Brand Builders: Blackwood's

From a house-hunting trip to the Shetland Islands, a thriving spirits business has emerged. Claire Murphy reports.

Fear of living in the shadow of MI5's headquarters following the September 11 terrorist attacks, allied to an unwavering confidence in the importance of provenance in FMCG marketing, provided the unlikely driving forces behind the launch of spirits brand Blackwood's.

When Caroline Whitfield travelled to the Shetland Islands to see a house in 2002, after deciding that she wanted to move as far away from her South London home as possible, it occurred to the serial entrepreneur that there were no whisky distilleries on Shetland's mainland.

With so much peat on the island - the principal ingredient in the distilling process - it seemed remarkable that no one had thought to build one.

For Whitfield, 39, a member of the Department of Trade and Industry's innovation board and a former business development adviser to spirits giant Diageo, this was the spark for what has become a £3m business, selling spirits made with ingredients harvested in the Shetlands.

The islands are central to the brand - despite the fact that three years on from that initial trek, Whitfield is still based in South London.

Bottles sport images of Nordic Viking ships (Shetland is closer to Norway than Scotland), and the word 'Shetland' is given prominent billing.

A five-strong customer service team is based on the island (including customer happiness manager Robin Mouatt), and Whitfield and business partner Joanna Dennis make regular trips there to supervise activities, including the annual harvest of ingredients such as the local Sea Pink Flowers and Angelica Root that are added to Blackwood's gin to create its distinctive taste. 'People are more interested now in where food and drink products originate,' says Dennis, an accountant by trade.

As an enthusiastic ambassador for the adopted heritage of Blackwood's, Dennis describes how the taste of the gin is designed 'so you can drink it neat without shuddering'.

The creation of a whisky business from scratch has turned into more of a long-term plan than even Whitfield first realised. Construction of the distillery is due to start on the mainland of Shetland next spring, partly funded by a £1.1m EU grant. Once it is completed and the first batch of whisky is distilled, it must mature for three years and a day before it can be sold.

As Dennis says: 'We couldn't just sit around and wait until then.' So the duo outsourced production of the gin and vodka to establish the Blackwood's brand. They also persuaded Bailey's creator Tom Jago to join their team by offering to produce a cream liqueur named after him.

Just a year after launch, the three spirits have picked up some keen fans, with stockists in Sweden, Ireland and three African countries. In the UK, distribution is mainly through bars and restaurants, but the brand is breaking through at retail, with listings in Sainsbury's, the Co-op and House of Fraser.

Sampling has been the main method of establishing a following. Whitfield and Dennis have taken every opportunity to get their products in the public's hands, taking bottles to fairs, shows and even barristers' chambers.

They have made each event profitable by pouring out a bare minimum of spirits and selling enough to cover the cost of what is given away.

Conscious that spirits is a sector where consumers are drawn to innovation, Whitfield and Dennis have included plenty of ways of differentiating Blackwood's.

The vodka, for instance, has 'thermo-chromatic' labels, which turn from blue to red when the bottle is chilled enough to drink. And Jago has created a unique production process for the vodka, which is filtered through frozen pipes to remove impurities.

While Whitfield is 'excited' about what they are doing, Dennis loves the fact 'that we are creating a new industry for Shetland and a legacy for our children. You don't often get that kind of opportunity in accountancy.'

TIMELINE

Jun 2002: Whitfield makes her first trip to the Shetlands to look at a house. She wonders how she could make a living on the island and hits on the idea of whisky distilling.

Jul 2002: Whitfield bumps into former colleague Joanna Dennis on a train platform and shares her plan. Dennis agrees to be the company's financial director.

Mar 2003: Whitfield brings Bailey's creator Tom Jago onto the team. Arthur Davies, who created the Welsh Whisky Company in 2000, joins as chairman.

May 2003: Jago's vodka cream liqueur and Blackwood's gin and vodka are created.

Nov 2003: A heavy sampling schedule starts with the BBC Good Food Show, where 9000 samples of gin and vodka are handed out.

Jan 2004: Blackwood's Gin wins gold at the World Spirit Awards.

Mar 2005: Building of Blackwood's whisky distillery is due to start. Blackwood's will also launch Latitude Gin - a 60% ABV spirit, playing on the fact that the Shetland Islands lie at 60 degrees north of the equator.

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