Distilleries step into the limelight in our latest Masters competition, with innovation and enterprise coming to the fore.
The role of the distillery is changing
The Global Spirits Masters series has long celebrated the very best liquid the industry has to offer. Last year, The Spirits Business felt it was high time the often unsung heroes of the sector had their time in the spotlight – after all, if it were not for the distilleries, we would have no spirits to enjoy.
In addition, the role of the distillery is changing: no longer are they just factories pumping out new-make. Today’s consumers are thirsty for education as well as spirits, and distilleries meet that need – while generating revenue for the operating firm.
Against this backdrop, judges gathered for the second Distillery Masters. While medals are awarded on the same basis as the rest of the series – Master, Gold, Silver – in this case instead of supplying product for blind tasting, participants entered written submissions stating why they deserve a medal across the five categories: Consumer Experience; Use of Digital & Social Media; Distiller y Facilities; Distillery Innovation; and Green Initiatives.
Gathered at Skylon in London’s Royal Festival Hall to sift through and debate the entries were David T Smith, founder of the Craft Distilling Expo, Nicholas Cook, director general of The Gin Guild, and Amy Hopkins, The Spirits Business’s deputy editor, who chaired proceedings.
First to come under the judges’ scrutiny was the Consumer Experience categor y, which attracted a haul of medals. And the first to secure the coveted Master medal was Warner Edwards from the Northamptonshire countryside, a “tiny” distillery in comparison with some other entrants, which showcased its Curiosity Tour in its entry.
“It gives a nice sense of place and conveys the individuality of Warner Edwards Distillery,” opened Hopkins. “It’s a nice touch that the founders themselves give the tours and talk about the history of gin.”
Also picking up a Master was The Lakes Distillery, situated in the stunning Lake District National Park. The distillery impressed the panel with the levels of interactivity through its tour – the illicit still ‘ghost’ was a particular highlight. “It’s interesting to show whisky ageing, even when the liquid isn’t yet ready for bottling,” Hopkins noted.
Next up was Bombay Sapphire, which likewise picked up a Master for its striking Laverstoke Mill distillery, located in Hampshire. “This is designed from the ground up for visitors, and it’s beautiful,” praised Cook. “I like the G&T drivers’ pack, recognising that not everyone will be able to sample while they’re there.” “The tours are excellent,” echoed Smith. “I know a lot of people who have gone and loved it, and also many who want to go.”
Completing the Master quartet was Colorado-based Breckenridge Distillery, which offers tours communicating not just the brand’s history, but the broader history of Bourbon, too. “There’s a huge number of non-commercial products on offer, and with 25,000 visitors a year, they must be doing something right,” noted Cook. Smith added: “The thing I found interesting was the distillery is near to Denver, but it is out there doing its own thing. The team is almost bringing in people who have come for a different purpose.”
Judges also awarded four Gold medals in the category, including: the Glenfiddich Distillery, praised for its wealth of tours on offer; Manchester Three Rivers, where guests can control their own micro-still; Edinburgh’s Summerhall Distillery, noted for its good-value masterclasses; and Finland’s Kyrö Distillery, celebrated for its creativity in a tough regulatory climate.
“It’s interesting to see so many distilleries upping their game and realising it’s not just alcohol they are selling – it’s their story,” said Cook, looking back over the entries. “Consumers are genuinely interested in the who, how and what behind their drinks. Some distilleries have an incredibly immersive feel and all manage to pass on an explanation for how the product is made, depending on which spirits they make, the differences between them and how they are individually created.”
For Smith, the improvement in this area was clear. “In comparison with last year, the quality and the scope of the experience has increased, and it’s nice to see previous winners continue to improve their offering. “How consumers view spirits is changing, and brands that innovate stay ahead of the game,” he continued. “Entrants that have done particularly well have done things people haven’t seen before, and they have a wider focus, encompassing not only the spirits drinker, but the general visitor, children, and international tourists as well.”
Digital & Social Media
The next category to come under scrutiny was a batch of Digital & Social Media entries, where the strategy and engagement behind the distilleries was discussed. Triumphing with a Master medal was the Kyrö Distillery, which skillfully utilised digital media in a challenging legislative landscape.
“The brand offers information on background and people behind the spirit, which consumers will find intriguing,” mused Hopkins. “It has a strong website and social media presence, which is a great example of what brands can do in a restrictive legislative climate. Its posts seem to have impressive organic reach.”
Cook agreed: “They seamlessly integrate the look and feel of their brand materials on a very retro website. It’s very arty. In this restrictive legal environment it’s exemplar.” Smith added: “They have a strong audience in Finland, but also in other countries such as the UK, which speaks volumes about their engagement.”
Also securing a Master was Warner Edwards, which punched above its weight when it came to its digital presence. “Their engagement was really strong across all platforms,” said Smith. “Their performance is almost to the extent where if someone asked how to engage with people on social media I would say ‘just like this’; I’m close to saying this is text book.” For Cook, social media has enabled small brands to succeed in a way they never could have done before. “Warner Edwards has done a very good job.”
Edinburgh’s Summerhall Distillery secured a Gold medal for its impressive online efforts. “It’s a simple, easy-to-navigate website with an additional feature of where to find the nearest bottle of Pickering’s Gin [Summerhall’s flagship product],” noted Hopkins. “It’s interesting that more than half the staff can use back-end accounts and have proper training.” In fact, the entire panel highly commended the online promotion for the gin-filled baubles in the run-up to Christmas.
