First Drinks Brands - Quenching your First

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First Drinks Brands is proud of the youthfulness and dynamism of its company culture. It distributes some of the most stylish spirits to some of the...

First Drinks Brands is proud of the youthfulness and dynamism of its company culture. It distributes some of the most stylish spirits to some of the UK's most stylish pubs and bars.

It has made its mark by reviving spirits that have been in steep decline and most recently gained the high-profile distribution rights to William Grant & Sons' blended whiskies.

Yet it began life as a rather different company. Known as Teltscher Brothers, it was a long-established, traditional wine importer, specialising in Yugoslav rizling in the days when wine in pubs was judged merely on whether it was red, white or rosé.

All that changed eight years ago when the business was bought by Martini, which wanted to become a major new UK distributor of wine and spirits.

It began building up the portfolio until three years ago the business underwent its own rebranding.

Martini, now Bacardi-Martini, sold half the business to William Grant & Sons to create a joint venture, renaming it First Drinks Brands (FDB).

"That was when we started to go for dynamic growth," FDB's managing director Jeremy Main explains.

He arrived from Britvic Soft Drinks, a large organisation owned by three traditional drinks giants, Bass, Whitbread and Allied Domecq.

"I came to FDB because I wanted to work somewhere that people felt they could make a contribution and have some freedom, where work can be fun," he explained.

"That's what we are trying to do at FDB."

The creation of UDV and Allied Domecq's on-off merger talks with Seagram are creating an industry of drinks conglomerates forced to focus on key international brands.

Main said: "With the bigger players getting bigger in an increasingly demanding market, it's critical that there are businesses like FDB which can provide great brands in a different way. Otherwise the trade would stagnate and become predictable.

"Independent operators need someone who can focus on their smaller brands when they launch them in the UK. If companies like ours didn't exist, the smaller brands would be forced out of the market."

FDB is based next to Bacardi-Martini Beverage's production and warehousing site in Southampton docks in Hampshire. Its workforce has grown to about 100, most of whom are under 35.

The team targeting the on-trade has been boosted to 30, under trading director Steve Carter, who came from another traditional company, the family-controlled HP Bulmer.

FDB provides drinks companies with sales, marketing and customer services as well as warehousing and distribution through Bacardi-Martini.

"We have tried to develop FDB very differently from traditional wine and spirits companies," Main said.

"We want people who are young and have fresh ideas, who want to be part of a dynamic company.

"A traditional company would look at a brand that was in decline and be filled with doom and gloom. We see it as an exciting opportunity to develop a brand and grow distribution through strong marketing programmes."

Without the huge advertising spend of a company like UDV, Main believes his company's uniqueness is in concentrating on each brand individually.

"We are not a monolithic marketing organisation — we are much more flexible and can make decisions much more quickly," he said.

FDB's portfolio includes many small but important names which have been growing since they came under its wing, such as Warninks Advocaat, premium liqueur Amarula Cream and De Kuyper liqueurs and cordials.

With unique products such as Noilly Prat vermouth, Benedictine and Angostura Bitters, it is seeing volumes soar on the back of the growing market for cocktails.

Over the past four years it has also been putting new life into vodka-based spirit Taboo, which it took from IDV. Relaunched two years ago, it has been given new packaging and a new advertising campaign.

Carter said: "It was way down on the list for IDV but is now growing by 10 per cent each year."

Promotions have included "Drink his kit off" in nightclubs where male dancers strip according to how much Taboo is being drunk.

While its sister brand Mirage is being phased out over time, FDB last year mixed Taboo with white wine and fruit juices to produce a premium packaged spirit, Taboo Spicer.

When Grant's took a 50 per cent stake in 1997, it handed FDB two whiskies with major caché, Glenfiddich and The Balvenie.

It has championed the single malt Scotch category, organising tasting sessions for publicans and customers and appointing its own "whisky ambassador" to promote the sector.

Last autumn it extended the Glenfiddich brand with a spin-off malt whisky liqueur, which is currently being promoted in the on-trade.

Three years ago FDB took on another sluggish UK brand, Campari, from Remy Martin after nearly 20 years of decline.

Following a relaunch in 1997, FDB invested £1.1m in a TV advertising campaign last year under the banner "Mixing bitterness with pleasure", placing the drink in a male London clubland setting.

Orange juice was promoted as a mixer, with sampling campaigns in Terence Conran's fashionable outlets and Corney & Barrow wine bars.

"We are succeeding in making the brand more appealing to a male audience who like bitter drinks and want something refreshing," Carter said.

Sales of Campari are now improving and are on target to grow volume to over 100,000 cases by next year.

Last year FDB went to Russia to pick up the world's leading vodka, Stolichnya, which Main believes has "huge potential for development" in the UK.

Young women, dubbed "Stoli Dollies", have been offering samples at railway stations while the bottles have been placed in stylish bars and restaurants owned by the Conran Group as well as London wine bars.

"Part of our strategy is to get high-profile outlets where it will be seen and viewed as aspirational," Main explained.

The addition of a vodka placed FDB in three of the main spirit categories, with Lichfield Gin from Grant's.

Last year it snapped up the Gonzalez Byass range of sherries, including Tio Pepe — another sector that has been in steep decline.

This is undergoing a "complete brand review" before an attempt next year to reposition the whole category.

"We are looking at how we can develop a better identity for sherry in Britain," Main said. "We want to come to the category with something bigger and different.

"It has great brand value as an authentic Spanish wine that should be drunk chilled and not left on the back-bar for weeks after it's been opened."

After three years' success with Glenfiddich and The Balvenie, FDB snatched distribution for other Grant's products from Allied Domecq Wines and Spirits in March.

It has now begun new trade and consumer promotions for Grant's Family Reserve, which is one of the UK's biggest-selling blended whiskies.

"We didn't realise until we started distributing it quite how fantastic a brand it was," Main said. "Everything about it is right for growth. It's a huge acquisition that gives us more authority in the on-trade."

Despite FDB's break from its Yugoslav past, it still distributes the original Lutomer Laski Rizling as part of a colourful and diverse portfolio.

The expansion of its product range has been matched by turnover, which has grown from £30m to £80m over the past four years.

"The industry is always changing and we are looking for new brands in the areas where we have strengths and expertise," Main said.

"We have brands with history from different parts of the world. They are incredibly complex and varied, made with fantastic handicraft. It makes this an amazing business to be in."

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