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The toast of the town

Welcome to this edition of the Gladstonian Journal in which we share our passion for craftsmanship and an eye for elegance by showcasing the journeys of some of the artisans and designers whose work we most admire.

This month our Guest Editor Denise talks to Elwyn Gladstone, founder and owner of Biggar & Leith who make some of the finest crafted spirits. Oh, and he’s the great-great grandson of William Gladstone, the four times British Prime Minister and politician who inspired the Gladstone Bag, a modern interpretation of which is proudly reflected in Gladstn London.

New York based Elwyn Gladstone (what a pedigree!) has curated an exquisite international portfolio of fine spirits brands.

The alchemy of his creative flair and innovative marketing skills is legendary in the drinks sector. Not surprisingly, Elwyn is a very busy man, and he’s back travelling the world now that lockdown permits. But luckily for us, we managed to catch him for a chat when he touched down at his office Stateside.

“There’s no denying I’ve chosen a pretty fun arena to work in, although there was just a bit of serendipity involved.”

How did I start out in the spirits world? Well, way back in the day I was working at Oddbins in Edinburgh, Scotland. (I am British by the way.) For the benefit of Gladstn’s international readers, Oddbins was launched back in sixties London by entrepreneur Ahmed Pochee, who started up delivering ‘bin-ends’ and oddments of wine to the restaurants and clubs of the West End. Fast-forward and the Oddbins estate now owns 300 stores and launched their own brand wine Oddbins Own which sells well over one million bottles a year. What a success story!

The ‘pedigree’ mentioned in this article’s introduction is authentic

I am proud to be the great-great-grandson of William Ewart Gladstone, the four-time Prime Minister of the UK. In fact I grew up in the family house, Hawarden Castle, in Wales.

William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), Liberal politician and four times British Prime Minister

My great-great grandfather was quite the man

In 1860 William Gladstone signed the Spirits Act, which allowed blending of Scotch whiskies together. His relatives had all been in the trade as well, back to the 1780s. So, spirits are in my blood! He also inspired the iconic Gladstone bag, a small portmanteau suitcase built over a rigid frame. The bags served him well as he travelled extensively when electioneering. Interesting fact – Gladstone’s original ‘Red Box’, the one that the Chancellor of the Exchequer holds out in front of them when they do the Budget photo – was only recently retired. George Osborne was the last Chancellor to use it, and he deemed it was not longer fit for purpose!

Gladstone and Gladstn, it’s all in the name

Apart from the obvious similarity in names, I see many parallels in our two brands. Our wares are equally comfortable in the landscapes of travel, business and leisure, and our products are crafted with passion, imagination and care. Connoisseurs and bon viveurs are definitely top of mind regarding our customers. As are the qualities of luxury and heritage value and an agility to adapt smoothly to the zeitgeist.

Speaking of Gladstn London, a brand I really admire, if you asked me to make just one choice of kit, that would be really difficult

But, if I have to select just ONE bag, it’s got to be the Late Nights & Lie Ins travel bag, in Espresso. It’s a classic.

It was at Oddbins that I really got interested in wine and spirits

So, I travelled a lot in France with my dad and learned about wine. I decided after university I would go to UC Davis, the wine school of the University of California, and I found it really, really interesting, and as it happened, life affirming.

When I eventually moved back to London, I went to work for William Grant & Sons and we created iconic brands Hendrick’s Gin and Sailor Jerry Rum. They were really the brainchild of a guy called Mark Teasdale. He was US-based and I was in the UK but we made a great transatlantic team. (And he’s now my business partner!)

Million-bottle Malfy

Next I moved to the US and went to work for Jose Cuervo, the Tequila company. We created a lot of good brands there, like Kraken Rum, but I got itchy feet. So I started my own company called Biggar & Leith and created abrand called Malfy Gin. Amazingly, things took off and Malfy became a huge million-bottle brand in a very short space of time.

The Italian job

Malfy was special because it was quintessentially Italian. Legend has it that gin maybe came from Italy originally with monks adding juniper to alcohol, way, way back, in beautiful Amalfi. Our Malfy was an escapist experience, the concept of the packaging was really ‘sunshine in a bottle’, vibrant in blue and yellow hues, and totally embraced the good life, laid-back culture. It went stratospheric. We went global with it. We got it into about 90 different countries including Japan, Russia and China, It worked all over the world.

