When all about you are selling whisky, what should you do? Sell gin, of course!
33-year-old Scotsman James Sutherland (pictured right) has made it his mission to become one of Edinburgh’s leading experts on the spirit. Alongside his brother Richard, James opened specialist gin bar 56 North, eight years ago.
Located in the heart of the city, 56 North boasts a huge range of gins in countless different flavours and aims to make the drink accessible to all (aged over 18 of course!).
To help do that, James started running gin masterclasses three years ago, which have grown to become an important part of his business. The move has helped 56 North to not only introduce a new revenue stream but also to increase customer spend generally, driven by an enhanced understanding of the product.
James explains: “We’ve got a huge number of gins on the bar. People were coming in and picking them, picking mixers and garnishes, but without much knowledge. A large number of people were asking us ‘where can we go to learn more or do more?’ and it dawned on us that we were ignoring what was straight in front of us.”
James didn’t have to look far to see how to run a tasting event: “In Edinburgh all the whisky bars do an amazing job of whisky tasting, so it wasn’t rocket science,’ he says. “I worked quietly with a couple of guys who work in a place called Whiski Rooms, chatting to them about how they did it and it stemmed from that.”
Compared with most people running an event for the first time, James had several distinct advantages – he didn’t need to hire a venue, invest in extra food and beverage, or worry about selling tickets.
“The beauty of it was, because it was in an existing gin bar, it didn’t really matter to us how many tickets we sold in the beginning. If we got 14 it wasn’t the end of the world, it just meant we had more tables to sell for lunch.”
That said, the events quickly started growing in popularity, with interest driven through a combination of in-house promotion, daily deal site offers and Eventbrite.
“The daily deal sites and restaurant booking sites have helped us a lot on that front. What we find is that people see the gin masterclass offer and are intrigued by it. The price point doesn’t put them off and they tell their friend. The friend is like ‘ooh I want to do that’, they book it and, before you know it it’s very much a rolling entity. So much so, that it’s almost to the point where we could run them all the time now and they’d still be full.”
James and his team run up to three events each weekend throughout the year, with the exception of August during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, when they run a gin pop up ‘Tanqueray Secret Gin Garden’.
“January and February are our busiest months because we sell a lot of masterclass places as Christmas presents.”
According to James, Eventbrite’s ticketing capabilities have played a vital role in helping to organise all the different sales streams.
“When we first launched the classes we were attempting go do all the booking through a widget on our website. We came on board with Eventbrite because we were struggling with the automation; the ability to ticket classes and make sure we weren’t overselling or under selling, monitoring emails, replying to things. It was just becoming a huge workload.”
He adds: “The biggest problem we were having, because we were using some of the daily deal sites, was we needed a way in which we could redeem both paid and pre-paid tickets. Eventbrite offered the availability to do that using the free ticket option.
“Using Eventbrite also opened up a third revenue stream for us, because we could promote and sell directly through it, as well as on our own site and the daily deals. It’s worked a treat. It’s a rock solid system and we’ve not had any problems with it. We can basically throw classes live and forget about it.”
56 North runs two types of class – ‘Journey with Gin with Afternoon Tea’ and ‘Scottish Gins Paired with Cheeses’, which take place in the bar itself at quieter times of day.
Says James: “The events probably bring in somewhere in the range of £50,000 – £100,000 a year. It’s decent revenue, but it’s handy because it’s filling us at times when we otherwise wouldn’t be busy – 12 o’clock on a Saturday or Sunday for example.
“It’s ideal because the bar is quiet, the guests have a great time and finish up at 2 o’clock just in time to rock into the bar and have lunch, drinks and stay with us. The secondary spend is incredibly high, which is a big part of it. Because attendees have pre-paid for it potentially months in advance they’re not thinking ‘I’ve just spent £50 for two of us to come for an afternoon tea and masterclass’, they’re thinking ‘this has been a fun wee weekend out, let’s go and have lunch and drinks’.”
A class typically caters for 20-22 people, which James believes to be the magic number. He says: “The area of the bar where we do the events fits that number nicely, but aside from that, we’ve discovered that if it’s too small a group then dynamics are boring, and if it’s too big, it’s like herding sheep. 20-22 is ideal because we can sit them across three tables and they’re like three little teams.”
James is passionate about making gin ‘approachable’ and helping people to really focus on the flavours, rather than the price tag.
