Phil Harding of Boutique Bar Brands and Out of Office

Written by: Sophie Taylor

We met up with Phil Harding of Boutique Bar Brands to chat about marketing, the drinks industry and his office sharing company, Out Of Office over a neat Cachaça or two. BBB were kind enough to be the Drinks Sponsor of our Summer Party (check out what happened here), so we have a lot of boozy love for them…

Is Boutique Bar Brands your brainchild?

“The company came about between Don, my business partner, and myself. It was a collaboration between two ideas. One was to take brands from abroad which weren’t being looked after properly or promoted in the correct away and trying to help grow their business within the UK market. I came from an events background, so my idea was to talk about beer and food matching: better quality beer in different surroundings. So linking those two, that was the kernel of the idea.

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Over the last four years since we set up it’s grown from there and as the market’s changed, so have we. We’ve got more and more exciting projects. We’ve moved from looking after foreign brands within the UK market to more domestic brands. Our first big break was with Fullers Brewery who asked us to help launch Frontier lager for them. That was a brilliant experience. We worked with them for a few years on that. Progressing on form that we were asked by Island Records to help them launch a beer into the UK.”

And it’s been nominated for an award!

“Yes, we’re in for a gong at the Beer Marketing Awards. We’ll find out in late September. Fingers crossed! I think we’re in with a good chance. Everywhere we take it we get rave reviews. They approached us last year to develop it from an idea to finding a brewery and helping with branding. Because it’s all very well having an idea, but it’s a different matter knowing how to get it brewed and then into the market. People come to us as the more direct route from having an idea to getting it into wholesalers, supermarkets and export etc.”

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We’ve got a Brazilian Cachaça with an amazing story- distilled by one of the only female distillers in Brazil.

So you have a lot of knowledge of the industry as well as the drinks themselves. I like Lee’s new spirits blog, he obviously knows his stuff?

“Yes, so as time has gone on we are adding extra facets. We started out with beer but then more recently I’ve developed the Harry Brompton’s alcoholic ice tea which we’ve taken into the market. Lee came on board last year and he has a strong spirits background so we are now moving in to that side of things which I’m really excited about. I love spirits and it’s an exciting part of the market. They dovetail really well with high quality beers. We’ve already got two great brands on board. We’ve got a Brazilian Cachaça called Avua which is very high quality. It’s single plantation, has an amazing story- distilled by one of the only female distillers in Brazil.”

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Oh wow!

“Yes, and all the sugar harvested to make it is from a single plantation. They have a river that runs through the middle of it that powers the whole distillery so it’s not polluting the environment in any way and they use wood carved from the plantation to make the barrels that they age it in. It’s a beautiful story. The yeast which starts the fermentation process they use is wild yeast, it’s amazing.”

I need to try this

“Definitely do! It’s a stunning, stunning spirit. We’ve just started on the journey with that brand, we want to really seed it into some top places. Cachaça is not a terribly well known spirit in the UK at the moment. There are something like 4000 producers in Brazil.”

We’ve got the world’s first spirit made out of birch sap
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You’d think with the Olympics happening this year in Rio there’d be a spike in interest?

“It’s funny because you see what’s happened with, maybe, Tequila 10 years ago or Mezcal 5 years ago, suddenly there becomes an awareness of a particular spirit or drink and you get this burst through. I think Cachaça could be the next one. It’s an amazing product. When I first tasted it I thought, this is so different from anything else I’d ever tasted in that category. And then I tasted one with a Brazilian wood finish on it and it’s just incredible. So different. Then we’ve got Freya which is the world’s first Birch water spirit made out of birch sap, distilled down. Has a very nice unique flavour.”

I imagine it’s quite fresh?

“Well you can taste it in a bit. It’s quite subtle with notes of very young whisky and a bit of tequila. I really love it. It’s very, very new. The first batch literally just got bottled a few weeks ago. We seem to specialise in quite unusual things. With Harry Brompton’s it was the world’s first premium alcoholic ice tea, then with Island Records it was the world’s first Shazamable can.”

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What! What happens?

“You take a photo of the can and it takes you through to their playlists curated by Island Records so it keeps on changing and updating. It’s all about bringing music and drinking back together. The beer has been designed so that the taste should remind you of their back catalogue, which is firmly rooted in so Bob Marley. They wanted a tropical tasting beer which they’ve executed well. They found a home brewer who came up with the recipe but they came to us to scale up from that. It’s very exciting.”

Behind Phil’s head I spy an interesting looking Robinson Crusoe-esque map on the wall

What’s that map with all the numbers?

“This is the beer wall and spirits map. All our drinks are tagged with a number which corresponds to their location on the map. So none in Africa, India, Russia or Australia yet but it does change from week to week.”

