As Tom Warner walked into The Shard near London Bridge to present to the judges in 2016, he tried to forget it was a make-or-break moment. He knew he could win the £150,000 HSBC Elevator Pitch competition. Trouble is, he had to win. His craft gin business had grown so fast that it was over-stretched. It needed a cash injection. Without the prize money, the company that he and his wife Tina had launched in 2012, would be in serious jeopardy.
Happily, the stars aligned. Or rather Tom’s passion, energy and compelling pitch – honed through years of relentless, tireless telling – convinced the judges. The large G’n’T that he poured himself to celebrate that night tasted better than ever.
Three years on, with annual sales heading towards £10m, Warner’s Gin is ranked sixth in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 (2018). It has disrupted the gin category and enforced wholesale strategy changes from distilling’s biggest names. From Tom and Tina’s rustic HQ and distillery on Falls Farm in Harrington, Northamptonshire, they have grabbed the gin sector by the juniper berries and given it an almighty shake.
They’ve not done this through cunning or complex strategising but by using a straightforward tool. Authenticity. That’s what fuels Warner’s Gin. The pair didn’t set out to ‘disrupt the sector’, ‘engineer brand value’ or achieve any other kind of strategic corporate-style aim. Instead, from their family farm – far removed from the world of big food and drink business – they’ve simply tried to make extraordinary, innovative gin.
“We have a completely different approach to big brands,” says Tom. “We see ourselves as gin farmers and our aim has always been to make the best gin possible using the most exciting ingredients and the most fantastic process. It’s pretty simple really, but doing it gives you such a rich narrative. The gin is great, but you also end up with a story that captures the hearts of consumers.”
A story to win hearts – that’s what authenticity creates. ‘Authenticity’ may seem like a vague concept but the best way to understand it is this: an authentic brand tells a beautiful story almost without trying. An inauthentic brand tries to tell a sexy story but has to bend the truth to get anywhere close. A good example is the pretend farm names certain supermarkets plaster all over their mass-produced foods to give them more allure, or ‘historic’ gin brands that were manufactured in 21st-century boardrooms.
Allure is not something Warner’s Gin lacks. After deciding to diversify the family beef farm in 2012, Tom and Tina chose gin distilling to make use of Falls Farm’s natural spring water source and its home-grown ingredients. From the off, drinkers warmed to the idea of a small gin distiller making an exciting product on a family farm – it provided a refreshing antidote to mass-produced gin. Their initial aim was to produce the world’s best London dry gin – a traditional variety of gin, and in 2014 Warner-Edwards (as it was then called – they have since dropped the ‘Edwards’) won double gold for their first-born London dry, Harrington Dry Gin, at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Since then, their story has developed organically, driven by Tom and Tina’s ethos and their agricultural roots. “The farm is really important to our brand,” Tina says. “Each day we drive a tractor to the far field to collect spring water. We grow and harvest many of our botanicals, we keep bees that pollinate the herbs and flowers and make honey for our flavoured gins, and we distil it all here on site in an old barn. It’s hard graft, but it gives us huge pleasure and leads to amazing gin. Then all we have to do is tell people about it.”
And it’s the telling that Warner’s Gin is really good at. Having a compellingly authentic story is one thing. Being able to tell it skilfully, with feeling and repeatedly is another thing entirely. At this, Tom – a kind of gin-making human battering ram – truly excels. “I’m the brand activist; Tina is the brand guardian,” he says. “I’m the beating heart of Warner’s Gin and Tina provides the intellectual helicopter view of the business and a more strategic approach.” Tina agrees: “Tom’s the passion bomb and the storyteller! Once he starts, you can’t get a word in.”
We doubt that any other Fast Track 100 company can say that elderflower and rhubarb propelled it into the prestigious Sunday Times list. However, Warner’s Gin can. After their London dry gin success, they took a new direction and, as Tom puts it, “went into flavour”.
“Our Elderflower Gin came from a recipe Mum created here on the farm and it was our second product,” he continues. “We make our Elderflower Gin with fresh flowers grown here on Falls Farm, and each bottle contains 300 elderflowers. Soon after launching that, we met a guy at a show who ran a Crown Estate farm in Lincolnshire. He told us that he tended Queen Victoria’s old rhubarb crop. We were like: ‘Awesome – let’s do a limited edition.’ Demand for our ‘Victoria’s Rhubarb Gin’ quickly outgrew supply. It launched at Fortnum & Mason and became the most successful spirit launch they’d ever seen. It was one of the world’s first pink gins as we know it today and was the world’s first rhubarb gin. Since then, global demand for pink gin in general and rhubarb gin in particular has rocketed. But we didn’t know any of this was going to happen. We just had an idea for a great flavour and ran with it.”
The move into flavoured gins – inspired by farming and local ingredients – has transformed the business. Warner’s Rhubarb Gin, made with 34% pure rhubarb juice, now accounts for 75% of their gin sales. Its launch hasn’t just transformed Warner’s; it’s had a significant impact on the gin category as a whole. “It turned into an overnight phenomenon,” says Tina. “We’ve developed great relationships with Marks & Spencer and Waitrose since arriving on their shelves.”
This phenomenon happened by accident, not by design. Moreover, it occurred because of Warner’s naturally innovative, agile approach and simple aim (“we’re farmers who just want to make the best, most exciting gin possible”). Many business people talk about disruption as a specific aim you can strategise and plan for. However, the most potent kind of disruption – the kind that pulls sectors in exciting new directions – is simply a by-product of an original, authentic business that chooses to plough its own furrow rather than copy others.
Tom says: “All the big boys, like Bacardi and Diageo, have now launched a pink gin. We got there first but completely by accident – simply by harnessing flavours from farming and by approaching distilling differently from the industry norm.”
One thing’s for sure: expect more originality from Warner’s in the future. As the team grafts and has fun on the farm, plants new botanicals and experiments on the stills, they will discover more exciting flavours and come up with any number of innovative new ideas. And discerning gin drinkers will continue to lap up that compelling Warner’s Gin story. The corporate behemoths would pay a fortune to have that amount of authenticity. But the funny thing about authenticity is this: it can’t be bought or copied. If you try to do either of those things, guess what? It disappears faster than your Friday night G’n’T.