Fitz Spencer of Honky Tonk Wine Library has done a lot of thinking about the way he runs his business. It’s a process that has resulted in an exclusive-label rum, and plans for an entirely new division for the company. That’s before we even get started on podcasts, health products and fish.
Lots of independent merchants are intrigued by the potential of rum. Few are so invested in the category that they’re prepared to launch their own brand, but that’s exactly what Fitz Spencer has done.
Honky Tonk Plantation Spice Batch Rum is named after Honky Tonk Wine Library, the Plymouth shop and bar that Spencer established in 2018 with partner Zoe Brodie.
“I could have gone down the easy route and jumped on the gin bandwagon, but I’ve grown up with rum,” he says. “If it comes to spirits, my go-to would always be rum.
“Spiced rum is becoming very popular, especially in the UK. I wanted to do it in the old-school style, very flavoursome with spice.”
The company’s partner in the project is Devon Distillery. “We talked about the heritage of where the flavours were coming from,” says Spencer. “We did about 12 batches before we got to the base batch that we liked. Then it took us another three months of tweaking the flavours and spice and balancing out the alcohol and getting the recipe right.”
The initial order was 860 bottles, which sell on the shelves for £39.95. Other retailers can buy the rum for £24.15, if they order between one and five cases.
“It’s full of flavour to start off with, then you can taste the vanilla, then you get the spice kick – it is slightly spicier than most of them out there,” says Spencer.
“The perfect serve is over ice with a wedge of orange and when you have that orange zest hitting the spice, it really complements it. Failing that, I would say a splash of Coke or with ginger beer to give it that extra kick.
“My mixologist has come up with a cocktail bespoke to us and if that goes well, we might look at putting that out too.”
There are more launches in the pipeline, including a straight rum and a bourbon.
We’ve probably invested another £70,000 to £80,000 in the business and that doesn’t include the rum, which was just shy of £9,000
Lockdown provided Spencer with time to take stock of his trading model. “During that time, we’ve probably invested another £70,000 to £80,000 in the business and that doesn’t include the rum side, which was just shy of £9,000,” he says.
“The margins and exclusivity are part of the appeal of launching our own products, but it’s more about looking at our business model.
“Through lockdown we did pretty well with online sales. We spent £10,000 on an e-commerce site and the aim is to take the Honky Tonk brand into a different sector.
“I want to be able to develop separate businesses in the months to come, so we’ll have our own brands, plus niche brands that want to come into the UK. We don’t want to go heavy on the wine brands, but we’ll be looking more at spirits.”
The retail side of the company is also in a dynamic phase. “No longer can you just put wines on the shelves and open the doors,” says Spencer. “People want something different.
“Honky Tonk has moved from being a wine shop and deli to a wine shop, deli and restaurant.
“At the end of next year, we’ll take on the new building next door and that will be our deli shop and a fishmonger, butcher and a huge wine emporium.
“So all the retail side will be next door. People can still come into Honky Tonk to the wine library if they want to buy wine to take away after their meal. That will grow as a separate brand, and we’ll hopefully do another one of them.
“What we’ve found is that there are offshoots of different businesses that come from Honky Tonk.
“We can’t put our eggs in one basket. We had to diversify during lockdown: online, own brands, online tastings … we did everything to keep our heads above water, and we thought, ‘this is working’.
“We started with a podcast before lockdown. It was a bit like Desert Island Discs but talking about wine. We’re trying to get French and Saunders on.
“We’ve been so busy. I was mad enough to start another business on the health side of things too.
“We’ve got staff on the shop floor and Zoe and I are in the office most of the time running the business. Once or twice a week we are on the shop floor, but we are making sure we’re running the business rather than the business running us.”