Quintessential Brands’s ‘first of its kind’ Spirits Centre allows supermarkets to develop a new drinks product in a single day, covering everything from branding to liquid development

”How about some liquorice to mellow the cardamom?” Patrick suggests. “Or some orris? That’ll help lengthen the finish.” It’s a tricky decision. In the end, we go for the liquorice. It turns out to be the right decision – Patrick knows his stuff.

Patrick Wilk is one of the ‘liquid developers’ working on a new gin in the labs of Quintessential Brands’s new Spirits Centre in Warrington. Opened in August, it is the “first of its kind” – an innovation hub to offer supermarkets and the on-trade the opportunity to develop a new spirit and take it to the stage of a finished prototype within a single day.

While Quintessential Brands is perhaps best known for its branded spirits such as Greenall’s, Ophir, and Dubliner Irish Whiskey, it is also a private-label supplier to the likes of Tesco, Asda and Waitrose. For supermarkets visiting the Spirits Centre, these own-brand gins, vodkas, and liqueurs are the focus.

The new facility is a game-changer in their development. Until now, supermarkets and distillers had to send samples back and forth in the post and wait for feedback but the array of experts on hand in Warrington, from branding experts to liquid developers, has streamlined that process. “Everyone’s under pressure to get products to market as quickly as possible and this massively speeds that along,” says Deborah O’Neill, group innovation director.

It’s a timely moment to unveil this selling point, given the significant uptick in drinks innovation in retail. The trend began during lockdowns, when drinks brands were forced to launch straight into supermarkets, rather than testing their products in hospitality. This innovative ethose has continued, alongside a growing number of shoppers experimenting with drinks and cocktails at home, says Quintessential Brands. All of which is good news for its Spirits Centre.

Data focus

The centre is located at the G&J Distillery – the oldest continuous gin distillery in the world – on the outskirts of Warrington. It consists of two rooms: a presentation area and a lab.

The former includes a fully stocked bar and retail display area, to allow customers to experiment with product placement and merchandising. Here, supermarkets work with Quintessential Brands’s data team on tailored insights into the most lucrative opportunities. The focus is on data such as ‘loyalty vs propensity to buy’, comparing the retailer with the rest of the market and working out which spirits are over or under indexed.

“We’re not just picking liquid, bottles, packaging out of thin air. It’s all data-based,” says Russell Kirkham, customer marketing director, UK & EMEA. “This is completely new analysis for most of our customers. Most buyers can’t get into this level of detail on their own.”

O’Neill says retailers are becoming more open-minded when approaching a supplier. “Retailers used to come with very specific briefs about what they wanted,” she says. “Now they want us to use the data to show them new opportunities.”

Supermarkets can also work with the packaging team to establish the right design and format to ensure “maximum standout on shelf”. “It’s no longer about generic spirits in generic bottles,” says O’Neill. “Wine has certain customer expectations in terms of bottle size or shape, but in spirits there’s so much more opportunity for innovation.”

Once an idea is established, discussions move through to the second room: the lab. There, three master distillers, three liquid developers and decades of experience await. For the team, the centre’s biggest benefit is the ease of communication. “A lot of the difficulty is explaining what a retailer wants, so having someone here in person really helps us understand their language,” says Wilk.

While a day at the centre can deliver a prototype, the liquids team will continue to refine, develop, and balance the flavour in the ensuing weeks. For new flavours of established products, this doesn’t take long. These can hit shelves within a few months. But for more ambitious developments – a cask-age gin, for example – the process can take years. And it all starts with something as simple as a dash of liquorice.