Gin Foundry dropped in to Gin Kiosk co-founder Emile Ward about the challenges facing independent booze retailers in today’s market. The following was published in the Gin Annual 2018.

Gin Kiosk is a Gin Foundry offshoot, established by brothers Emile and Olivier Ward as a way to facilitate producers and drinkers finding each other, while also ensuring that both the editorial platform and the commercial aspects of the business remained separate.

“It was really important for us to start something new, Gin Foundry cannot be a shop, otherwise everything is tinted by the fact that it might be selling you something, as opposed to being editorially independent.” Emile says.

“At Gin Kiosk, I stock Gins that Gin Foundry doesn’t write about and vice versa, editorially, Gin Foundry can be raving about Gins that I won’t sell so one is completely separated from the other.  Most people don’t realise that but we’re both fiercely protective about keeping the two independent, yet coexisting.”

Gin Kiosk’s aim as a shop was never to be the biggest retailer on the market, nor a comprehensive collection of all that exists. No, instead Emile took on the role of curator, seeking out and stocking only the gins that were of genuine interest to him.

He wanted to work safe in the knowledge that his customers would be receiving a wide selection of gins that he knew inside and out.

With competitors like Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange doing a frankly excellent job of supplying spirits to the masses, Gin Kiosk’s goal became a more specific one: to ensure quality and a personal touch throughout.

Customer service, then, was part of the objective from the outset. We caught up with Emile (yes, form the other side of the room), to ask him for more insight about what makes Gin Kiosk different to any other site? 

Emile Ward: At Gin Kiosk we take a different approach on a few items. I am personally behind everything we do, from improvements to the website, Gin curation, stock management and customer service.

The greatest benefit is that everything is overseen by one person who can control all aspects, which ultimately gives the customer the best experience, from immediate order responses (our average response time is two minutes) to bringing in the right products at the right time.

It also gives me the opportunity to bring a personal touch to everything we do, so you’re not talking to a huge corporation, you’re talking to me at all times. This also makes us accountable should anything go wrong and that is rare in this day in age.

Can you tell us a little big about your curation process?

I do not take every Gin there is and we don’t take Gins purely because they will sell. I focus on the production method used, the story told, the people behind it, the brand and of course, the quality of the spirit.

It has to fit into what we’re offering and it also needs to be a product I personally believe in.

We, similarly to Gin Foundry, want to be a trusted source of high quality Gins, with strong ethics in every part of the chain. It wouldn’t work if we simply chased sales or looked to maximise margins. My focus is on returning customers: we get several emails a day from customers asking for our opinion on what they should try next or what is new – people trust us, it’s our biggest asset.

The trust issue is a big one and quite hard as you have to go with the times, yet also see the bigger picture. How does one see through the difference between fads and wider trends and work out what is actually going to benefit customers in the longer term?

The biggest trend this year has undoubtedly been the rise and dominance of Fruity or ‘Pink’ Gins. Ultimately this is the consumer driving this trend since if it wasn’t selling, then the retailers wouldn’t be stocking it, even less stocking more of it.

However, I do think it is our choice as retailers to select products that still adhere to some category principles and to ensure that what we sell retains some of that Gin character.

There is a big difference between Puerto de las Indias and Unicorn Tears Raspberry Gin Vs the likes of Warner Edwards Rhubarb Gin and Four Pillars Bloody Shiraz Gin.

They are polar opposites as products and I would never stock the likes of the former two, yet proudly promote the later. This certainly has impacted us in the fact that we aren’t selling gins that other retailers are making a huge profit on, but I see our role as protecting those who are truly innovating and making a different gin, not just a gimmick.

Another trend this year – and an altogether more positive one – has been the custom bottle. More and more distilleries, both new and established, have tweaked their packaging, revealing custom bottlings in beautiful new glass that really help to differentiate brands from one another and convey their personalities.

I’ve seen this impact sales and refocus attention on established distilleries such as Tarquin’s Gin and Isle of Wight Gin. It’s a really exciting time for branding and it’s evolving rapidly.

There is a big difference between true innovators and those just fulfilling a temporary demand, but it’s in the margins that all the tough calls are made. Is there a half way point for you or is it black and white?

Or is it pink or clear you mean? It’s a tough one to answer as there’s no clear marker. I want products that have a soul and that have a purpose, but they also need to look desirable and taste amazing.

