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The Caribbean in a Glass

Posted by Caribbean World Magazine on 22 October 2021 | 0 Comments

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22 October 2021

London’s Brixton Distillery drew on the spirit and traditions of the U.K. and Caribbean to launch a new kind of premium rum 

When in 2019 Patrick Venning bumped into an old colleague outside Kew Gardens, the west London tourist attraction famous for its exotic plants and trees, the venue proved remarkably fitting. For this chance meeting kickstarted the duo’s inspired bid to launch a new botanical rum. 

He and Laurent Lacassagne already had plenty of pedigree in the drinks industry, having previously worked together as marketing director and CEO of Chivas Brothers, the whisky arm of Pernod Ricard.

After chatting and discovering they’d both been spending a lot of time eating and drinking in multicultural Brixton, south London, they decided to team up and create a unique urban brand inspired by the area.

Venning, himself a Londoner, explains: “We knew that the area’s links with the Caribbean and the growth potential in rum could be a great fit.”

While the buzz in the spirit world had long been about gin, the pair felt rum had been “bubbling under” for a while. Plus, there appeared to be a gap in the market for a new style of drink.

Venning says: “We found that spiced rums hadn’t really become ‘premium’ – perhaps because they were perceived as too sweet. People were looking for a lighter, drier style of rum.”

That’s when they began looking at a more nuanced, botanical type of rum that’s enhanced by delicate, less overpowering flavours.

Venning adds: “We spent nine months looking at the opportunity: does it exist, what does it look like, and how do we take advantage of it?”

With Venning at the hands-on end of the business and Lacassagne looking after the financing, the pair founded The Brixton Distillery, and began devising their hand-crafted premium brand. They called it Market Row, channelling the sights, sounds and smells of the area’s famous bustling arcade: “Brixton in a bottle.”

Venning says: “For us it was about making sure the botanicals we used reflected the multiculturalism of the area and complimented the high-end rums we brought in from Jamaica, Barbados and the Dominican Republic.”

The rum is blended, then infused with Kenyan black tea, Nigerian hibiscus blooms and south Asian rose petals – flavours sourced from, or inspired by, the local community.

Then, just as the duo were preparing to start manufacturing and launching the brand, the coronavirus hit in spring 2020.

Venning says they were determined to carry on, however: “We never wavered. We’d sample-tested the liquid and knew we had a good product.”

Thanks to a partnership with a co-working organisation called Impact Brixton, they soon found a premises to house their 100-litre pot still – negotiations were conducted via video call.

And, working around lockdowns and regulations along with distiller Matt Servini, they managed to install the equipment and, by that September, were up and running.

Venning says: “Fortunately, we had secured enough bottles early so we knew we’d have stock. And we relied on our network for a successful trade launch.”

That said, with many bars and restaurants forced to close, they did have to adapt their sales strategy.

Venning says: “We made sure we were on all the big e-commerce sites and got our hands on an engraving machine for corporate gifting that Christmas. 

My brand ambassador and I did a lot of the distilling and bottling ourselves.

“I’m a big believer in starting at the bottom with your sleeves rolled up and learning. We grabbed labour where we could, being careful to observe all the rules and regulations.

“What the pandemic did do was allow us to get the background to the business right, get it properly funded and work out where things could go wrong.”

Market Row went on to build sales online and later in bars and restaurants in south London, but also at Fortnum & Mason. Now Venning is aiming to extend the brand’s presence on cocktail lists in bigger bar chains.

Market Row sold 5,000 bottles last year and the duo hope to double sales by the end of 2022.

Venning adds: “I’ve learned so much, from organising myself to making sure we have stock and a plan of where we are going to sell it. The pandemic certainly helped us focus.”

But he believes people have been the key to his success. He says: “It’s all about building relationships. Wherever possible we will use people from the community. There is always someone who has a skill or piece of advice that can help.”

Tapping into the skills of younger people is also important. “They teach you so much when it comes to technology and social media,” Venning explains. “We do quite a lot of our initial sales meetings through Instagram now.”

He’s confident that with its Brixton roots, quality and distinctive taste, Market Row can continue to grow, and his advice to fellow start-ups is simple…

“You need to be bold and brave and follow your gut. But it’s got to be fun. If you’re smiling, you’ll be more creative and that’s what is going to set you apart. When a bottle sale comes in, I still get a tremendous sense of satisfaction. Big orders are important, but I always say, ‘Every bottle counts’.”