Inside our business: Silent Pool Distillers

Ian McCulloch's premium gin brand now exports to 45 countries
BizAge Interview Team
Images of Silent Pool gin founder Ian McCulloch

Hi Ian! Tell us about Silent Pool

Silent Pool Distillers was set up in 2014 as a producer of handcrafted spirits, it’s a creatively driven business that relies on innovation, great liquid, engaging packaging and sustainable production methodology. It’s primary product is the Silent Pool Gin family that exemplifies all of the above attributes. We are based in the Surrey Hills near Guildford, we export to 45 countries, we contract produce for others and we recently won a Queens Award for Export.

What's your biggest strength?

We keep close to the market, we know where we can create something distinctive, we move quickly and we are not driven by spreadsheets; having said that if we feel something looks like it has potential, then we start looking at the numbers. We also invest in having the capability to produce at volume, handle the nightmare which is logistics and maintain a steady stream of relevant marketing both online and elsewhere

What made you think there was money in this?

This was supposed to be a slow down project post a career in commercial TV. Having always been a gin drinker it felt like a natural start, could we create a craft gin that was high quality, a contemporary English classic? The intention was craft as in David Linley furniture as opposed to furniture craftly made from wooden pallets. We looked at the market and there wasn’t much at our price point and quality of liquid, oddly in the 7 years since we launched there have been no new entrants to our peer group. We found a stunning site by luck, some talented staff by luck and an unaddressed market as we headed into a gin boom, so we have been fortunate to have a helpful backdrop to work from.

Silent Pool's Instagram page is one of the best in the business

Where is the business today?

We export to 45 counties, we have UK national distribution, we have a range of very short run spirits, we launched the world’s first spirit in a fully recyclable cardboard bottle (Greenman ), we have a vodka line, we’ve won multiple awards for liquid and packaging and we do it all with stills powered by sustainable fuels. We managed to weather Covid and the whole lockdown nightmare, in fact we grew the business significantly over that period and our events team are back up and running with 550 external tasting and sales events this year.

What is the secret to making the business work?

Focus on things that make a difference; finding the consumer need, meeting it at a profit and repeating it is key, office furniture, makes of laptops and a whole blizzard of other distractions don’t. Invest in your brand at all levels, it will not only drive pricing and margin but also attract and enable you to retain the best staff. Hire the best people you can, incentivise them heavily and make sure there is clarity around objectives. Have fun on the journey, take time out, have staff parties, events, BBQs, celebrate successes and make sure everyone in the company talks with pride about what they do both in and out of work.

How do you market the company?

If you’re small you lack the budgets and the historic advantages of the big guys, you have to be more nimble, you need to break through with marketing and you need to stay close to the market. So be inquisitive about what’s going on out there, not only in your specific market but wider trends and aim to back those areas that align with what you’re doing or at least can help propel you forward. We have sponsored Chelsea Flower Show gardens, rally cars, bar makeovers, we’ve produced the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Gin as an NFT, bespoke knives, handmade silk, Dartington Crystal glasses to mention a few. Find who your allies are, don’t be ashamed to ‘borrow’ other people’s ideas and adapt them and maintain a tone of voice with your customers that makes you sound human as opposed to a copywriter or robot. Be open, honest approachable and a good corporate citizen if you can.

Ian McCulloch with HRH Sophie, Countess of Wessex

What funding do you have? Is it enough?

We started with 4 of us raising money within an EIS scheme and self- funded the first part of our growth. The business now has borrowings which has helped smooth some of the recent shocks, but primarily we’ve funded growth from cashflows and profit. If we had more, we could do more, that’s something we are actively looking at right now to take the business to the next stage.

Tell us about the business model

We buy in raw materials, juniper, glass, stoppers and we distil it all into a spirit, we package all of our own goods onsite and then we sell them to retailers or the public, in that sense we are like any other business. Obviously before all of that happens the design work needs to have taken place. What adds a layer of drag on the business is the £8.70 of duty we pay on every bottle and the £6.60 of VAT, that represents just shy of 40% of the value of the product is tax and duty; it means we have to try harder to consumers as it’s a lot more expensive than a non- dutiable product at the same factory gate price. For export we have a distributor in each country and that’s who we sell to, we agree marketing plans for the year, who makes what contribution and then we track how things are going maintaining as light a touch as we can bear.

We contract distil for many wineries and produce gins, vermouths, rums and other spirits for small players who want a quality but sustainable craft product.

We run a shop, a bar and our own mail order service onsite, 14 tours a week and a nationwide events and tasting operation all of which are highly cash generative.

What were you doing before?

I had a 27 year run at ITV departing in 2007 as Commercial Director in Broadcasting, that was all ad revenue income plus a whole range of transmission, marketing and other stuff to worry about. The key product read across was that drama programmes that make ITV the most money appeal to your heart and emotions, that’s how you engage with the characters; it’s the same with spirits, we don’t sell a set of functional benefits, it needs to be a great product, but people engage with how it makes them feel and what it says about them either as a consumer or gifter. Looking back on my time at ITV it enabled me to see what ‘good looks like’ and what can be achieved when you really push the organisation, we push hard here because I know and have seen what’s possible.

What is the future vision?

Create traditions and enable new markets and consumers to enjoy that journey.

Written by
BizAge Interview Team
May 6, 2022
Written by
May 6, 2022