Today, we talk to the marketing guru behind such brands as Sailor Jerry rum, Hendrick’s and, most recently, Malfy Gin. His latest venture, Hotel Starlino, aims to bring Italian aperitivos to a whole new audience. If anyone can do it, Gladstone can.
You probably haven’t heard of Elwyn Gladstone but will have drunk something he has worked on. He’s not a distiller or a blender, instead he’s the person who supplied the marketing magic behind brands including Sailor Jerry, Hendrick’s gin and Kraken Rum. He worked in-house at global multinationals before forming his own company Biggar & Leith which had a notable hit with Malfy Gin which launched in 2017. Last year, he sold the brand to Pernod Ricard. So you could say that Gladstone has the midas touch when it comes to drinks. We were particularly excited, therefore, to talk to him about his latest venture, a range of Italian aperitivos, including a bourbon-cask Vermouth Rosso, an Arancione and a grapefruit-scented Rosé, under the Hotel Starlino brand. All of them share the Gladstone ethos of delicious bright flavours, stylish packaging and an eye for an untapped corner of the market.
Welcome, Mr Gladstone!
Elwyn Gladstone with Carlo Vergnano from Torino Distillati
Master of Malt: How did you get into the booze business?
Elwyn Gladstone: I worked in Edinburgh in the Oddbins there and they used to do really good single malt programmes and lots of champagne stuff. I got really interested in wine and spirits; I travelled a lot in France and with my dad and learned about wine. I decided after university I would go to UC Davis [wine school of the University of California] and I got a scholarship to go there. And I found it really, really interesting. I actually decided to move back to the UK – my wife didn’t want to live in California, which perhaps was a mistake but anyway… Then I went to work for Bulmers Cider, in Hereford, when it was family-owned.
MoM: How did you make the change to spirits?
EG: I went to work for William Grant & Sons in London. And that was the time that we started brands like Hendrick’s Gin and Sailor Jerry Rum. And my business partner now, is a guy called Mark Teasdale and he was really the one who started up all those brands. He did them in the US, I was based in the UK. It was really interesting: William Grant’s at the time was really a Scotch whisky company, they didn’t have anything that wasn’t Scotch. And they really didn’t want to do anything that wasn’t Scotch. So it was a really interesting challenge to both get brands like Hendrick’s Gin going. And what was most interesting about it was actually they worked, which is quite unusual with these new brands.
MoM: Why did you decide to strike out on your own?
EG: I went to work for Jose Cuervo, the Tequila company, in the US. And we did a lot of good brands there, like we created one called Kraken Rum. And then after a while I didn’t enjoy it anymore and started my own little company called Biggar & Leith and created a brand called Malfy Gin, from Italy, and grew it really, really well to become a big million bottle brand in a very short space of time and we sold it to Pernod Ricard.
MoM: Can you just tell me a bit about the idea for Malfy because it was a very strongly-branded gin?
EG: We wanted to do something that was a little bit different to the traditional juniper-heavy gin, there’s so many of those that are really good, it didn’t seem like the world needed another one. We found this really interesting factoid that gin maybe came from Italy originally with monks adding juniper to alcohol, way, way back, on the Amalfi coast. Citrus fruits are really interesting flavour profiles and they fit with the whole gin thing. Strong juniper flavours are possibly the reason that gin was limited in terms of consumer acceptance. Brands like Hendrick’s did a much softer, easier-to-drink profile. We just thought ‘people love Italian stuff’ and there were no Italian gins at the time. It has a great connection with cocktail culture, Italy and all that kind of thing. The packaging was bright and stood out and very good-looking. And it really caught people’s imagination, we created a brand that took you to the Amalfi Coast. What was interesting to me was it had such international acceptance, we got it into about 90 different countries, Japan and Russia and China and all sorts of places, and that whole Amalfi thing works all over the world.
Hotel Starlino vermouth
MoM: How did Hotel Starlino come about?
EG: Another category that I think is really interesting is vermouth. Which is sort of the wine equivalent of gin. It’s wine that is infused or flavoured with various different botanicals and herbs. It’s lower in alcohol than gin. The people we work with, that made Malfy, are Torino Distillati, it’s an old distillery and bottler. And we became enormous friends with the family that owns it, the Vergnano Family, and all the people that work there. And they’ve been making vermouth for a long, long time. But people don’t really know what aperitivos and vermouths are. I don’t know whether people understand what Aperol is. But anyway, this nice family was making lots of interesting products, they just weren’t particularly well marketed or nicely presented. And so that’s our expertise: making interesting brands with really nice, easy-to-drink, good high quality liquids and making a story around them that hopefully will interest consumers and grow the category overall.