I realise we’re pointing and gesturing rather rudely over Don’s head who is catching up on some work on an Out of Office desk space next to us.

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So how did you and Don meet each other?

“We’d worked together in the past and always kept in contact after I’d left there and Don had started his own company. Five years ago we first started talking, realising we’d both set up our own businesses. It’s been lots of hard work but exciting. 2016 has been a nice year for us, growing the team with some great people.”

How has Brexit affected your business?

“It flings up challenges and it flings up opportunities. The obvious thing for us, and anyone who deals with imported goods, is that the prices will go up. But we’ve also got export opportunities that in the long term may work out well. I haven’t noted anyone panicking too much, the Euro has gone back to what it was a couple of years ago. We’ll see. There’s not been a huge loss. It’s good in another way as we’ve already had countries contact us from outside the EU as the message that Britain is open to the rest of the world more. There’s no short term planning.” 

Don sneezes

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Bless you. So have you got any tips for people wanting to open their own business?

“You’ve got to research what you’re getting in to. You might convince yourself that your idea is the best idea ever, but you need to make sure there’s a gap in the market. Don and I always knew there were drink brands which weren’t being looked after just because we’d been in the industry a long time. We knew there was a lack of knowledge, training and care around those brands.”

Research, research, research. Plan out your first two years very heavily.

If you’re passionate about your business idea I suppose you’d be tempted to throw everything at it

“Yeah. We set up not having to outlay a huge amount on offices and we didn’t have to actually produce a product which can be costly.

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We trade on knowledge and contacts so that’s a lot easier in a way than looking at suddenly getting huge loans. So we’ve been very fortunate to be able to grow a business with not a lot of capital. A lot of hard work, but not a lot of capital.”

Speaking of office rents, this place is available to hire as desk space isn’t it as ?

“Yes, our idea had always been to try and get somewhere that wouldn’t just be a stark office but somewhere to showcase our brands, have meetings where we could pour drinks for people, have tasting events which is a central part of what we do. We were very fortunate to find this space, there was already a bar here. No-one had used it for quite a long time so we saw the potential. After painting it, putting new tables and lighten in etc etc it’s transformed people love it. Most of the people who work with us use it on a daily basis. There are hot desks for people dropping in and out. We do events in the evening like food and drink related things. A couple of nights ago we had a beer and dim sum matching event. Dim sum was freshly made over there and I spoke about beers here.”

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When you say beer to people these days, people talk about their local breweries and get excited

We did a tour around local brewery, Beavertown. What’s your view on breweries and beer in North London?

“When I was getting in to the business, there were about six or seven breweries back then. Meantime had just started. Now there are over 100 round London which is crazy, in a good way. I’m more interested in the local aspect of it, people feeling like a part of the brewery that is near to them. If you’re round the corner from Beavertown for example you might feel a loyalty to it. Also Camden Town Brewery have done very well, it’s very clever what they’ve done with their branding. I can only admire them and wish I’d been a part of that. It’s a great success story.

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It’s brilliant to see such enthusiasm for beer and good quality drinks.

We’re interested in educating people on how to drink better beer, how to find it. That market was very small previously, but is growing now with a new generation of brewers and consumers it’s completely revolutionised the way people drink beer. There’s a lot more females getting into beer drinking, the stigma from the previous generation has fallen away. When you say beer to people these days, people talk about their local breweries and get excited.”

Are you mostly based in London?

“We’ve got accounts that take our brands all over the country. But the North London venues that sell our products include Porky’s BBQ, The Diner Dalston, Voodoo Rays, Bird, Bodeans and Dalston Superstore. But we have no particular geographical importance for what we do and find ourselves constantly travelling around.”

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What’s the team like here?

“We all come from different backgrounds which is hugely important and works well. Lee knows a huge chunk of the market we didn’t previously have expertise in, whereas Charlie has a financial background having previously worked for IBS. We all bring different qualities and get along very well.”

Those who drink together..

“Exactly. And we’ve all got a healthy obsession with cricket so try to get up to Lords and see some sort of cricket a few times a year together. Usually on a day like today we’ll have the test match on.”

What’s a good drink to have at the cricket?

“I traditionally have some sort of bitter. Last time I discovered my limit to take in to the ground, so brought in a whole row of different cans from Beavertown and other craft beers. But if the beer’s not too good you can always switch to cider!”

Ah, we get to cider! Now you’re definitely talking my language, Phil. I’ll raise a cold one to that. You can hire out an Out of Office desk space here and sample the Boutique Bar Brands drinks for yourselves while you’re at it.

Photos by Mike Barry

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