Back in 2011, Mark Ward created the uniquely Australian vermouth, Regal Rogue. Now, with investment from Intrepid Spirits, a new home in New South Wales and one single organic wine supplier, the brand is going from strength to strength. We caught up with Ward to learn more…
Mark Ward is currently living back in his home town of Brighton but for most of his working life he’s been in Australia. Here he worked with big companies including Diageo, Bacardi, and William Grant, helping to launch brands such as Hendrick’s, Sailor Jerry and Monkey Shoulder.
In 2011, he launched Regal Rogue, a vermouth brand that made full use of Australia’s distinctive wines and native botanicals. With their bold distinct flavours, the four varieties, Wild Rosé, Bold Red, Daring Dry and Lively White, quickly proved a hit with bartenders, drinks writers and retailers, but maintaining consistency and growing the brand hasn’t been an easy ride. As Ward has just finalised a deal with Ireland’s Intrepid Spirits buying into the brand, we took some time to find out more:
Master of Malt: Had you always been a vermouth drinker?
MW: No not at all! But Regal Rogue’s liquid is a hundred percent based on my palate. When I started to play around with doing my own brand, the first thing I found were the native Australian botanicals. Vic Cherikoff, who is considered to be one of the pioneers of these native Australian botanicals and herbs, showed me them in about 2004. I said: ‘Look, I think they’re a bit dusty, I’m not really sure about these, they’re not Schezuan pepper and they’re not kaffir lime’ or whatever I was playing around with at the time. After doing Hendrick’s, I went back to these herbs and spices and started putting them in vodka to make a really bad homemade gin. And having been around Hendrick’s for a few years, I thought that gin was getting a bit busy then, and that was 2007/2008. I know! And we could have been probably the first native Australian gin brand and who knows where it would be now. But anyway, I didn’t go there because I thought: ‘I don’t drink a lot of spirits’ and then there was this glut of wine and I thought: ‘Actually, I’m going to look up vermouth’.
MoM: What was the vermouth category like then?
MW: It was in decline, it was dusty, everyone thought you just put 10ml in the ice and flick it down the drain, because that’s how Martinis were made then. It wasn’t considered to be a drinking product. But the history of vermouth in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was that product, Cinzano and lemonade was a drink like a Gin & Tonic is now. I thought: ‘Surely, if we’ve got this beautiful wine, New World style, why not do an Australian vermouth?’ And it came together very quickly. We were the first Australian vermouth in the market for about 23 years when we launched. And now there are about 11 or 12 Australian brands. So it was a little bit of an opportunist in me, coupled with just luck! You can’t get a brand like Regal Rogue to where it’s got to without everybody pushing a category.
MoM: You launched in 2011, At what point did you think ‘I can give up the day job’?
MW: It’s funny. We were so early in vermouth and I don’t think I even had that broad of a network to be able to just drop it into Facebook or LinkedIn. But people saw us on things like The Dieline and Pinterest, and the design has always been incredible. People were engaging with the look before they were realising what it was. I then went to Tales of the Cocktail and Imbibe in 2012 with bottles. Dawn Davies, the buyer at Selfridges then, came along to the stand at Imbibe and said: ‘We would be your first retailer, we love the idea of what you’re doing’ and I thought: ‘Actually, this is a bit more than just a passion project now!’ Then at the end of 2013, Distill Ventures [Diageo’s venture capital arm] said: ‘We’re really interested in what you’re doing’. By January 2014, I was full time. We launched into the UK and New Zealand that year. By 2015 we had the full range as you now know it. We changed the packaging a bit. Fast forward to 2017-18, we started looking at organic wine, organic herbs, and sustainable packaging.
MoM: How hard was it to get recyclable packaging?
MW: When we started the conversation in 2017, it was a challenge to get recycled stock, that wasn’t crazy expensive. But by the time we got to actually producing the labels in 2019, the world had changed very quickly around recycled stock, and there was so much more to offer. The companies that we now work with, everybody is on board with delivering something that gives a nod to sustainability in the environment. Even our glass, we were doing a bespoke bottle that took three years in development, probably me being pedantic around design! By the time we got to producing he even said: ‘We can actually deliver recycled glass for you’. They can’t guarantee with recycled glass that there isn’t the odd green or dark bottle in there. You try but he said: ‘Sometimes it just happens’ and I said: ‘I don’t mind.’ If there’s a weird little hint on one batch of bottles compared to the other, as long as it’s recycled and we know that we’re putting it back through the system, that ticks our box. So when we say ‘98/99% recycled’, it’s just that our caps come from a company that they do work really hard to ensure that they use recycled goods but they’re not 100% recycled.
MM: How important are the base wines to the flavour because it’s quite unusual that yours are so wine-forward isn’t it?
MW: Very unusual. Vermouth started from being the ends of wines, instead of throwing them away, to mask that taste and profile of the ends of wines you loaded them up with 45-50 herbs, spices, barks, and then caramel to balance all of those barks and spices. By the time you finished, there was probably no wine profile left in the liquid. We’ve got all these incredible wines in Australia, so I thought: ‘Why aren’t we shouting about this?’ From day one it’s always been about celebrating varietals from key regions. Where that evolved over ten years to last year was to then hang our hat on one winemaker, being an organic winemaker, and a celebrated vineyard in an emerging region, Orange, New South Wales. And bringing those varietals through but being organic and talking to the winemaker a lot more. Justin Jarrett (above) from See Saw Wines is our wine partner now, where the home of Regal Rogue is being built. We will have a home for the brands in his vineyard at some point in the very near future. If 75% of the liquid is wine, get the best wine you can get and shout about where it’s come from.
