Graham Norton talks to The Grocer about the genesis of his best-selling GN drinks brand, and what makes his celebrity booze brand successful
Graham Norton has interviewed countless stars on his chat show. But in the line of fire, in a confined, wood-panelled back room of a pub with a team of crew members listening in, he’s visibly outside his comfort zone. Until now, Norton has never been interviewed about his alcohol brand GN drinks. And when questioned, he glances over to his business partners Tim Lightbourne and Rob Cameron for reassurance.
The trio have gathered at The White Horse in Parsons Green, London to host a pub quiz, inviting retail buyers, industry experts and journalists to learn about the brand while simultaneously raising money for hospitality industry charity The Drinks Trust in the process.
They first connected in 2011, when schoolpals Lightbourne and Cameron got in touch with Norton’s production company to ask if they could supply wine to The Graham Norton Show. The duo had recently launched their own wine business – Invivo – in New Zealand and had caught wind that sauvignon blanc was Norton’s favourite tipple.
Norton’s production team agreed – they had previously been stockpiling booze from the nearest corner shop – and for the next two years, Lightbourne and Cameron supplied 12 bottles of their own sauvignon blanc to the show’s green room every week. In 2013, they plucked up the courage to propose a joint business venture and launch a Graham Norton-branded wine.
“No one else had asked me,” says Norton, explaining why he took the plunge. “You don’t want to put your name to something that’s really leftfield, like Graham Norton tennis rackets. That seems unlikely. Whereas Graham Norton wine seems very likely.”
Norton was deeply involved in the wine-making from the start. After he got the green light, Cameron flew over to the UK with a bin full of grapes, bringing them on to the set of the Graham Norton Show in a bucket, where they were foot-stomped on-stage by Norton. “We collected two bottles of juice, flew it back to New Zealand and then we put it into the tank to make the first vintage,” he chips in from the sidelines.
Almost a decade on and GN drinks are sold across 10 international markets including the UK, Ireland, US, Canada, Australia. Even Japan, where the Graham Norton Show isn’t currently aired. The range now includes seven varieties of wine and a quartet of spirits: a trio of gins and a vodka.
In the UK, the brand is a huge hit, gaining listings in Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Iceland. Invivo claims one bottle of GN booze is sold every 10 seconds, and the brand’s debut sauvignon blanc remains its top-seller. “We can’t make enough of it,” says Lightbourne. According to Nielsen IQ data for The Grocer’s Biggest Alcohol Brands 2022 report, value sales of the brand’s light wine varietals were up 5.9% to £5.8m in the 52 weeks ending 30 April.
Ultimately, Norton decides which products get launched and for him, authenticity is key. “If it’s something I don’t drink, then I’m not going to put my name on it,” he says. The mere mention of pinot grigio, for instance, makes him wince. Irish cream liqueur and whiskey have also been vetoed.
Name: Graham Norton
Hometown: Bandon, County Cork
Potted CV: Moved to London after university and made headlines in 1992 for Mother Theresa drag act. This led to TV and radio work, including a role in Father Ted. Started The Graham Norton Show in 2007, followed by a weekend radio show in 2010. Teamed up with Invivo to launch GN drinks in 2013
Mantra: You’re never too old or too rich for a free drink
I like to share a bottle with: The dogs. They don’t drink, but I’m there
Wine heaven and hell: Heaven: Sauvignon blanc. Hell: Pinot grigio
Number of suits owned: Fewer than you’d think. Most belong to the studio
Norton’s pride in the brand goes some way to explaining why he’s annoyed “now everyone’s jumping on the booze bandwagon”. The likes of George Clooney, Kendall Jenner and Snoop Dogg have all launched their own booze brands over recent years. And they’re no flash in the pan, either. Some have seen huge success, with Kylie Minogue’s wine quadrupling its sales to £18.9m in the year to April 2022 – a 315% jump.
But Norton has doubts about the staying power of some big-name launches. “In five years, we’ll see who’s left because I think some of them will fall by the wayside,” he predicts. He argues the quality of the product is always paramount over the name involved. “I’m sure lots of people have bought [GN wine] for the first time out of curiosity, or just for the novelty… but the success of this range suggests that people are buying it again.”
Lightbourne jumps in to add that Norton’s involvement in production means “we don’t really call or think of this as a celebrity wine”. From the initial stomping on set, Norton has been involved in Invivo’s blending sessions every year, though these had to be conducted over Zoom during the pandemic.
“They sent me the exact same samples as they had taken on the same day, and I had all the pipettes and little measuring things,” says Norton. “But it’s a great day; the blending day is fascinating.”
Norton’s enthusiasm for the process is palpable, and according to Cameron, these blending sessions can take “two or three hours” because they are going back and forward with him, trying to get the blend just right. “We’re trying to, like, make it the same as the last vintage… You don’t want [a consumer] to open a bottle and go, ‘What the hell’s this?’”
Norton’s ownership over the process has culminated in the launch of a GN spirits line, and the Irish Gin, Pink Gin, Marmalade Gin and Irish Vodka are distilled near where Norton grew up in West Cork, which “really pleases me,” he says.
In the months ahead, Invivo will also be marking the 10th anniversary of the brand through its marketing, as well as recruiting new talent. “We have to gear up our company, as well as to kind of manage the growth and make sure we get the right people in to do the right things,” says Lightbourne.
Invivo will also be looking to boost distribution of its drinks, including Norton’s “newborn” GN Vodka, but there are no additional innovation plans just yet.
Norton’s 15-year tenure on the BBC has outlasted six UK prime ministers, and he hopes his alcohol brand will also go the distance without the need for gimmick limited-edition launches. “That’s key, I think; that you’re building it for the long haul, not the short.”