Alex Robson interview: King of Soho gin co-founder talks Paul Raymond's legacy, US expansion, and Brexit

 
Alys Key
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King of Soho gin was named in tribute to the late Paul Raymond (Source: King of Soho)

The legacy of Paul Raymond takes many forms: porn baron; club owner; property tycoon; father; legend. But somewhat unexpected is the link between the late multi-millionaire and a distinctive blue bottle of gin that has gone beyond Soho to places such as Russia and Japan.

King of Soho Gin was created almost six years ago in tribute to Raymond by his son Howard and co-founder Alex Robson. Since then the pair have got it sold on Amazon, exported to global markets, and served in some of London’s swankiest bars. Now, they are looking to the US.

“You can’t ask people to invest in you if you don’t invest in yourself,” says Robson, who invested in the business herself alongside the junior Raymond. The two had been friends for years and came up with the idea one night in – where else? – a bar. Although Howard reportedly gained a £78m cut of the Raymond family fortune on his father’s death, Robson is a big believer in putting her own money into the business. It is crucial, she says, to her day-to-day work as managing director.

The other main ingredient in her leadership style is passion. “To me, it’s a fantastic product,” she says. “When I see the bottle, I do get such a buzz.”

She has a raucous laugh and alert, piercing blue eyes; one gets the feeling that nothing escapes her gaze. In April, she is going to the US to lay the groundwork for expansion there. Later this year, she will also join the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) on a trade mission to Japan. A background in supply chain management has taught her to be proactive. “You can sell into a market, but to take it to the next level, you need to go out there.”

It is a trait one needs in the crowded gin market. Some of the latest figures from the WSTA show that the number of distilleries in the UK has doubled in five years, ramping up the amount of competition.

Fortunately, there is also consumer demand to match, with a YouGov poll finding at the end of last year that gin has overtaken whisky and vodka to become Britain’s favourite spirit.

“It’s buoyant,” says Robson. “2017 in the UK was triple-digit growth for us, we went to some of the larger places which changed the business.”

Now stocked by Amazon, Asda, Morrisons and others, the gin sells as much “off-trade” in the UK as it does “on trade”, meaning people want to take a bottle home as well as sample it in an upmarket Soho bar.

“When people drink at home, they put their pictures up on Instagram,” says Robson, pointing out that part of the gin renaissance has been powered by a rise in consumers, especially millennials, making their own cocktails at home and posting them online.

A quick trawl through the #kingofsoho hashtag reveals that gin fans certainly have no qualms about adding another gin to their collection. In fact, most people are keen to build up an impressive drinks cabinet with a range of beautiful bottles, and the unique design of King of Soho fits right in.

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The figure, Robson explains, represents the eponymous king, Paul Raymond. Elements of his getup nod to the history of Soho: a velvet coat for the textile industry; a trumpet for the arts; a fox tail for the night-time culture.

It is all part of a package which she hopes American consumers will fall for.

“The US gin market is big and there has been growth in the demand for UK gin,” she says. “There’s quite a big interest in UK television over there with Downton Abbey and things like that – they’ve embraced British culture.”

While Robson is open to different methods of infiltrating the US market, she would like to do it without taking any outside investment. “With a partner like Howard, one would hope we could go that step further without US funding.”

One of the things which makes the venture unique is not just the story of Paul Raymond, but the freedom his empire has given the team to move carefully rather than chasing immediate growth.

Other markets beckon but, Robson says, “we’re not rushing it”.

It may seem strange for a business which is benefiting from a trend not to move quickly. However, with Brexit on the horizon, Robson thinks there may be some sense in waiting to see what happens.

“I’m not actually that worried,” she says, erupting into that infectious laugh again and adding “I probably shouldn’t say that!”

She is hopeful that trade opportunities could emerge from the negotiations. “I’m pragmatic but I’m an optimist and I’m passionate about what I do,” she explains.

“I like India, but the tariffs for entry are high. That’s why I’m hoping something positive could come out of Brexit if we get a deal there.”

No matter what the future brings, she is adamant that the business will always be UK-based.

“If you’ve got a London dry gin I think it needs to be distilled in London.”

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