The Gladstn London Late Nights & Lies Ins in Espresso

Then mega-brand Pernod Ricard snapped it up

And that was our ultimate launchpad. Since the Pernod Ricard acquisition, we’ve marketed a selection of concept labels under the Biggar & Leith brand. One very important adventure is Gladstone Axe Scotch whisky.

Gladstone Axe is a fun, blended malt brand inspired, of course, by William Gladstone

Gladstone Axe is a premium whisky with evocative packaging. My grandfather was very proud of his Scottish roots and I think this connection amplified sales around the world. He was a great woodsman, and he had a great collection of axes. It was his hobby to go into the woods to help him unwind. We formulated all these conceptual factors around him, not only a great tasting malt, but a beautiful, collectible bottle to communicate the narrative.

I love cocktails too, they have a kind of nostalgic, decadent vibe

We’ve devised a portfolio of nine spectacular cocktails embodying Gladstone Axe. They range from the classic Highball (just add soda & ice!) to the Zeal, which blends Stambecco Amaro and Hotel Starlino Vermouth. 

We’ve a fabulous vermouth called Hotel Starlino

We love this sophisticated, glamorous brand name. We created Starlino with Torino Distillati, an old distillery and bottler, who made Malfy. We’ve become firm friends with the Vergnano Family who owns it as, like Gladstn London, we like to work with family-owned businesses in Italy. The family were making lots of products, but they weren’t particularly well marketed or presented. So we joined forces and contributed our imagination and merchandising expertise, and voilà we polished the formula. I like to drink Starlinos with soda on ice. Tonic is delicious too if it’s good quality one!

I love to think of new categories to explore

We’ve actually just launched a fabulous Hot Sauce brand called FIRELLI. It’s made in Parma from Calabrian Chilli peppers, red peppers, balsamic vinegar and porcini mushrooms. It’s fabulous on eggs, salads, pizza and pretty much anything that needs a little kick. We love inventing twists on classics and trying to be a little disruptive in old industries. There’s a ton out there that are ripe for shaking up!

I really love the UK and London and visit every couple of months

London has got nicer and nicer every year as far as I can see. I don’t missplaces, I just look forward to visiting them again, and more importantly finding new places to visit.

I love walking in New York and London and when I visit I always try to find a really interesting exhibition, an odd restaurant, an interesting food hall or food market – and of course catch up with old friends. I get a real buzz going to a bar and seeing my labels on show. It’s so exciting and fun to work on an idea, make the product happen and then actually see it on sale – and hear someone at a bar actually order your product!

I have a few treasured ‘heirlooms’ of my great–great grandfather

The business cards (pictured above) just say ‘Mr. Gladstone’ – that’s pretty cool – and they have his address in the bottom right hand corner. He was in and out of Downing Street – but being a canny Scot, he didn’t get more business cards, he just crossed out the address and changed it to the new one! He lived between Carlton House Terrace (there is a Blue Plaque there) and Downing Street. I believe that before the era of Tony Blair and Boris Johnson, he was the last Prime Minister to have a child born in No. 10. I also bought, at auction, a seal that he used for sealing wax on envelopes (see below on this page).

It was so interesting growing up in the Gladstone family house.

My great-great-grandfather called his study ‘The Temple of Peace’ where family members would have their height marked on the wooden panels of the bookcases. There are some really tall relatives – up to 6’8”! He used to hold huge rallies at the house, and there are some amazing photographs of him talking to large crowds. He would speak, and then two men with enormous megaphones would shout out what he was saying so the crowd could hear.

At the time, he was one of the most famous men in the world and a great humanitarian. Addressing the he Irish question, bringing attention to the world of the horrific abuses of political prisoners in Italy and the Armenian genocide (he is a hero in that country as well as Bulgaria). He was a liberal in the true sense, a free thinker, and implemented some amazingly forward thinking tax reforms and ways of doing business.

Kicking back, I get more of a buzz from Edinburgh than anywhere else in the world

It’s a very special city for me and has some amazing places to eat and drink. I also love Torino, which is stunningly beautiful, effortlessly stylish and of course has some of the best food and wine in the world.

Culture wise, I love the National Portrait Gallery in both London and Edinburgh. We live near New York and there are two places that we visit over and over – one is the Noguchi Gallery in Long Island City, which is always inspiring – and the second is the Met – again, there is always something fascinating to see, and our children love seeing the Armour collection.

When all is said and done, though, with all this travel, the thing I most I look forward to is seeing my family when I get home. It’s also great to re-engage with my collection of hundreds of sample bottles for new products that we are working on. When our friends come around for drinks they are always amazed by these!