MoM: You said you’re building a brand home at the moment but do you have a factory/winery/distillery in Australia where all this is done at the moment?
MW: We’ve always had one. We’ve moved around through the years. But we now have a proper home which is in Orange, New South Wales. Which is an organic vineyard, where all of the grapes are grown, pressed, and then where the extracts are prepared and where all the blending is done under the one vineyard. It’s a huge milestone for us as a brand and for me. And the winemakers love the product. For the first time in probably our lifetime as a brand, we not only have a home to take people to, whether it’s trade, consumers or media, but we also have a team that are so invested in where the brand’s going that we can start doing limited editions, we can start playing around with other varietals that we haven’t looked at, and really start getting quite clever with what we’re doing of the development of the brand and the range.
MoM: I just wanted to ask about the dry red expression, because that caused a bit of a stir didn’t it?
MW: Yeah it is! Rosso, or red vermouth, traditionally is sweet. Most of the older Italian styles don’t use red wine as a base. We use organic Shiraz that gives you a natural spiciness and peppery note. We use native Australian pepperberry and wattle seed into cinnamon, star anise, clove, nutmeg, ginger, orange and cherry. So we have all these lovely notes naturally in the liquid. I don’t have a sweet tooth, I’m not mad about sugar, so when I was putting the liquid together it was about showing enough of the wine balanced with the extracts. We didn’t need to add a lot of sugar because it was already naturally quite full-bodied. Where we end up as a brand is with a semi-dry as a red vermouth, meaning that we’ve got 50-90 grams of sugar per litre. Most are about 160-220 grams of sugar per litre. I wanted something really clean, really fresh, that represented Australian wine styles.
MoM: Can you tell us a bit about the process with the botanicals? Do you steep them in alcohol or are they all steeped in the wine or are different ones treated in different ways?
MW: When we started to make Regal Rogue we went down the obvious route of putting all these herbs and spices in a bag and steeping it in the wine and pulling it out when you think that it’s got the right maceration. But it’s quite a hard way to be consistent. We had some nuances in our liquid from batch to batch and I didn’t know how to correct it. I was saying: ‘We’re doing everything the same each time’ but what we weren’t really watching is in the same way that vintages change year-on-year with wine so do herbs and spices. You get this intensity that changes year-on-year. In 2014 I entered into the Distil Ventures Programme with Diageo and they said: ‘One of the things you really need to do is go and learn from the best.’
I went over to Turin and met Carlo Vergnano, who had basically written his thesis with Alberto Cinzano. He is now the chairman of the Vermouth di Torino committee. I spent two and a half years with him. He said: ‘Pull out all of these wild native Australian botanicals and make them on their own’. Because some of them need six days, some need 12 days, some need 15. So we now do all of them individually. We sit the dried herbs in the grape spirit that we fortify the wine with at 45% ABV, a little bit higher than a normal alcohol to pull that flavour out. Each one is done differently based on what it is, they all have their own individual times and then we put all the extracts together and then blend them back through with the fortified wine.
MoM: Why did Intrepid Spirits take a stake in the business?
MW: I’ve had a couple of big investment people knock on the door. I’ve spoken to all the big companies. And they all said: ‘You’re too small, you’re not big enough, we need volume at 30,000 litres’, which is a funny one. It’s a chicken and an egg; it’s like: ‘You can get us from where we are to 30,000 overnight, it’s probably going to take me another five years!’ But this year we began working with Intrepid Spirits globally and we’ve now taken our production from batches of 20,000 bottles to 50,000 and now the brand is moving. It’s going in a very different direction very quickly. With the facility with the vineyard, coupled with Intrepid Spirits doing all this commercial push into new markets, now, in the last week or two I have sat back and gone: ‘This is it, this is happening and the brand is actually really getting to a really established spot’.
MoM: When was the Intrepid deal finalised?
MW: May 1st, almost in the middle of what we thought was the middle of COVID! Our conversations started in December-January and we got to April and COVID was just kicking in and I said to John [Ralph], the founder of Intrepid: ‘Hey, I need to know if you’re not going ahead with this because I’ve stopped all other conversations’ and we got to the point as a business and brand that we needed more resource and more money to grow. We did a huge deal with Virgin Atlantic a couple of years ago, it was just to service those types of things, you needed more people. He said: ‘No, we’ve had a chat as a board and we’re 100% committed to get this done’. So we signed on May 1st. They’re a good team. There’s 25 of them and three or four of us, who have integrated, and now, although I have input on everything in the business I’m not managing every part of the business.
MoM: Do you have any plans to do anything else at the moment?
MW: We are not going to evolve the four products, four is enough. We do have a new format that launches officially in Australia on October 1st and it’s a five litre bag-in-box. It’s not going into retail and it’s for the on-premise where we’ve got a high volume going through their account. We’ve got a couple of really exciting venues, one in Australia, that’s actually going to launch this officially with a well known London bartender, who is a forager and an experimenter with fermentation and all sorts of things. So you can probably guess who that is! It gives a discount for the venue of about 25% on the bottle equivalent. It’s fully recyclable. It reduces packaging and it helps them be more efficient with their batching as they go through the volume. We have also got some collaborations coming up. We’re looking at a few different wine styles that might result in maybe 3,000 bottles each vintage. And working with some really interesting people from chefs to foragers. Again, all based on the DNA of Regal Rogue which is Australian herbs and spices and Australian wine.
Get the Regal Rogue range from Master of Malt.