“I hate booze snobs,” he says. “‘Journey with Gin’ takes you on a journey through the styles and flavours. It’s about getting people to think about the flavours they like. We try not to discuss cost too much, although we use a range of costed products. We’ll maybe hint at it but we won’t say this bottle costs £35 and this one costs £20, we want people to make an informed decision based on flavour. When you start to do that you’d be surprised how much it changes things. They’re not being led, they’re making decisions for the right reasons.
“A bit part of what we do is opening up the category to the idea that nothing is the same and gin is not gin, it’s all sorts of flavours. It doesn’t have to be what you expect it to be.”
Meanwhile, the Scottish gin and cheese class presents the best the region has to offer. Despite gin being regarded as more of a quintessentially English drink, James says Scotland is producing top class distillations.
“Scotland actually produces way more gin than England and some Scottish gins are incredible liquids. The idea is to try to focus away from the huge names and look at the smaller guys because we’ve got some brilliant folk up here doing some great work. They tend to be a bit more expensive, a bit more craft, but they’re very, very good. The class is basically a bit of a riot; we just throw down lots of different Scottish gins and a cheese board and go mad.”
56 North is not the only business taking advantage of the growing tide of interest in gin that has swept the UK in the last few years. As James says, Edinburgh is in fact a bit of a ‘hot bed’ for it, but he is one of the few to have a really robust knowledge of the spirit.
“There are a lot of people who know a lot about whisky,” he says. “The problem with gin is that there’s a disconnect between the skill level and the hospitality side. I know loads of people who are specialists in whisky but not in gin yet. There’s more coming but it’s not something that people were thinking about five years ago.”
He adds: “At 56, we’ve been doing gin for eight years. We’ve kind of been ahead of the curve. I have always enjoyed gin and it’s always been my go-to thing, so it was a fundamental part of what I wanted to do when I decided to launch my own venture.”
Before opening the bar, James obtained a thorough grounding in hospitality working for the Montpelier Group, which operates leading venues in Edinburgh including Tigerlily, Lulu and Opal Lounge.
“I’ve been involved in booze since I left uni in Aberdeen. I came back home to Edinburgh and started working in hospitality. The Montpelier Group is at the top end of the cocktail market in Edinburgh and after a while of working for them I decided I wanted to do it for myself. My brother came on board with me to launch 56 North, although he is now more of a silent partner as he works as an accountant.”
56 North launched in April 2008 with a range of gins that has expanded to feature more than 200 varieties. Since then, James has been satisfied to observe the demographic of gin drinkers grow to include ever more people.
“People are showing incredible interest. It’s not just us; you’ll see the gin events on Eventbrite are the ones that sell out instantly. It’s not as female dominated as we thought it was when we first started out – the male interest has grown massively.”
So what’s behind the surge in interest in this far-from-new white spirit, which dates back to the Middle Ages? James says it’s three things: affordability, tastiness and the emergence of a ‘craft beer-style’ gin movement.
“There are lots of different flavours to try and lots of cool little distilleries popping up,” he says. “I think people are intrigued by it because of the fact it’s approachable, yet there’s so many different things on the market.
“The nice thing with gin is it’s a reasonably flat price structure so it allows you to be very adventurous without having to spend an absolute fortune. If you compare it with whisky, cognac and tequila, if you want to drink the top end of the market, you’re potentially spending thousands on bottles.
“With gin, your very top end is much closer to your very bottom end. If you’re looking at a bottle of gin in the shops, the most expensive bottles are probably coming in at around £30/£40. That’s your entry level on whisky, so it’s a much much more affordable product.
“People are far more willing to experiment than they would be with other products because price is much less of an issue. It basically removes the problem.
“In the bar, there’s only about 50p to £1 difference between the top end and the bottom end, which, when you think about bar pricing nowadays, is pretty marginal. So from that side it’s great. You can encourage customers to try things without them being scared you’re recommending something that’s going to be too expensive.”
Although the demand for gin masterclasses at 56 North outstrips demand, James is taking a measured approach to growth.
He says: “Although we’d like to grow the events side, space and time are the key issues we’ve got in the current location. We’ve often discussed the potential of shipping it out to another location but we’re loath to do it because part of the appeal is you’re in a venue with all these gins. You can finish up the class and then you’re in a gin bar.
“The current two classes have proven very successful. Nine times out of 10, if we put a date live it tends to sell out pretty early. We’re already booking up to the end of January to the start of February and that’s pretty much the standard operating procedure for us. However, in the future we would like to add a third class, so 2016 could be the year for that.”