“From a boozy night out tasting gins – to a multi-million pound business’ - meet the men behind Didsbury Gin.
It was 2017 when friends Mark Smallwood, 41 and Liam Manton, 32, spent the evening in a pub in Didsbury, south Manchester, sampling multiple gins on offer. Here was where the story started...
Against a background of a booming market when it comes to gin brands, the pair started to critique the gins they were trying – did they like them? What flavours worked best? Could they mix up the flavours a bit to achieve a better result? Of course they could. We can all be armchair critics right?
When their large bill came – the pair were floored by the cost of their gin extravaganza.
“We thought there must be a way of doing this cheaper,” Liam said. “We’d already discussed different flavour combinations as we were trying these gins and we thought shall we try it? How about we try to make gins which are as good or better.”
And the next day?
The next day, nursing sore heads, Liam woke up enthused and with Mark they both began to make small batches with different flavour combinations in their kitchens to see what worked and what didn’t.
They then did a little tasting event at the bar where Mark, now 41, then worked – he has years of experience working in bars and restaurants. They invited locals and local journalists and their London dry gin and citrus peel, lavender with a touch of coriander gins went down a storm. Their side hustle was starting to gain traction and customers.
What next for the fledgling entrepreneurs?
Although they were both working full time, Mark managing a bar and Liam in the construction industry, they felt confident to take some next, possibly ‘cheeky’ steps with their new gins.
“Well we went on to LinkedIn and sent messages to buyers for various brands to see if they would see us. The first to come back was Harvey Nichols and they invited us down to London so they could sample our gins,” Liam explained.
Their strategy worked. The buyers ordered two cases per store.
Fulfilling that first order:
On the train home, the friends realised they had a problem – a big order, no gin and no money to create the gin. However they had struck lucky, Harvey Nichols buying team supported them fully and understood the challenges the pair now faced.
“They’ve been wonderful to work with. They knew our situation supported us. They had exclusivity for a while and that gave us the time and space to sort ourselves out, get everything in place and start to build our brand,” Mark said.
The pair knew there was no way they could distil their gin themselves and get all the necessary licences in place to fulfil that first order. They went down the outsourcing model and as a result were able to deliver on the order.
Soon another brand had shown interest, Selfridges and then national magazine Vogue picked up on the new gins and named them the ‘most exciting new British gin’.
The stars were definitely aligned for Mark and Liam as their brand started to take off. It was a tough prospect to grow this company and work full-time.
Then they were both made redundant and decided this was the perfect time to take the plunge and invest their redundancy money into the business and commit.
Then along came the opportunity to pitch on the BBC series Dragons’ Den – their experience on the programme was aired earlier this year.
The Dragons’ Den Experience:
“It all happened at the right time for us. We turned up at 6am and sat in the green room waiting for our turn, which came at about 6pm,” Liam said.
“So many others were really stressed, rehearsing their pitches again and again. We rehearsed once. We were well prepared and the thought of being able to work with a serial entrepreneur was fantastic.
“We were actually in the Den for three hours – most of which you don’t see on air – and we were asked many detailed and thought-provoking questions. We were pretty sure they were interested to keep us in the room for so long. We knew our business plan, we knew our numbers so far and we listened and took on board what was said. We were thrilled when Jenny Campbell came on board with us.”
The Jenny Campbell factor?
“She seems like part of our extended family,” Mark said. “It works really well. We are a pair who get things done. We are straightforward and she clearly gets things done as well. We feel lucky as Jenny seemed to pick a few business opportunities based upon the people behind them and she really wants to work with them.”
The Business now?
“When we stepped into Dragons’ Den our turnover on our first year had been around £40K and in the next year it went up to £300K and, after Dragons Den, currently we’re on track for at least £3m turnover. We are about to launch our products into a well-known pub chain, into supermarkets and we are going to embark on a global scale-up programme to take the brand overseas,” Liam said.
“However our roots are very important to us,” Mark said. “We are going to continue to be proud of our community and we’re looking to take young people into the business through both work experience placements and apprenticeships.”
*To find out more about Didsbury Gin visit www.didsburygin.com