Dartmoor Whisky and Artisan Spirits Startups: A New Approach to an Old Industry

By Ryan Ross, Foodable Contributing Editor

In recent years, we’ve seen the emergence of a craft/artisanal/DIY trend in the beverage industry. It began with craft beer, and a few years after that, craft soda came along and continued this evolution. But between those two, there was another trend that quietly took root in the beverage industry: artisan spirits. Artisan spirits are created with the same values in mind that craft beer and soda companies espouse: smaller batches, crafted with care and attention and using better ingredients.

In keeping with the DIY trend that’s become so popular in the industry, some companies are even using crowdfunding to help raise the capital necessary to get themselves off the ground. What’s more, because they’re not beholden to large companies, they don’t have to sacrifice quality in order to meet sales and distribution targets.

There is perhaps no better example of how crowdfunding can be used successfully in the artisan spirit startup world than Dartmoor Whisky. Following a trip to Islay in Scotland, whisky enthusiasts Greg Millar and Simon Crow returned to their homes in Devon with one mission: to use the abundant resources in Devon (such as the soil, which is perfect for growing barley, local producers like Tuckers Maltings, and the largest number of cask brewers in England) to create their own line.

It wasn’t quite as simple as that, however. In a European market already saturated by whisky companies, Simon and Greg knew they had to do something to distance themselves from the competition. And while being one of the few whisky distillers in England makes Dartmoor a unique company, they needed to gain more exposure to ensure that their creation and their brand could sustain themselves past the initial setup phase.

Rather than trying to sell Dartmoor to a large distributor and risk being forced to move away from the locally-sourced ingredients that set Dartmoor apart, Greg and Simon took to Kickstarter to raise the money they needed to see their goal through. The gamble paid off: by the end of funding, Dartmoor had raised over £30,000 (against a goal of £25,000) to purchase the beer wash for their first batches.

We spoke with Simon about why he and Greg decided to go the crowdfunding route, what makes artisan spirits such an attractive option, and what he thinks is on the horizon for the industry.

Foodable: What is it about artisanal spirits that appeals to such a broad consumer base?

Simon Crow: People want to source local products- there is in part an environmental influence encouraging this, but also an appeal for celebrating regional products, and being proud of that region. This is particularly part of the appeal of regional artisan spirits. There is also the desire for seeking uncompromisingly high quality and unique spirits.

Foodable: How do artisan spirits differentiate themselves from traditional brands? 

SC: The quality and uniqueness provide the substance for differentiating from larger brands- small production runs using high quality equipment and high quality processes will differentiate. It may take longer, be done with great care, [and] cost more to produce, but the end product will be worth it.

Then there is the branding. Emphasis on the benefit of the region and the ingredients of the region should be a significant part of the brand.

Foodable: As artisanal spirits become more mainstream, how do you think brands like Dartmoor will continue to set themselves apart from traditional brands?

SC: We will strongly promote Dartmoor, with the products we launch always having a regional reference: the barley grown on Dartmoor and malted at Tuckers Maltings just a few miles from us, the beer wash made at Dartmoor Brewery, and the geology to filter the finest Dartmoor Spring Water. Our Gin will have Dartmoor botanicals like whortleberries (a wild cousin of the blueberry that grows almost exclusively on Dartmoor), gorse blossom, and heather blossom.

Foodable: What made you decide to go the Kickstarter route to get Dartmoor up and running? 

SC: Kickstarter enabled us to introduce ourselves to a wide audience. The concept of Kickstarter is to reach people who really want to give their support, making generous pledges not just for the reward, but mainly because they believe in what we are trying to do, and really want to help us make it happen. We were humbled by the support and generosity of our backers on Kickstarter.

Foodable: Do you think more companies will continue to gravitate toward the artisan spirits trend? If so, why? 

SC: The growth of gin distilleries has been amazing - 49 in 2015 alone! Gin is easier to produce, the still need not be expensive, and the finished gin can be bottled and sold the next day. There is surely an equally strong demand for regional artisan whisky, but that is a much harder challenge. The copper distillation vessels cannot be bought cheaply, and whisky has to mature in barrels for a minimum of three years before it can be bottled and sold as whisky. So the investment requirement is many times greater, and far more difficult for the regional artisan distiller to achieve.

Foodable: What new trends do you think are on the horizon for artisan spirits?

SC: Rum seems to be the latest spirit trending. It's not something we've really explored yet - too busy concentrating on our whisky production. We ran our first spirit run last Friday which went into beautiful Spanish sherry hogs heads! Frank [McHardy, Dartmoor’s Master Distiller] was delighted with the aromas and taste of the new spirit we produced.

With so many options available to consumers, companies like Dartmoor are able to set themselves apart by delivering integrity in their products. It should come as no surprise, then, that Dartmoor has experienced such success since its inception last year- their commitment to honoring and highlighting the best qualities of the Devon region has clearly resonated with consumers. And if Simon and Greg’s success is any indication, we’re likely to see many more companies embracing this trend in the years to come.