“At a time when brand loyalty is declining, good, engaging and active presence on social media can help to build a more personal presence with consumers and bring back some of that loyalty,” summed up Smith. “And brands can get a good impression of what people think of their products.”
Judges then turned their attention to the Distillery Facilities category, where the real brick-and-mortar customer offering is put under the spotlight. First to catch the judges’ eye and pick up a Master medal was The Lakes Distillery, deemed “well thought out from top to bottom” by Cook.
“The quality of the distillery facilities is highlighted by the statistic that 21,000 visitors go to the bistro, showing that they are offering much more than the straightforward distillery tour,” he said.
Also deemed Master-worthy by the panel was Bombay Sapphire’s Laverstoke Mill home. “The cocktail and bar offering is very strong, and the cocktail masterclasses seem to be enjoyable,” Smith said. “They have done a lot with their facilities to make their gin more accessible and to offer a deeper understanding of it.” Cook added: “I don’t think you could come away as a visitor and not be really impressed with this place and its facilities.”
Kyrö Distillery also drew praise for its offer. “I think it could be easy with a distillery like this to make it more mainstream, slick and fancy, but they are authentic and know what they are about,” said Smith. “Through their facilities they reflect where they are. I feel like I’d get a good sense of what the area is about.” The distillery duly secured a Gold.
Hopkins said of the round: “As more distilleries compete for their share of the burgeoning spirits tourism industry, it’s increasingly important that they provide a point of different in their distilleries. Judges were impressed to see this in abundance.”
The penultimate category to be judged was arguably the most technical: Distillery Innovation. Created to celebrate those distilleries pushing the boundaries in terms of production innovation, the small but well-formed pack of entrants more than impressed the panel.
Opening the scoring with a Master medal was Bombay Sapphire’s Laverstoke Mill, with an entry that focused on the technology that makes its older distillery building cutting-edge. “They go to the extent that they recycle the spent botanicals
– they burn them and then put the ash on local fields as fertiliser,” said Cook. “Bearing in mind when it was built, I don’t think that they had any other option but to implement these things; it’s the challenge of having an older building.”
The distillery’s signature glass houses also featured. “They are brilliant, and the fact you can see all the botanicals growing in their natural environment is great,” said Smith. “In terms of an innovative way of explaining the impact of botanicals in gin, it’s brilliant.”
Finland’s Kyrö Distillery scooped a Gold medal in the category. “Making a rye spirit in Europe in that pot still way is certainly unusual,” said Smith. “The distillery is using interesting ingredients, and the innovation in the distillery speaks to the brand and its positioning. It’s clearly innovative.”
Summerhall Distillery completed the trio and was awarded a Silver medal for its “artistic flair” in production.
“This round exemplified outstanding imagination from entrants, which have clearly sought to push distillery innovation to the next level,” Hopkins summed up.
Last but not least, the judges reached the Green Initiatives category, developed to highlight and award those distillers going the extra mile to ensure their production has as little impact on the wider environment as possible. It should be no surprise that Bombay Sapphire’s Laverstoke Mill facility secured a Master in this section.
“It’s the holistic approach they take, not just the nuts and bolts about distillation and water use; they aren’t even keen on people commuting long distances,” remarked Smith.
“The most impressive thing about the distillery is how little impact it has had on the surrounding environment, particularly since it makes gin on such a large scale,” he continued. “To do this is incredible.”
It was back across the Atlantic where the judges found a second Master medal: at Colorado’s Marble Distillery – claimed to be the only inn distillery in the world, and one with zero waste. Its entry focused on the “first-of-its-kind” Water Energy Thermal System. “The figures for water savings are astonishing,” said Cook, referencing the four million gallons of water the system saves annually.
Smith said: “This is an example of what you should be doing, if you have the ability. And they have the additional challenge of having a hotel as well. I think it’s great that they are zero-waste.”
The final entry of the day was from Summerhall Distillery which did not disappoint, picking up a Gold medal. “This is a good example of how you affect your energy use without spending a lot of money – I imagine the payback they got came quickly,” said Smith.
All in all, green initiatives are “feel-good, financial, and fundamental”, said Cook. “With a new business, why wouldn’t you do these things? It makes financial sense; it saves you money. It’s not something that’s going to affect people buying the spirit, but it should be implemented where possible for other reasons.”
Smith added: “The takeaway from the entries is that there are a lot of ways to implement green initiatives to suit different budgets. There is also a really good financial reason for doing these things.”
Left to right: Judges David T. Smith, Amy Hopkins and Nicholas Cook
Looking back over the day Smith, who was a member of the judging panel in for the 2016 competition, said he thought the quality of the brands overall was higher than last year.
Hopkins added: “This year’s Distillery Masters demonstrated the growing ambition of distilleries to position themselves as high- quality tourist destinations, not just spirit- making facilities.” With many offering a number of different and well-thought-out tours to cater to all different levels of interest and budgets, it’s essential that restaurant and retail offerings are stronger than ever before.
“In terms of innovation and sustainability, some distilleries really are going above and beyond to adapt traditional production processes, and to great effect,” she concluded.
Click through the following pages for the full list of medal winners in this year’s Distillery Masters.