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The big interview: Ricky Gervais, Ellers Farm Distillery

Ellers Farm Distillery has been given a boost by comedian Ricky Gervais joining as co-owner. He and Chris Fraser explain how his arrival is part of a plan to catapult the company’s Dutch Barn Orchard Vodka into the big leagues.

Ricky Gervais Ellers Farm
Gervais joined Ellers Farm in November 2023

*This feature was originally published in the April 2023 issue of The Spirits Business magazine.

Perhaps best known for creating British TV series The Office (which has since spawned adaptions worldwide), English comedian and actor Ricky Gervais initially worked in the music industry before embarking on a stand-up career. Since then, he has hosted the Golden Globes five times, created and starred in shows such as Afterlife on Netflix and, more recently, invested in a distillery.

Chris Fraser and Ricky Gervais
Chris Fraser and Ricky Gervais

Gervais made his first move into the spirits sector in November 2023, joining North Yorkshire distillery Ellers Farm as its co-owner. The English distillery, which produces Dutch Barn Orchard Vodka from apples, and has begun ageing whisky, was founded in 2020 by amateur cider maker Chris Fraser.

Speaking over Zoom, Gervais says his first investment was in another UK-based brand, Cano Water. “Their idea was to try and cut down plastics being thrown in the ocean,” Gervais says. “And I’ve always been sort of an environmentalist, I’ve always loved nature. I’ve always been involved in charities. I donate all my platinum tickets for my shows to animal charities.”

Ethical brand

When it came to investing in Ellers Farm, Gervais says he was “looking for another ethical brand”. In September 2023 the distillery secured its B Corp certification, and has been carbon neutral since its launch.

On meeting Fraser via a “friend of a friend”, Gervais says: “We talked about how ethical the business was, and we hit it off. Then we started talking about fun ideas. That’s what hooked me in for it to be mine as well.”

It was a quick decision for Fraser when it came to accepting Gervais’ investment, after seeing his initial ideas for an advert. “The first set of scripts were in my emails, and I was just pissing myself laughing,” Fraser recalls.

“I think ‘disrupting’ is a good word for what we’re trying to do, possibly a little bit maverick. But at the heart of it, we think we’ve got a really great brand, great product, great liquid, and what Ricky’s fantastic about is basically bringing that to life for people, and making them aware of a brand in a really crowded marketplace.”

Gervais adds: “I just wouldn’t do it for somebody I didn’t believe in or like. It’s great to know in adverts when you’re the face of the company that you’re telling the truth. That’s what’s really fun. There’s nothing to hide, and I think people react to that. That’s the way it’s going as well, I think people are more discerning, people have seen behind the curtain a lot these days, with social media.”

On his approach to marketing the brand, Gervais hopes to “make people aware of the brand in a fun and honest way”.

A recent post on his Instagram page with the caption ‘Worst Advert Ever’ showed an amusing video of Gervais telling drinkers to buy Smirnoff if they couldn’t afford Dutch Barn – “known as the posh one in the brown bottle”. Another clip showed Gervais joined by a ‘doctor’ who quickly points out that he is an actor being paid for the shoot. When asked what the dangers of alcohol are, the ‘doctor’ reeled off a long list of risks: “Well there is loads, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, weakening the immune system, digestive problems, depression, violence and accidents.” At the end of the advert, Gervais simply pointed to the bottle a table nearby and said: “Dutch Barn.”

“I want it to be funny, within all the guidelines,” he says. “And I thought the funny thing was for me to be saying things like, if you can’t afford it, get Smirnoff, it does the trick. I thought it was a funny thing to say in an advert to mention another brand and say they’re available, and they’re cheap, and to have a doctor and then say it’s a fake doctor, because it’s an advert.”

Fraser believes the unconventional approach to marketing is a good fit for the brand. “There are so many things we’re doing differently to what a normal vodka is,” he says, noting that the marketing campaign with Gervais is unlike what anyone else is doing in the category.

With Gervais’ backing, Ellers Farm is hoping to use his influence to turn Dutch Barn into a global brand. “Our long-term ambition is within the next seven to 10 years to try and turn it into a top-20 global vodka,” Fraser says. “And in doing that, we think we’ll be the number-one sustainable, ethical one in that category.”