MoM: So how do you think yours are different from other vermouths or aperitivos on the market?
EG: In the US most people drink red vermouth as a cocktail mixer with bourbon. And so we came up with the idea finishing the red product in bourbon barrels. And then in terms of the pink and the orange, we really wanted to make something very friendly. I think some might critique Aperol as being a little chemically, a little overdone perhaps, a bit mass-market. So we wanted to try and do something that was an easier flavour profile but still had that interesting bitter and sweet combination. It has pink grapefruit in it which is a very popular flavour at the moment and it’s something that grows a lot in Italy. We created an interesting brand story with nice modern-looking packaging but it also has traditional hues in it as well. I come back to this thing like we did with Malfy Gin, the world doesn’t need another very traditional bitter-style aperitivo. So again, we try and do stuff that has the heritage but is much more approachable, interesting-tasting and drinkable.
Beppe Ronco and Carlo Vergnano in the blending room
MoM: How long did it take you and who was it who worked on the recipes?
EG: We do everything with Torino Distillati. There’s a guy there called Beppe Ronco and a very nice man called Denis Muni. They have a lab and they have all various botanicals and they have lots of miniature stills and access to all different types of wine and stuff. It took maybe three or four months of experimenting with various different flavour profiles and different blends and mixes. And the feedback we’re getting at the moment is people seem to like them, they’re pretty well-accepted.
MoM: We hear a lot about vermouths and aperitivos being the next big thing. What do you think about that?
EG: I think the drinks industry is guilty of saying everything is the next big thing: mezcal, Islay whisky and absinthe, that was a classic one that was going to be the next big thing! I think they [aperitivos] hit a lot of good spots which is that they are lower in alcohol compared to spirits, but they look like spirits. This is just me pontificating but people have bottles of Martini in their drinks cabinet, so they don’t think of those things as wine. They think of them more as a spirits-type product. They last once you open them for a while. And I was reading a very interesting article about Treasury Wine Estates and their belief is that these sort of hybrid wine products, of instance – one they were talking about is red wine with coffee in it – sounds bad, don’t judge! I do think there is something interesting in terms of categories blurring more and more. And I do think the aperitivo ‘moment’ in places like the UK and in France and in Germany is a real thing because consumers go on vacation, they go to Italy or they go somewhere and they really do have that great moment of a pre-dinner drink. A very refreshing drink. And that’s the other thing, I think it sounds a bit stupid but global warming, as things get hotter and hotter, I think people do want more and more refreshing drinks. And I think they fit into that very well because you can have a decent glass of it and not fall over.
Bright vivid flavours and strong branding
MoM: What’s your favourite way to drink them – in cocktails or just very simple with tonic or soda?
EG: I think really simple. I think with soda is great. Tonic is delicious if it’s good tonic. And then the spritz with some prosecco or… we launched a range of sparkling Moscato, with the same branding, to give the consumer an idea of what to do with it.
MoM: What else are you working on?
EG: We have a big number of different brands. We’ve got our cherries; we’ve got an amaro, that we’re going to bring out, that we think is also a really interesting category. It’s made with traditional amaro botanicals etc. but then we distill cherries around it, again, to give it a slightly brighter, easier to drink, less bitter flavour. We’ve got a very fun blended malt brand that we’re bringing out, all around Gladstone, my ancestor, who is receiving some not-so-good press recently! My great-great-grandfather was Gladstone and my mum and dad live in his old house. He was the one in 1860 who signed the Spirits Act which allowed blending of Scotch whiskies together. And his relatives had all been in the Scotch whisky trade as well, back in the 1780s and later. Then we have an interesting Tequila project that we’re working on, which is really fun and cool, called Butterfly Cannon. And some of them have some flavour in them, no one’s cracked flavoured Tequila really, and I think that’s an interesting opportunity to try and bring people into the category.
MoM: What are the rules on flavouring Tequila, can you still call it ‘Tequila’?
EG: There is no such thing as ‘flavoured Tequila’ but you can communicate on the packaging that it has Tequila in it. So that’s a fun one and Tequila is obviously very fancy at the moment. We have a few new brands coming out and we’ll kind of roll them out one-by-one and we’re trying to create a portfolio of interesting brands and do them in categories that are perhaps a little bit overlooked. I think to say it’s the next big thing is a bit pompous but overlooked things that are interesting but perhaps haven’t had the magic unlocked yet.
The Hotel Starlino is available from Master of Malt. If you’re looking for some cocktail inspiration, go to the website.