was founded in 2013 and is the distribution arm of Atom Group, which also includes Atom Brands and online retailer Master of Malt.

Atom produces spirits including Bathtub gin and Boutique-y whisky, gin and rum, for which Maverick handles sales and marketing. It also distributes spirits from outside the group.

“Like three independent businesses, we at Maverick buy from Atom and we sell to Master of Malt,” says Vachon. “We try to operate as three different businesses.”

AB-Inbev, the world’s largest brewer, purchased Atom Group for an undisclosed fee in May 2018 through its ZX Ventures division.

Vachon says: “It is so supportive, but we haven’t even begun to explore how we could work with other AB-Inbev companies, such as Camden Town Brewery or Goose Island, and that’s where it gets really interesting.”

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