Last February UK spirits distributor Mangrove was acquired by Martinique-based conglomerate GBH. The deal saw Mangrove join Spiribam, which coordinates all of the spirits activities at GBH. Mangrove co-founder Nick Gillett (pictured left) tells Lucy Britner about the first year under new ownership

Drinks Retailing: How has the first year been?

Nick Gillett: During the acquisition, the owners said they were here to support, they won’t interfere and that they want to grow the business in the UK. And part of me was a bit ‘Yeah, once you’ve got it, you’re going to want to change stuff’. But to be absolutely fair to them, they’ve not interfered at all, they’ve really been the most supportive partner I could have wished for.

We’re also doing the opposite of what a lot of companies are doing at the moment – we’re expanding.

The group is ambitious and they want the global spirits division to be a key focus. They are going to achieve that through organic growth and acquisitions.

DR: What kind of brands are you looking to acquire?

NG: We are probably looking for brands that are family-owned that maybe the next generation doesn’t want to take on. Brands that have got a global footprint – and probably those that need the funds to expand and grow. I think we understand the culture of founders and families – we are a family business.

We’re very strong in rum, so that’s probably not top of the list. Like everybody, we’d like something in whisky, something in agave would be lovely. We like distilleries and production facilities.

Being part of a global group offers opportunities as well as access to expertise around the world.

We still need a Scotch, so we need to find a Scotch brand.

DR: Last year, you said you were looking to grow the St Lucia rum brands in the UK market. How’s that going?

NG: The growth has been pretty dramatic, but from a relatively small base. The Bounty brand would be a good example – the awareness and volume that we’re forecasting in 2024 mean it will pretty firmly establish itself in the minds of consumers in the on-trade as a serious player. We’re trying to communicate St Lucia – the liveliness and colour, enjoying life and not taking yourself too seriously.

We spent a session trying to come up with these perfect, quite ornate serves and we spoke to the St Lucian team who said: “We just mix it with Coke and good music and friends.”

DR: What can retailers expect in terms of NPD?

NG: RTDs are an interesting one. Chairman’s Reserve has done a Mai Tai in partnership with Harvey Nichols. And we own two rhum Agricole out of Martinique – Rhum Clément and JM Rhum. As a group we’ll bring out some RTDs probably for Clément first – the liquid is amazing – T’Punch and Mai Tai. So, it’s a market we are dipping our toe in.

I think RTDs will grow and grow, but at the moment you’re seeing an explosion of entrants and it’s a bit of a minefield. There’s a lot of different products at different abvs, varying qualities and varying price points.

DR: What about low and no?

NG: Well, it’s growing all the time. I think low is a challenge – it’s difficult in terms of definitions, where you position it.

Within low and no, there are literally thousands of products and we get presented with them all the time. A lot of them are really quite underwhelming, certainly when you mix them.

We’ve got innovation lined up for 2024 – we’ve gone down two slightly different routes. We have Giffard who brought out a range of, effectively, shrubs. They are really interesting and quite delicious.

Then we are launching Almave – Lewis Hamilton’s non-alcoholic agave drink. It’s an agave-based liquid – the juice from cooked agave. It launched in the US at the tail end of last year and about 2,000 bottles ended up being sold to UK drinkers via the US website. The price point for the UK is £36 – it’s an expensive process to make it.

DR: How have last August’s duty changes affected the business?

NG: In terms of the burden on working capital, its impact is huge, especially with the cost of borrowing at the moment.  We are borrowing significant amounts of money to finance our duty bill – we’re lucky we can do that but it’s expensive: The cost of duty change was probably the difference between us employing another two people this year.

We sit in the premium spirits market. Putting products up by £1.50-£2 on shelf is not the end of the world – let’s be honest, booze is a luxury item – but it has undoubtedly had an effect on sales. In the on-trade, if you combine that with energy costs and everything else, and you look at the price of drinks, you think ‘wow’. It has definitely had an effect on the industry. It’s also not going to reduce the number of problem drinkers and I don’t think it has raised the money the government thought it would, it has just increased costs in an already challenging sector.

DR: What else is on the cards for 2024?

NG: We’ve got a couple of amazing whisky launches. We’re launching an Indian whisky brand, Indri, and a Canadian whisky called Red Bank which is part-owned by Kiefer Sutherland.