Tuesday 13 October 2020 4:05 pm

East London Liquor: Craft doesn't have to mean expensive, as indie distiller toasts Tesco and Co-op deals

East London Liquor Company founder and boss Alex Wolpert doesn’t hold back when explaining the hit his independent distillery took in lockdown.

“Our business was supplying to the on-licence trade, so lockdown meant a 95 per cent hit to revenues,” Wolpert said.

Although East London Liquor, like many other businesses swiftly switched to online trading Wolpert is still concerned about another lockdown just as the hospitality stages a fledging revival.

Read more: London Cocktail Week: “Every cocktail counts” in battle to save bars

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s latest plan to effectively reintroduce furlough for locked down businesses, did little to reassure him.

Second class citizens

“The farmer, the fruit grower or the gin maker is not covered by the immediate funding support,” Wolpert said.

The chancellor’s support packages focussed mainly on the customer-facing roles rather the the entire supply chain.

The drinks maker is quick to add that he is thankful for the new furlough plan, compared to the chancellor’s Job Support Scheme which “doesn’t really support many businesses at all”.

The Job Support Scheme recieved a luke-warm reception from many businesses, as state support for wages would drop drastically despite creeping lockdown measures.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak responded last week by effectively relaunching furlough for businesses forced to shut because of new lockdowns.

There was nothing in it for suppliers affected whose customers are shuttered.

The whole debacle lead Wolpert to believe “hospitality and the arts industries were seen as second-class citizens, ” blamed for a rise in infections and knee-capped by ever-changing rules.

Read more: Quarter of a million pub jobs at risk as curfew stifles hospitality recovery

Headcount shrunk 30 per cent to 19 roles due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Wolpert knows it could have been much worse.

Innovation, disruption and, yes, luck did combine in the early days of lockdown, which put the independent distiller on the track to be an anomaly in the industry: affordable craft spirits and ready-to-drink cans.

Wolpert says it was “incredibly fortuitous” its ready-to-drink cans were launching at a time when millions were forced to drink in their lounge.

In a terrible year, it was a silver lining.

“People still wanted a drink, a good G&T. That’s whether it’s at home, or out and about before 10pm,” Wolpert said.

Supply deals with Tesco and the Co-op meant the distiller got products into one of the few businesses to do well in lockdown – supermarkets.

The company also worked with suppliers and buyers who wanted to sell however they possibly could.

“We could supply sites that were turning themselves into corner shops, and hoteliers who were putting in vending machines”.

Read more: UK distillery numbers jump as craft gin popularity booms

Affordable excellence

As the pandemic squeezed wallets, the distiller prioritised a word not often associated with artisan producers – price.

“You can buy our gin for £22 in Tesco; if you’re paying £35 or more, you’re having the wool pulled over your eyes,” Wolpert said.

To drive home that point, East London Liquor revamped its branding to cleaner, bolder labelling devoid of frills beloved of artisans.

Today’s Kantar supermarket data showed a surge in off-licence alcohol sales following the 10pm curfew, high-lighting the importance of its deal to supply Tesco and Co-op stores with some of its range.

For the seven year old company, Wolpert says it’s about finding that sweet spot in the market of “affordable excellence”.

“We still get the gold medals and we’re not cutting corners.

“You’d expect us to be selling a bottle for £35 or £40, but it works for us to be more price competitive.

“Great booze for everybody really resonates right now”.

Cheers to that.