Can BrewDog repeat its beer success, this time in spirits? The brewer thinks it can, with a slew of ranges poised for launch

BrewDog has conquered beer. Now the Scottish brand has spirits set firmly in its crosshairs. 

BrewDog made its debut in hard liquor in 2017 with the launch of its LoneWolf brand, which currently consists of a gin, a vodka and canned premixes. But until recently LoneWolf was just a footnote to BrewDog’s core beer business, which has helped usher craft beer into the mainstream, turning it into a household name (it’s now the UK’s 13th-biggest beer brand in the off-trade).

This is changing. Through its recently-formed BrewDog Distilling wing, it is now readying a slew of major rum and whisky launches over the coming year, and LoneWolf has been revamped to play better in the on-trade. And it has headhunted David Gates, previously MD of Diageo’s futures division and 27-year veteran of the spirits giant, to oversee the push.

A dynamic market

But while the beer market was dominated by stale loss-leaders when BrewDog started making waves, the spirits sector in 2019 is far more dynamic: it has already undergone mass premiumisation, and a host of posh challenger brands already sit in supermarkets. So how does BrewDog plan to make a dent?

First off, BrewDog isn’t pinning its hopes on one brand. Unlike the beer sector, in which “people understand BrewDog as a single brand with different variants”, the prominent dynamics and trends in spirits differ vastly from category to category, says Gates.

So rather than expanding LoneWolf into whisky and rum, BrewDog is developing different brands for each category, which will be tied together under a ‘BrewDog Distilling’ masterbrand. No small endeavour.

“When people have tried to take a single brand across multiple spirits categories, the success has always been limited,” says Gates. “It’s just the way consumers shop. We want to create separate brand identities that have a really targeted focus in terms of who they speak to and the gap in the market it wants to fill.”

Gates isn’t clear about exactly how this will be done, but stresses it will “sit as an endorsement brand like Apple - all the products like iPhone and Mac have their own identity but people understand the Apple brand means a certain quality and shared interface”.

BrewDog is good at getting a message across. It won as many enemies as it did friends with its high-profile attacks on ‘bland’ and ‘soulless’ big beer.

“We’re going to have total transparency across the brands. If we say it’s handmade, it will be handmade.”

Taking a (moderately) less aggressive approach, BrewDog Distilling will focus on the fact that BrewDog creates its neutral spirit from scratch, compared with many - particularly in gin - who buy in bulk and essentially add flavourings, yet pass their products off as ‘craft’ or ‘handmade’.

Gates admits this is “a tricky message to get right tonally” but he firmly believes it will resonate with shoppers, especially given the ongoing vogue for transparency around ingredients and production.

“We’re going to have total transparency across the brands,” he says. “If we make a gin and call it craft, what we’re not going to do is import grain neutral spirit and add artificial flavour to it. If we say it’s handmade, it will be handmade.”

Of course, BrewDog won’t be the first to rail against a perceived lack of transparency in spirits. London gin brand Haymans, for instance, has launched a ‘campaign for real gin’, slamming a vast swathe of gins that “run the risk of misleading consumers by blurring boundaries between gin and other spirit drinks”.

But BrewDog Distilling could, perhaps, be the first to take that message to a wider audience, thanks to the core business’ formidable marketing prowess and well-established digital channels such as its blog and social media accounts. Not to mention its estate of 40 bars across the UK (54 if you count the Draft House bars it bought in 2018) through which it can introduce new brands.

With visibility taken care of, BrewDog just needs to get the pricing right. Gates says the business is working on making sure the portfolio is accessible and that price and positioning will vary across the coming brands.

If he succeeds, and UK drinkers end up taking to BrewDog’s spirits like they have its beers, the likes of Smirnoff, Captain Morgan and Jack Daniel’s could be looking over their shoulder before long.