From a napkin idea to an international gin empire, with Martin Miller's Gin
How a trio of gin obsessives set up their own distillery
On paper, the process for making Martin Miller’s Gin, sounds so needlessly costly that any new firm would be mad to take it on.
The firm is as British as they come, but for them it’s all about Iceland. Not the chain of frozen foodstuffs, but the country.
Their gin is made in Britain but then shipped off to Iceland to be blended with Icelandic water before being carted off wherever it needs to be sold.
But now this Icelandic gin is one of the staple choices for swish barmen and mixologists in Mayfair and across the world. How on earth have they done it? Even Spain is mad for Martin Miller’s Gin - a country I confess I didn’t think of as a gin-loving nation.
Still fiercely independent and using no advertising, Martin Miller’s Gin is enjoying growth of around 100% per year in China, the Middle East, Australia, Southeast Asia and Spain. Crikey.
Their story - that of a trio of gin obsessives setting up their own distillery - is even more intriguing on catching up with the creative director and one of the three co-founders, David Bromidge.
How did Martin Miller’s Gin start?
Basically we started the brand around 1997. My background was as a consultant in the drinks industry, mainly in brand development.
I knew Martin Miller socially, and I had set up a business where we were producing an Icelandic vodka in the UK.
We were sitting there, along with my business partner Andreas [Versteegh], and we had done the classic thing - we ordered a gin & tonic in a classic London pub environment where you order a G&T and basically the guy thrusts a half pint beer glass with a tiny shot of some sort of 37% proof ABV gin, mixed with some tonic and then asks you - do you want some ice in it?
We were looking at this and thinking ‘is this what has happened to the great British tradition of the G&T?’ It was just awful! And there was no super high-quality gin in the market…so that led onto these ‘what if?’ conversations that three people had together.
We started asking…. Supposing time and money was no object, how’d you go about it? On the back of the envelope we started to plot out what we could do in terms of the best form of distilling that we could think of a the time.
Basically because of our vodka experience, we had been making an Icelandic vodka. That had led us into an introduction, and an understanding of the wonders of Icelandic water for blending.
It just works so well, if you drink a Coca Cola in Iceland it tastes better than anywhere else, if you drink a beer there - it tastes fantastic. It has the ability to somehow inhibit evaporation so you get a much slower release of aromatics and spirits and you get less burn and a much ordered delivery of the botanicals. The gin is made in the UK, but we ship it to Iceland because on the back of the piece of paper it seemed like a commercially good idea!
We spent the next 18 months perfecting the basic distillation because, for us, it was a very fortunate combination of events. We came up with the classic London Dry style and tried to give it that little extra by blending it with Icelandic water.
How was it getting the business off the ground?
It didn’t start as a commercial project. We priced the first container and had the money to do it. We said that the worst that happens here is we end up with a lifetime supply of gin!
The best way to create new products it to come at it from that angle, rather than a cynical business ‘cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s’.
You leapt on the idea first and the business came along later?
Absolutely. There were no super premium gins when we came out with the price - Hendricks came along six months to a year later.
We totted up what it cost us to make, added a bit of margin on it and came up with this price range of about £20. We had this intake of breath and thought ‘that was £3 more than Bombay Sapphire, would the market take it?”
We knew that our enthusiasm was shared by the mixologists, so there was a market among the nerdy bartenders who were looking for the super authentic products, but we thought it was a relatively small market at that stage.
In our off-trade (pubs, bars, shops), the business was pushing water uphill until about 2006. But the growth and the interest Martin Miller’s created in a lot of new cocktails has slowly filtered through into the general perception of the market as a whole - you’re now getting people looking for a better quality gin. They are aware it’s out there. That interest has grown since 2006 onwards.
How did you get to break into the wider market?
The beauty we had with Martin Miller’s was when we started; Martin was keen that we stuck to a classic taste profile. Secondly we were the only ones, so we didn’t have to do anything weird like put our fingers in it or claim that we distill it through diamonds handled by virgins!
We didn’t put a ridiculously high price on it, but what we found with Martin Miller’s was it that it was a good general all-around gin.
Martin Miller’s tips for a perfect G&T:
- COLD: It is most important to have all the ingredients be as cold as possible – both the gin, but you should also use lots of large ice cubes straight from the freezer.
- THE GLASS: The best type of glass is a large balloon style. The glass is perfect for holding, without warming the contents and for displaying the beautiful citrus and botanical aromas.
- GARNISH: Use a long twist of lime peel. Lime is the floral pairing for Martin Miller’s, not lemon. Don’t use the pulp of the lime either as this destroys the bubbles! Then drop into the glass three or four juniper berries.
- BUBBLES: It’s the bubbles that bring out the nuances in Martin Miller’s gin, so be sure to keep as much fizz in the tonic as possible.
- BE PATIENT! Wait 30 seconds while all the ingredients mix and marry together. Gently stir with the mixing spoon if needed. ENJOY!
- 50ml Martin Miller’s gin
- 10ml Crème de peche (peach liqueur)
- 15ml Fresh lemon juice
- 10ml Agave syrup
- 75ml Lemon verbena
All ingredients are easy to source (lemon verbena can be found in good tea shops). Brew the lemon verbena as for tea and let it cool before mixing. Hot tea will melt the ice and water down the taste.
Method: ‘Build’ in Collins glass with ice and stir. Garnish: Stir the drink once more and garnish with cucumber slices.
How has the company been growing?
Spain is well over 120/130% growth and on £6m turnover. The total case sales is 150,000.
The last three years has been phenomenal. We had good growth till about 2008 and then it sort of stopped until around 2009. From 2009 it started to pick up again and accelerated again.
We had a lot of interest during that period from a lot of luxury good businesses, sniffing around the brand.
The UK has been our least well-performing market, in terms of off-premise sales until this year. As of March we’re in Sainsburys. We’ve been in Majestic, Oddbins, all the independents. Usually when we’re in, we pretty rapidly become the best-selling gin in the outlet.
What’s the outlook like for Martin Miller’s Gin?
Our main target to chase is Hendricks. Our long-term goal - because we believe that the brand is more generalised than Hendricks - is to exceed their sales. That would be our aim. I feel quite confident about it.
If we look at Spain, which is the most developed gin market in the world, this year we’re #3 on the Niesen of the super-premiums. Hendricks is top, then there’s Bulldog, then there’s us.
So you’re coming up from behind?