The Gin Library story
Words by Ali Bullock, Owner, The Gin Library
Photography by Ali Bullock
Experiences will be a new weapon in the bar world's recovery.
I've always loved gin. From a simple collection of a few bottles on the shelf, collected from airport duty free shops, to an eventual room full of the botanical spirit, gin has always been a passion of mine. It may have taken 20 years to accumulate the collection and decide to open a real bar, but I can still recall the day I spoke to my wife and told her that it was time to leave my job in Formula One to step out on my own. I think 99% of my friends thought I was insane. I think this has been a wild ride that many bar entrepreneurs will relate to.
Along the way I've hunted down 1950's bottles of Tanqueray in Singapore, visited distilleries still under construction and travelled to out of the way countries just to find a gin. It has been amazing to meet so many people in the industry, who have always been willing to help. The support has been amazing, from fellow bar owners, to random distillers who I just speak to, asking for help. Everyone has a kind ear and a supportive word. This support shines through when customers come to visit the gin library, where we can showcase the best gins from all over the world.
I left Hong Kong in 2018 and took my collection with me to a small island in the middle of the Atlantic, Sao Miguel, in the Azores archipelago. We opened The Gin Library in October 2019, creating gin related experiences to lead our new hotel business. The space has over 450 different gins from around the world. Only 2 bars in the world have more gins on offer. Not bad for an island in the middle of the Atlantic, with only 170,000 inhabitants.
Our business is less of a bar, and more of an experiential based establishment, focussed on visitors to the island and showcasing Rocha Negra, the premium locally distilled gin. Or it was until early March 2020 and Covid-19.
Like most bars, we have had to shut down for the foreseeable future, and zero revenue is likely for the next few months. With a business so heavily dependent on tourism, this might seem like the end. Shut the doors and never come back again. Except we know this will pass, and tourists will come back to the Azores.
For a business like ours, small as it might be, the whole concept was to punch way above our weight with the gins in our collection, our social media following and our media footprint. This virus won't stop that, and I wanted to share a few ideas with fellow bar owners that might help in this time until we can all open again.
1. Look at your website. Now, really look at it:
Most bar websites are one (maybe two pages) at best, and many look like they were last built in the early 2000's. Time to refresh or build a new one. Budget an issue? Sign up for wordpress or squarespace and build your own. Not sure you can do it? Well, you have nothing but time at the moment to try.
2. Social media content:
How up to date is your Facebook page? Do you have reviews on there? How about Google Maps? One of our biggest customer drivers is now Google Maps. Get photos and reviews up there, clean out old photos or update your web address or physical address. Are opening times correct? Now is a good time to clean these assets up.
We all know that instagram is important to people. Now is a good time to refresh and rework some photos into your bar feed. Archive photos that don't fit your brand (they are still there just not in the main feed) and try out Instagram stories.
4. Google yourself:
Google your business name and see where you come up. You can also Google some competitors and see who links to them. Listing sites such as Time Out can be hugely beneficial for visibility and foot traffic. Yelp and others are all there and you need to be on each site with photos.
Start to look at experiences. This is a huge area for growth that is often overlooked by bars. Free to set up, and you have the staff on hand. This is one of the fast growing areas of the hospitality industry. Checking out AirBnB experiences is a good place to start.
People will have been at home mixing their own drinks, once they can get out they will be keen to learn more and be inspired to make new cocktails! Even the humble G&T or martini (always gin based). Regular customers as well as tourists will be keen to learn more. WIth so many gin distilleries, reach out and see if they will send a brand ambassador to help organise a gin tasting at your bar. This is a simple and easy way to earn revenue and get people into your place of business. You can do it on quiet nights or early evenings, again helping to maximise revenue and brand recognition.
The backbone of our fledgling business has been our Rocha Negra gin experience showcasing the premium locally distilled gin from the island. We take customers on a one hour gin experience where they see and taste how we make the perfect gin and tonic (using local fruits and botanicals grown on the estate where possible). We also talk about the history of gin and how you can make your own bathtub gin back at home.
At €15 per head, it's an entry level experience that brings visitors to our establishment. Typically 80% of guests opt to stay on to have at least a second gin and tonic, generating additional revenue. We also ask people to leave a review about The Gin Library as well. The increase in reviews has directly affected how many people find and visit us. More reviews really does increase your visibility on travel sites and Google.
Based on the success of the Rocha Negra experience we have also launched an Azorean and Portugese Gin tasting experience (offering a sampling of three gin and tonics with their garnishes). This too has proved to be a success, both in bringing in revenue and generating further positive reviews, boosting our marketing.
And finally, this is a time to think about sustainability. Whenever this virus passes, we can be sure that we won't ever return to what we were. People will be more mindful of themselves and the world around them.
This is a great opportunity for the bar and hospitality world to catch up on some basic sustainable steps. Plastic straws and stirrers can be replaced with environmental versions or even better banned altogether. There is no better time to research and talk to suppliers about what your options are.
Sustainability is more than a word to us for our business and our lives. We are fortunate to have a lot of outdoor space, which of course not every bar or restaurant has. We have chickens who contribute to our zero waste food initiative, by eating almost all the leftovers and scraps we produce. The chickens in turn give us eggs, that we use in homemade snacks we serve to our guests. While keeping chickens may not be viable for many F&B operations, there are many initiatives for composting and reducing food waste to look into. When up to 50% of hotel waste is food, small action can make more than a little difference to the plant and our environmental goals.
As a new business, we were able to launch with a ban on single use plastics from the very beginning. A good drink doesn't need a stirrer, or to be drunk through a straw.
Our estate has a strict zero use pesticide policy. We have chosen wild plants over manicured green lawns to encourage wildlife such as butterflies and bees. Our drinks are often garnished with fruits and edible flowers from the estate. This adds something extra special to each drink, and it's a great way to engage with our customers about the estate and our sustainability efforts in a non-preachy way.
Even in Hong Kong, one of the most built up cities in the world, several hotels have bee hives on the roofs of their buildings. On the estate we are looking to bring in hives, both wild and farmed versions to help the environment. If you have access to a roof, beekeeping is quite easy and straightforward. Courses are widely available, maintenance is much less than you might think, and nothing beats using local ingredients in your drinks. Honey is an excellent sweet addition to many cocktails. If you can put some flower pots around, pineapple sage, pansies and rosemary are all beautiful and edible plants that enhance drinks, as well as being low maintenance to grow. Being so local is a fantastic point of interest and a way to stand out.
Sustainability is of course more than just good PR to appeal to your customers. It can have real financial benefits as well. Consumers are looking out to spend their money at sustainable businesses, and will choose those that choose to make a difference over those that don't. Buying in energy efficient fridges and freezers (for example) reduces electricity costs. No straws? That's less money going out on unnecessary items. And while small purchases, over the course of a year these add up. It's your money, it's your profit.
Overall, these ideas are simple ones that any bar owner can implement. Customers will return to our bars. It may take some time, but those who invest wisely now will be the ones to reap the reward in the future.
The Gin Library
If you are a bar owner and would like to contribute to Bar Entrepreneur Frontline please email me at Simon@DiffordsGuide.com. Thanks to support from Havana Club all published contributions will be paid for, with a matching amount donated to The Drinks Trust charity (formerly The Benevolent), or a local hospitality charity of your choice.