Behind the scenes at Summerhall Distillery
Marcus Pickering, co-founder of Summerhall Distillery, shares his recipe for global success behind his handcrafted small batch gin.
“Summerhall Distillery in Edinburgh was established in 2013. Our first distillation was on 27 March 2014, and since then we’ve gone from strength to strength.
How we got started in exports
“With export we had a lot of people visiting us because they want to be the first people to import our product. So we had lots of people come to the distillery asking us if we were interested in exporting. We said that yes, we were – but weren’t going to until 2016. That was our business plan.
“At the beginning of 2015 we decided that actually, it was best to start looking to export.
"The very first export we did was to Germany. The client there expressed an interest in Pickering’s Gin and asked if we’d like to become one of their imported products.
"We said ‘yes’, but we were very nervous about it. So we wanted to meet them. We went over to Germany and we met very quickly – we only had a two hour meeting. It was then we realised that they were the right type of company for us − and we still export to them now.
Hong Kong's thirst for gin
“The market that I’m most involved in at the moment is the Hong Kong market. The Hong Kong market is very good for us as there’s a big expat community and also the Chinese are coming on-board with gin-tasting. So we cover both bases in Hong Kong.
Exporting evens out the seasonality of our product.
“Our importer in Hong Kong, takes delivery of our product, sells it, deals with direct sales and ecommerce and does all our social media for us. So the Hong Kong market is fantastic for us. And because it’s a small place they can cover all of Hong Kong with a single distributor.
“There are a good number of shops or ‘liquor stores’ that sell our product. Gin drinking is a relatively new concept in Hong Kong. There are now a few gin bars popping up and that gives motivation to bars to start stocking more gins. We got in just at the right time when gin was beginning to explode in Hong Kong and the bars were beginning to make more cocktails with it.
"We’re actually the ‘house pour’ in more bars in Hong Kong than we are in Edinburgh.
Benefits of exporting
“Exporting is right for our business because we have a market in Britain. If you can replicate that market in Germany, Italy, France, Belgium or wherever, you’re obviously growing and growing. So until we get to capacity at the distillery, we want to keep growing the markets.
“Another reason we started exporting was seasonality. Gin is very popular here in the UK, but in January, February and March, it’s not. Whereas in Australia, January, February and March is the beginning of their gin-drinking season. Therefore exporting evens out the seasonality of our product.
“Moreover, once you know your markets, for example with Germany, we can send orders in one consignment, so the benefits are really wholesale – as opposed to selling one bottle at a time which often happens in the domestic market.
“We export now to 13 countries – Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong and many across Europe.
“We’ve had great support from Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Development International − they’ve both been fantastic to help us get where we need to be.”
Packaging our gin for export
“We’ve adapted our product several times. For the American market, the US label is very different to ours in the UK. Sometimes it’s just an additional label that has to be added on. We’ve adapted our label to cover most of Europe. There’s information that we don’t need on our label in the UK but is needed to pass French, German or Italian regulations, for example.
“For Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, we actually do screw-top bottles instead of cork-topped ones, which we do in the UK. The reason being it gets so hot and when it goes in containers, those containers can heat up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. And when they hit those temperatures, the liquid inside the bottles expands and pushes the cork out. So screw-top is one of the main adaptations that we’ve made with our bottle.
“In the distillery, it can be a bit of a bind having to adapt your product. You have different labels for different bottles and you have different bottle sizes. In America, for example, they have a 750ml bottle, whereas over here it’s 700ml. In the production department, there’s a lot of ‘skew’ in terms of the number and types of product they need to package together.
“Packaging − it’s like a recipe. You get the hang of it. You don’t just cook beans on toast every night!
Different markets need different things. But the one thing you must always do is stay on top of the market.
Meeting with importers and distributors
“In every country, our route to market changes − America has separate distributors, separate marketing people, separate sales people – so there are five different stages you can use in America, whereas in Hong Kong we had one distributor that has the sole distribution rights in Hong Kong that does everything for us.
“Different markets need different things. But the one thing you must always do is stay on top of the market. Don’t just think you can deliver your product to that country and walk away.
“If you can’t personally revisit the country, you have to revisit it with your social media or by just keeping in contact with your suppliers, etc. But the main thing is to have met them in the first place. Skype calls are much easier having met them before.
Keep a handle on your paperwork
“There are lots of challenges, all the way along. One of our biggest challenges was the paperwork and papertrail. When you’re opening a distillery, everyone wants their paperwork filled out – from HMRC and Edinburgh City Council to government. And there are different trading Zones around the world. We were allowed to export, but only to Europe (Zone 1) initially, then we were allowed to export to Zone 2 and then to Zone 3. All of that was about fourteen sheets of paper, so a lot of paperwork.
“How did we overcome this? It’s all about teamwork. You just chip away at it. You don’t have to do it all at once– you’ve got time. So take your time. Fill your paperwork out and get it right first time, otherwise they send it back to you and you’ve lost five or six days.
Get to know your markets
“If you’re just starting to export then you need to know your markets. You need to know what you want to get from that market. Do you want to supply the entire country with your product so it becomes a household name within that country? Or do you want to be specialist – a bespoke brand? You need to know where you want your brand to fit into that market.
“Once you’ve done that, then you need to think about how you will supply to that market. You need to find the right importer for your product. I recommend you really get out and meet them if you can. Shake their hands, have a bit of eye contact and sit down and have a chat. You cut out hundreds of emails, a lot of phone calls and you’ll get a good idea of whether you trust that person to look after your product for you.
What do you wish someone had told you before you started exporting?
“The issue with corks popping in heat − luckily, we only sent one case of product overseas before we realised that huge amounts of heat made the corks pop out of the bottles. Yes, we’ve been really lucky in that respect.
Market research made easy
“Scottish Enterprise and SDI have been very helpful to help us identify and research potential markets. They have researchers that can gather insight on what companies have done in other countries. They can find information on things such as gin sales in Australia, for example, and then which part of Australia drinks the most gin.
“And then, of course there’s a little bit of internet research. You can find out on social media or from web sites who’s doing what and which bars are popular.
"Say you do a Google search for “gin bars in San Francisco” and it returns 10 gin bars, then you know they’re pretty into their gin."
Visiting the market
“Scottish Development International (SDI) has been brilliant for us in export. There’s no way we could have been successful in Hong Kong without them. That was our first really big market we hit. And we did all that with SDI’s help.
“SDI’s staff in Hong Kong sorted out 12 meetings with importer distributors for me. I met with them all. It was actually up to me to choose which one I wanted to use rather than just being desperate. And it was thanks to SDI sorting out my whole trip that made that work.
“There is a small amount of grant support available from SDI towards travel and accommodation, but what’s been most valuable is the support they give in-country through their staff in those countries. And that’s very helpful."
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