Julian (left), Tim (middle) and Mikey (right).
The making of… Hickson House Distilling Co
Welcome to 'The making of...' blog series. To start, can you please introduce yourself and give us a brief background about you and any other founders you have at Barrelhouse Group?
Hello, I’m Julian Train, one half of Barrelhouse Group. We are a boutique hospitality and lifestyle group consisting of premium hospitality offerings, barber shops and a newly launched distillery and brand!
Mikey Enright and I launched our first venue, The Barber Shop back in 2013. At the time, and for another five years, I was working at Coca-Cola Amatil, whilst Mikey took the reins of the business.
Mikey's background spans many years of experience both here in Australia, and abroad, where he has worked in, and managed many of the worlds best venues, winning many accolades along the way.
My history is also founded in hospitality, although I have had experience working in venues and also on the supplier side of life, heading up the On-Premise for Coca-Cola Amatil and Beam Suntory portfolios for over a decade.
We know both of you have been working in the industry for a while now. So it’s no surprise that you wanted to create your own spirits. How long have you been working on this latest project before you launched, and what was the ambition behind it?
Our most recent launch is Hickson House Distilling Co., a project we have been working on for around four years.
It's been Mikey’s and my ambition to eventually end up in a place where we could create the spirits that we have enjoyed selling on others behalf for so many years.
Our location is incredible, situated right in the heart of The Rocks in Sydney, literally almost under the Harbour Bridge.
Our opening in December 2021 meant we have now launched the Hickson Rd Gin portfolio and our idea and focus has always been to create a portfolio of product that nods to a "classic" feeling of what a gin should be, while also maximising the incredible aroma and flavour to be garnered from Australia's abundant native botanicals.
Knowing your backgrounds and understanding of the industry, what research did you do to arrive at what you've got now?
Our first venue is The Barber Shop, which is a mens barber shop front leading to a 120 capacity cocktail bar at the back. Since 2013, and right at the start of the gin resurgence we have always had a heavy focus on stocking and using juniper based spirits from all over the globe. We have won "Best Gin Bar'' accolades for Australia four years running and recently won "World's Best Gin Bar" from Gin Magazine in the UK in 2020.
Our list is 750+ strong and as you can imagine that has given us ample opportunity to conduct research from around the globe!
Our dedicated team from The Barber Shop are also largely long term Barrelhouse family members and their input and thoughts were priceless when we developed our launch portfolio over a 12 month period.
Essentially we have a bar that provides the best "market research" into what consumers are really interested in. We’re very lucky to have the bar and the wonderful people working in it.
It always helps to have people on the ground so you can constantly be on top of trends and get instant customer feedback. Having said that, what were the first batches of your gin like? How did you test your product-market fit?
We developed our portfolio through the most stringent COVID lockdown period. Tim, our head distiller literally made up a batch on his 1L test still, then got on a motorbike and drove north to me and east to Mikey, where we then zoomed weekly to test and refine.
As restrictions lifted, the wider bar team got involved so it was literally a 12 month process of refining back to the flavour profile we have today.
Our biggest learning was in what to leave out, rather than what to put in. There are just so many interesting areas to explore that I think our initial temptation was to put a little too much in. We eventually culled anything that we didn't feel was adding to the overall balance, be it in aroma, flavour or mouth feel.
A lot of brands launched during the lockdowns. As you can imagine, the challenges were very different from one business to the next. So, how you handled yourself during that tough period is, in our opinion, a good sign of things to come. Our next question: how did you fund everything?
We have been lucky enough that our previous venues and concepts have been success stories and we have been able to partner with an investor who entrusts us with the growth of our venue and brand.
Can you tell us about the branding process and how you arrived at where you are today?
We used branding agency Boldinc. who were fantastic as partners in developing the packaging concept. I think the biggest part of the job was us getting our heads around the positioning that we wanted. We were clear on who we were and what we wanted to be about, but getting to the point that it was reflected in our design was a rewarding challenge.
Branding can definitely be a challenge for most… and as you rightly state, it needs to reflect your positioning and what you want the brand to be. What about awareness? How are you getting the word out there and how are you scaling the brand?
We are all about building brand awareness at the moment, being months old. We have supported a number of events here in the Rocks and are starting our awareness campaign locally, and then spreading out from there.
We’re lucky to have great relationships with many bars around the country and the support has been great so far, even through the COVID wave just past.
Over the year, we are partnering up with selected events and we do of course have The Barber Shop and our venue here at Hickson House we use to drive trial and keep awareness growing.
Social media is also a key part of our awareness campaign and we have dedicated teams on board to help us with it.
We like the fact you’re focusing on local, and then building your brand outwards from there. What about challenges? What would you say is the biggest challenge or challenges you think you'll face moving forward?
I think the ongoing presence of COVID for the next couple of years is bound to throw some curveballs our way but there is nothing we can do about that so it's a matter of getting on with it as best we can.
Ok, our final questions… knowing what you know now, what advice would you give another entrepreneur who is embarking on their own startup journey?
I guess rule number 1 is to have a really clear understanding of who you are wanting to connect with when it comes to your brand, before you start anything.
Rule number 2 is don’t wait for perfection before you get going. Get to 70% and get out there, make improvements as you grow. Waiting for perfection only gives others chances to launch ahead of you!