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Social Impact: Bringing liquor production back to the East End. Championing the underdogs of the beverage world and a new kind of consumption.
Whether it’s clothing, food, leather goods, craft or - in Alex Wolpert’s case - alcohol, it’s undeniable that there has been a marked shift from mass consumption to independent production in recent years.
Maybe it’s a symptom of our more conscious society, but the founder of the East London Liquor Company reckons its because the good people of East London have started to demand for bang for their buck. Loathsome of the companies that have been pulling the wool over their eyes; there’s been a noticeable move to appreciating quality and straight-to-the-point products. Enter East London Liquor Company; the straight-talking fresh face in the beverage industry yet unmatched in both scale and price-point for a five year old company. Part of an age-old traditional of liquor production in the East End, they’re all about keeping industries alive close to home, with an importance placed on the opinions and taste of the locals. We visited their labyrinthine distillery to find out more from their founder, Alex Wolpert.
So where did the idea to form East London Liquor Company come from?
“The idea actually started on the back of a fag packet, even though I don’t smoke! [laughs]
I guess the idea was formed from it was really big love of booze, good booze that is. Having worked in the bar industry for many years, there was no ‘locals’ booze with a focus on independent and small scale production in the area. I think for me what was relevant to me 10-12 years ago working in the industry was the great, local, independent stuff; whether it was the food you ate or the bars you drank in or the clothes you wore; it felt like there weren’t any booze operators championing locals and local bartender in a similar way.”
Was there a problem with the beverage industry as a whole?
“Well, we’re in the position in the industry now where the idea of ‘craft’ - although I hate using that word - comes with a really hefty price tag of £35-45. Our doesn’t break the bank, we think excellence doesn’t have to mean that it’s pricey. It welcomes in a whole new group of different people. Our big question when we started was: how can we champion an underdog position in booze?”
Why do you think that other drinks companies have such a hefty price-tag, then?
“Look at it this way: making gin isn’t expensive so drinking it shouldn’t be expensive either. If you’re paying £45 for a bottle of gin you’re paying for the fancy bottle design, the brand’s marketing budget and for the company;s board to go to on a team away-day to Barbados.
That’s fine but let’s be transparent about it! Our bar with the big glass window looking into the distillery is a huge metaphor for how transparent we are and how we operate. We’re very transparent about where and how we make it and what we put int it, to make it as democratic and accessible as possible.
That’s hat gets me out of bed in the mornings; we stand for what no small businesses really stand for. It feels like people get lost in the margins game and think ‘oh if we can get away with it we can charge more’; and then they end up making a gin that’s so expensive it’s only used for special occasions.”
What makes East London Liquor Company different from that?
“Quite simply, we don’t want to be the special occasion gin: we want to be the gin that everyone drinks every night when they get home. We want to be the bottle that gets put in the recycling bag every Sunday night because it’s empty. If the sales team go to one of our bars and see our bottle at the back all dusty— we’ve failed. I think for me it was how to champion that position in a simple and eloquent way.”
It’s been an amazing journey for the distillery and for the brand since you started only five years ago. What’s been the key to your success?
“It’s been an amazing journey, there’s no doubt about that. We started doing 1,000 bottles a month five years ago and now we do 10, 12, sometimes 15,000 bottles a month. Last year we test-released a few hundred bottles of whiskey and they completely sold out. I think what that’s most testament to is our local support base and the people that actually come to us and buy our booze. I had a meeting this morning at 10am and two locals came in who had run out of gin — it’s only Thursday!”
When you have such a responsive business model that really talks to your consumers; cutitng out that middle man, it’s really amazing.
“We could never have scaled in the way we have without having our shop here, in Seven Dials, in Borough Market so that there is that face-to-face contact you get with your customers. We get to show them where it’s made.
Almost five and a half years on, there’s still no one at our quality and price point, but that’s all down to our team. We have about thirty people with amazing expertise, both in our distillery, in our sales team and in our restaurant and shop.
The shop here was a reactive thing to the need we were receiving; we were shifting a pallet of gin every month just from London.
Why do you think your message has resonated with East Londoners in particular?
“There’s a huge local appetite for something that isn’t pulling the wool over people’s eyes. That has real currency, people want more bang for their buck. It takes people a long while for our customers to get their head around the fact that there really is no catch!”
How has East London changed over the years, and why do you think brands like yours have done well in the area?
“I’ve lived in Hackney for almost 20 years. Yes, it’s gone under a really radical transformation but the proposition that’s always stuck with us is having a business that can be for everyone, not just a privileged few; it’s a great place to be. I think when people lose their faith in politicians and politics like now, they look to what they consume to give them direction in their beliefs. People buy brands that they believe in, that have a belief system behind them.”