Celebrating the people behind British small businesses

How to take on the festive period: A London distillery’s guide to navigating the busiest time of year

Millions of people up and down the country annually part with their hard earned money to celebrate the Christmas holidays. With the inevitable consumer surge in spending at this time of year comes the opportunity for small businesses to plan ahead months in advance. Darren Rook, Founder of The London Distillery Company, shares his experiences of crafting fine London gin and gives his advice on preparing for the festive period.

The run up to Christmas is a great time for the gin trade. Its reputation as Mother’s ruin dissolves as the most creative bartenders and mixologists add delicious new flavours to gin to capture festive spirits. Satsuma and cranberry infused gin make the basis for great December cocktails.

This means the gin makers are busy to fulfil orders and need to be ready and prepared months in advance to capture the lion’s share of the Christmas market.

This is the story of how The London Distillery Company (TLDC), which was established just five years ago in 2010, plans and delivers high volumes of one to the highest quality gins in London.

Darren Rook began with the ambition of producing genuine British gin of the highest quality. The rise to success was a tough one, but Darren’s ambition to produce a first class product was realised when Fortnum & Mason’s stocked TLDC’s very own Dodd’s Gin, created using an innovative production technique involving both traditional pot and vacuum distilling.

It immediately became the best selling spirit in store, and off the back of this success, Fortnum & Mason’s asked TLDC to start producing its own-brand gin which was faltering in sales. This fast-paced rise to success in the spirits world doesn’t come without a downside and TLDC needed to work extra hard to stay on top of their planning and preparation, especially for the particularly boozy Christmas period.

Christmas falls in September if you run a distillery

As Darren has experienced, it is extremely difficult to take a product from concept to supermarket shelf but TLDC quickly learnt that it was not about the highest quality juniper berries or the best recipe that kept their business ticking over. Keeping an eye on finances was the lynchpin of success, as it is in any business. Successful entrepreneurialism has to be a cocktail of head and passion in equal measure.

Darren Rook explains what helped him keep his cool:

“Excitement for the product and initial success mustn’t go to your head and you have to balance the excitement with cool, hard headed practicality to keep your business in order. As a start-up the main challenge we have faced was all the incomings and outgoings in the run up to Christmas as we raced to meet our targets. We needed a robust inventory system to help us to keep an eye on stock and invoices and manage our cash flow.

“After some trial and error on different software platforms we settled on Xero. It’s simple interface and range of useful tools helped us plan for all the extra costs at Christmas including extra bottles, storage space and base ingredients. The problem with running a distillery is managing stockist expectations. Fortnum & Mason’s, for example, want their Christmas stock delivered in September, so we have to work months ahead of Christmas to be ready for the trade orders. We use the financial control system on Xero as it’s perfect for collecting, storing, analysing and monitoring stock figures.”

Busy times of the year often leave little time to report to shareholders or keep the books in order, which is vital when it comes to engaging positively with them. “Xero helps keep our shareholders in a festive spirit. They have unlimited access to our status and reports, which can be tracked on the go. Time is precious for everyone so anything we can do to make the company more visible and accessible is much appreciated.

“It’s also really important to keep up with the niche community of spirits producers and stockists which means we’re often out and about. The team and I often attend trade shows like Tales of the Cocktail, 50 Best Bars in the World or Imbibe Live, not just for the jolly, but also to stay ahead of trends in the spirit business.”

Darren is acutely aware of the peaks and troughs involved in managing small business finances. “Initially, TLDC was limited to an accountant using desk based software. Now, Xero keeps are cash flow in check so we can plan for downtime and slow sales periods. Ironically, by December most of the work is done, which means more time to relax with family.”

“Most of our stock is sent out in the months leading up to December. Looking back at figures from previous years has helped us plan for these busy times, it also keeps us updated with popular products and sizes.”

For Darren, getting Christmas sorted in September means the festive period is a time to relax as much as he can.

“Making time for the family is my no.1 priority. My wife actually works in the sales team at TLDC so it’s even more in my interests to have everything wrapped up by Christmas. It’s strictly phones down on Christmas and Boxing Day. The kids, 4 and 2, are old enough to get super excited about the occasion now, so I will be all theirs on the 25th.”