Liz Hamson reports on the success story of Juniper Green, a gin with a difference

However, though the gin has picked up plenty of awards along the way, Parker is first to acknowledge that life hasn’t all been Long Island iced teas. The company’s US distribution took a hit last year when there was a change in the organic registration regime. The issue is being resolved, but it was out of stock for more than eight months.

After wrapping up a meeting, Chris Parker, MD of London & Scottish International, often invites visitors to Thames Distillers in Clapham, South London, for a quick drink. But he doesn’t take them to the nearest pub. He takes them instead to a sparse outhouse next to the main bottling plant. There, at the impromptu bar (a beer barrel) next to the two smallest gin stills in the country, Tom Thumb and Thumbelina, he likes to mix his guests a G&T with the company’s award-winning Juniper Green organic gin.
“You need to taste it to realise that it does taste different from other gins,” he reasons. “It’s incredibly smooth, isn’t it?”
Made from 100% organic grain and botanical herbs, it tastes purer than big labels. That is because it is low in methanol, which causes hangovers, but high in ethyl acetate, which creates a fresh taste, says Parker, adding: “When we started distilling, we didn’t see why it would have any different character. We couldn’t have been more wrong. For a little company like ours: wow.”
The company remains small - it has less than a 1% share of the UK gin market - but it now supplies the gin, which retails at £11.47-£11.99, to two thirds of the UK’s grocery multiples, including Sainsbury, Asda and Morrisons. It also produces other organic spirits, including vodka (UK5) and rum (Papagayo) and plans to launch a fair trade rum under the Utkins brand at the National Product Show at Olympia next month.
The organic arm of the business has come a long way since it was launched in 1999. Things weren’t looking good for the then wholly export business. “The pound was strong against most currencies and a lot of my export market looked sick,” he recalls.
As far as alcohol was concerned, most niche players were either producing cheap commodity or expensive specialist products. Parker, however, met a food scientist who could make organic gin. The canny Scot promptly began the search for a distiller.
“Neutral spirit is mainly produced in mammoth distilleries that produce 50 million litres a year and are very efficient,” he says. “To try and get these guys to produce a few thousand litres of organic didn’t work. But eventually we found a Continental European facility.”
And so the Organic Spirits Company was born. The organic rye is distilled into a 96% spirit, which is then diluted and infused with fresh botanicals to produce the final 37.5% proof gin. Parker deliberately set the price between Bombay Sapphire and Gordon’s Gin. “There are two reasons. One, Bombay is 40% proof. And two, I took the view that I didn’t have the marketing muscle to be able to justify a product at that price.”
In 1999, Sainsbury became the first multiple to offer the UK’s only organic gin. Others soon followed, the company raising its profile through tastings at events such as the Hampton Court Flower Show and by attending international trade shows - rather than expensive advertising campaigns.
Today, the company continues to grow turnover 20% a year and has 15% of its business in the UK and 85% overseas. Parker plans to grow both strands and is now distributing to China as well as the US, France and Japan and Australia. He has started to develop its on-trade business and he is looking beyond organic spirits: “I see the opportunities as organic and fair trade as far as the UK is concerned. We are positioning ourselves as a quality, niche, affordable spirits operator.”
Tesco and Waitrose, which have both tried to develop own-label organic spirits, also remain outside the fold, though he is still trying to twist their arms.
Nevertheless, as he prepares to make yet another trip abroad, the ever-enthusiastic Parker remains upbeat and not least because of the success of Juniper Green.“If you’d said to me in 2000 we’d have 50% sterling distribution by now, I’d have smiled and said - you’re dreaming.”