Fraser says the long-term goal is about “creating awareness in a category that is quite boring, and not really getting a lot of focus, and do it in a differentiated way with a different product that’s fantastic to drink”.

Gervais was also surprised to come across a vodka that could be consumed neat. “I didn’t realise vodka could taste that good, by itself,” he enthuses, noting that he always treated vodka as a spirit for mixing.

Fraser chimes in: “It’s funny that is the reaction we always get whenever someone tries the product, ‘wow that is amazing, that’s so smooth’. It’s all the steps and the decisions we’ve made in making this product with such care and attention, and having made it very, very slowly. Compared with, say, traditional vodka methods, it gives us an amazing, differentiated liquid in a category that is enormous.”

The brand has recently expanded into Iceland, and is “hoping to open up Denmark quite soon”, according to Fraser, who will spend this year focusing on the UK.

Taking on the massive vodka category in the US is also of great importance. “I’m spending a lot of time talking in North America with importers and some distributors, and just trying to really figure out what the right strategy is for that market,” says Fraser.

“Ricky’s got a fantastic presence in that market. We just keep getting inundated on social media with ‘is this available in the US?’ It’s a big market, and it’s expensive to go in if you get it wrong. So we’ve got to find the right pathway, the right states and cities to launch in, and get the right timing to do that, but the US is definitely a big target market for us to achieve our top-20 ambition. We have to win well in the US and make it a major North American brand. In the longer term, it will end up being our main market, for sure. But then we’ll continue adding European markets.”

Ellers Farm cherry liqueur
Ellers Farm cherry liqueur

As well as its vodka, Ellers Farm also produces gin and liqueurs. The company is also gradually building its whisky stocks, and recently concluded its Founders Release cask-investment programme, with 38 200-litre casks priced at £8,000 (US$10,000) each.

Ellers Farm also created an English single malt in partnership with Theakston Brewery, one of Britain’s oldest family-owned brewers. “They’ve developed this amazing distiller’s beer for us, so it’s a great beer that you can drink by itself, obviously without the hops and things, and we’re now distilling that into whisky, which is already winning some awards as the new make we’ve released,” Fraser says. “Everyone who tries it is amazed by the amount of flavour in it, so we’re really excited by what that can do. But that’s a much longer journey, we’re probably looking at seven-plus years before we can start releasing reasonable volumes, otherwise we will give away all the good stuff.”

Despite already having a B Corp accreditation, there’s always room for improvement in sustainability, says Fraser. “Sustainability is a constant, ongoing continuous improvement process. I always use the phrase ‘pursuing sustainable perfection’ because it encapsulates that we can always do more. What we’re really looking to do as soon as we can is move the distillery to being a net-zero operation.”

The distillery is also looking at how it can work with its suppliers to “figure out how we can reduce our impacts. How can we go down to the farmer and influence their use of pesticides and fertilisers and things like that, to really make sure we have this really fantastic link through all of our various suppliers so that we can then try and positively influence them to reduce their emissions and environmental impact,” Fraser continues. “Beyond just carbon, it’s got to go right into supporting nature, in the ecosystems, looking after water resources, and all those kinds of things. There are really powerful things that we can do. We’re going to continually be investing and getting better.”

Passion projects

Gervais is keen to stress he only promotes products he’s passionate about. “I’ve only done a few adverts in my time, and they were things I was really behind that I either wrote or created myself,” Gervais explains. “But it’s like half a dozen in 25 years, I think.”

Gervais was approached by an unnamed gin brand “about 20 years ago” to star in an advert. “I went ‘no I don’t want to’, and it was like a million [dollars],” he recalls of his agent’s call. “And I said ‘no’ and they called back and said ‘OK, they’ve said two million’. I wasn’t negotiating. There are people that just don’t take no for an answer. They just think there’s a price. And I just think if you can’t be bought, you’re priceless. I’ve done adverts that I’ve been behind, and I’ve just never wanted to be that actor that just pretended to love something. It’s got to be me. It’s got to be honest.”

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