The Island’s boutique gin is now an international concern – with an expanded product range and global distribution. Isle of Wight Distiller co-founder Xavier Baker talks to Tom Stroud

“When Conrad Gauntlett and I started the Isle of Wight Distillery in 2014, we just wanted to supply enough gin for the Isle of Wight,” says Xavier Baker. “Mermaid Gin is now available in 26 countries. It’s all got very serious and grown up! We launched it on 1st August 2015, when we were still hand bottling and distilling it ourselves. The Isle of Wight really got behind us and the response was overwhelming.”

Mermaid Gin is now a product with an international reach. Linked to this growth is an expanded team, with 35 people now employed by the rapidly growing business.

“We’re very fortunate to have an amazing team,” Xavier says. “Everyone looks after each other, working super efficiently and having fun too. Everybody is just incredible, going above and beyond. When we launched our Mermaid Zest Gin in June, every single person within the distillery had a part to play in bringing it to life.”

Combining grapefruit and cascade hops with Island bergamot, lemon zest and rosemary, Mermaid Zest Gin was initially intended to be a limited edition product for the summer season.

“We thought we had plenty of supply for the summer but we were sold out in three and a half weeks! We’ve got enough distillate from the bergamots, lemons and grapefruits and the other ingredients so we were able to get a new batch on-sale from the middle of August. It’s been absolutely brilliant and based on the strong response we’ve decided to keep it as part of our range now. She’s going to be staying with us.”

Recent weeks have also seen the Mermaid Gin distribution chain ramp up to include thousands of new UK outlets, as well as making major strides internationally.

“We’ve managed to win a tender with Greene King pubs which has opened us up to about 2000 pubs up and down the country, with our original Mermaid Gin and our Mermaid Pink. We’re over the moon about it. We’re also thrilled that Tesco has started stocking Mermaid Pink in selected stores across the country, so it’s all systems go at the moment.

“Our export sales are booming too. We’re stocked in 26 countries. Germany is going great guns and we’re looking to grow in Spain too. We launched in America recently, stocked by Total Wines, a group of wine and liquor stores in America. We’re now in 220 stores in 23 states and we’ve been blown away by the response from them. They tell us our launch has been the fastest selling product of a new listing and we’ve had more orders in, including two-month forward orders. It’s been a great few weeks.”

Mermaid Gin is a popular seller in bars and pubs across the country, as well as being racked in selected Co-op and Marks & Spencer stores. It’s also the choice of discerning gin drinkers in the capital, on sale at London’s Borough Market and in Knightsbridge’s Harvey Nichols.

Whilst its beautiful bottles and distinct flavours are part of the appeal, along with its distinct Isle of Wight background, Xavier Baker also credits a change in customer buying habits which has also enabled Mermaid Gin’s spectacular growth.

“The craft beer revolution really opened people’s minds, encouraging them to try more local products and different hop varieties coming from around the world. That kind of thinking has also opened up the gin marketplace, with lots of local botanicals and flavours, through different tonics to pair with different garnishes. The demographic has changed. We were a big hit at the Isle of Wight Festival again this year. The marketplace is definitely evolving.

“I think drinking habits are changing across the board. During the COVID lockdowns it seemed that everybody was spending time and money in the garden, getting nice furniture, barbecue smokers and building their own bars. We’re finding now that people are treating themselves to some nice beers, nice wine, nice gin and enjoying them at home, sharing them with friends in the garden.”

Whilst the rise in consumer sales has been welcome, boosted by new spending habits inspired by the pandemic, the last two years haven’t been easy, for the Isle of Wight Distillery or their outlets.

“I know lots of people suffered and the pubs took a real battering during COVID. It was really tough. Luckily we weren’t relying on the pub trade although it was pretty nerve wracking for us and we had some emotional talks with all the team, including cutting wages by half before furlough came in. We were fortunate though because we had our foot in the door with a lot of the retailers. So as consumers moved to shopping on-line or buying their gin in supermarkets, we were there already, and that enabled us to become stronger as a business.

“We’ve got a tough few months coming up too potentially, as prices for raw materials and energy are going up. We’re a bit of a luxury item, but I think even in tough times, people will still look for pleasure. We’ve been very fortunate so far, and right now I’m glad everybody is still enjoying some gin in the summer.”

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