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The food frontline: Rupert Holloway, gin distiller

Published on May 21, 2020
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The South West food and drink industry has been severely hit by lockdown as restaurants have closed and producers have lost their customers. Yet some businesses are experiencing an unprecedented boom, while others are pivoting in new and creative directions.

We spoke to foodies on the frontline about what’s been going down

Launching Dorset’s Conker Spirit in 2014, Rupert Holloway started distilling small batches of gin before the food and drink scene went crazy for the artisan spirit. Today, Conker is one of the South West’s leading producers, distilling a wide range of gins as well as a rather fabulous cold brew coffee liqueur.

How has lockdown affected your business?

Our gin sales have fallen off a cliff – it’s probably at about 20 per cent of what it was.
The first sign of trouble was when the bars and restaurants were threatened with closure and I thought: ‘What are we going to do? We’re going to have to close our doors for two or three months.’
However, we had a number of customers who were open and crying out for hand sanitiser and I knew we could make it from the waste spirit produced during gin distillation, so we stared producing it for them for free.
Many distilleries dispose of (or re-distil) the waste ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ from the process, but we’d kept ours for potential future use. The santiser is easy enough to make (we just add thickener to the waste spirit) and it has a beautiful gin fragrance.
That kicked off an incredible response and, before long, we received requests from the NHS, Dorset Police, care homes and other essential services. As the demand for gin had slumped, we then also used the 4,000 litres of ethanol we had ready for gin production to make WHO formulation hand sanitiser instead.
Producing and selling the hand sanitiser is what’s kept the lights on at Conker HQ – if it wasn’t for this we would have had to furlough most of our staff.

Has the drinks community been supportive?

It’s funny really, our sales have dropped but our following on social and reputation have gone through the roof thanks to the hand sanitiser. Conker will be a very different animal on the other side of this, there’ll be a big move to develop digitally and focus on how we reach our customers online.

Will you continue to make hand sanitiser when lockdown lifts?

I don’t see why not as there’s going to be a great demand for it for the next couple of years. We’re in talks with the government to become an official supplier to the NHS. However, now that the production is in place and the craziness has started to subside, it’s time to start thinking about gin again. Our web sales have been a saving grace and there are a number of product launches in the pipeline which will still go ahead this year.

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