Ultimately, I want to sell gins that have enough power to sell second bottles to the same customers, not just one-time wonders.

The gins that are currently trending and making all the headlines for the wrong reasons may not be here in years to come so that’s an easy decision but the tough ones are those from existing producers we love. That’s why it’s important to try those and assess them carefully before rejecting as they may come from a great idea or actual provenance.

The retail landscape is a constantly shifting one. The online space presents its own unique challenges in particular. Are there obstacles that you face online that you just wouldn’t have if Gin Kiosk were a ‘bricks and mortar’ shop?

Probably the biggest challenge we face online is shipping. We like to control as much of the order process as possible to ensure we give the best service, but when it comes to getting the product into the customers hands, we have to use a third party company.

Although these companies are incredible when you think about what they achieve every day, there will always be issues with delays, missing parcels and – particularly in the drinks industry – breakages. This impacts our business’ bottom-line but also our reputation which is key.

Another factor is that as an online business, we cannot offer any try before you buy option, nor the opportunity to talk to a human face to face before purchase.

These two factors are important in many businesses but they seem heightened within Gin, where taste is so subjective.

The lack of try before you buy must make tasting notes all the more important?

It’s certainly a big contributing factor to how well something sells, but it’s important to remember that taste is subjective. What may appeal to some will ward off others, which I think is a good thing if you want to attract the right customer to the right gin. Flavour is open to interpretation however, so the key is to ensure that it is not misleading.

We have open product reviews on all of our gins so that previous customers can share their thoughts on the products we stock and give a personal opinion.

I think having an indication from a brand is important, but having the thoughts of other customers will help more and peer to peer review is something we actively encourage.

The UK’s annual online spend rises exponentially each year and is set to continue, but you also take the time to host pop-ups and temporary stores, why is that? This comes back to our belief in bringing a personal touch to our online shop. We want to connect with our customers and we want them to know us as well so hosting pop-ups and temporary stores is a great way to do that.

There’s also no beating the fact that with bricks and mortar shops you can sample the gins and also hold the products in your hand before you buy.

We want people to remember those interactions with us in person once they go online to shop with us. I also think it comes down to the fact that one day, I’d love to open our Gin shop somewhere in London.

What do you look for in a Gin and what makes you agree to stock it?

I look for several items when picking a gin to stock. There are three critical pillars: Story, People and Spirit.

Story: I prioritise gins that are made on stills owned by the brand, as well as gins that are made from grain to glass. There’s nothing wrong with contract distilling, but I think there is much more artistry, knowledge and passion when they make it themselves.

People: I like to know the people who are making the gins or who is behind the brand on a personal level, but we also like to know why they are making gin. It is ultimately a business, but there must be a reason as to why they have picked in the first place, and not just because it’s a guaranteed seller.

Spirit: Does the gin have a sense of place and is it communicating this effectively though its flavour? Is the gin  of high quality (smooth, good flavour journey) and does it taste distinctively of gin? It’s important it retains characteristics of juniper and has a high quality of spirit production behind it.

That’s quite a broad scope of things to look for. What’s the biggest mistake new Gin brands make when approaching online retailers?

The biggest mistake when approaching us is thinking that we can stock everything just because we exist and that we have a limitless budget just because we keep adding new line items. What people don’t see is that we are constantly taking off gins that are not working for us anymore.

We also get pitched gins that have won ‘awards’ and that are ‘new.’ These are not reasons to be stocked. Many think that being different because of a star botanical or particular aesthetic is enough, but there must be more depth to it.  If you can’t convince me of a good reason as to why I should buy your gin, then my customers will also find it hard.

Another thing we get are standard pitch emails, which people send without taking the time to understanding our business or how their gin could fit into our portfolio. It’s very much like interviewing for a new job, scattering CVs without creating a cover letter. It’s best to focus more attention on one account and tailoring your effort.

And finally... What are you most excited about for 2019?

We’ve got lots of exciting plans. We’re working on bringing the Kiosk brand more to life through Junipalooza London and other gin festivals.

We’ll be bringing back the Kiosk Cup with even bigger prizes and a potential ‘Finals’ event in August where two gins will battle it out for an ultimate prize. The great thing about the Cup is that it allows fans to support their favourite gins but also get rewarded with new perks and gifts along the way.

Finally, we’ve also launched English Wine Kiosk dedicated to English Wine and we really think it will take off in 2019 since this year’s harvest has been incredible.