From a horrible March to a brilliant April: How this Brunswick distillery turned its business around after COVID-19 struck

Brunswick Aces

Brunswick Aces co-founders Cameron Hunt, Stephen Lawrence and Diana Abelardo (left to right).

As COVID-19 struck and everyone — including a leading immunologist — raced to their local bottle-o, Melbourne distiller Brunswick Aces was facing “a horrible March”. The business’ on-premises market had “fallen off a cliff”, and many clients had shut their doors.

According to co-founder Stephen Lawrence, the business, which manufactures a range of gins and non-alcoholic Sapiir spirits, was having to “[re]strategise a plan that had been blown out of the water”.

Like other distilleries and breweries, the team started producing hand sanitiser, and gave away a free bottle with every 700ml purchase as an incentive to customers to buy from its normal range.

This initiative coincided with a bounce in international and domestic sales, as well as the confirmation of a deal to launch the distillery’s product range in 28 BWS stores across Melbourne and Dubai.

Lawrence says Brunswick Aces went from one of its worst months to one of its best.

“The impact of COVID-19 has been [that of] fluctuation and variability, and trying to iron that out has been difficult”, Lawrence tells SmartCompany.

When COVID-19 came on the scene we were hit hard. We basically had to look at ourselves, cut costs as much as we could and see what we could do in this environment to bolster things.

“We [created] hand sanitiser which was was a key element for us turning things around … that wasn’t easy as materials were scarce, but the first month on the back of that was much more successful.”

Lawrence says their recovery, which saw the sale of over 2000 bottles across a range of different sectors over April, was in-part connected to the relationships the business had cultivated with “big players”, including Dan Murphy’s, BWS and overseas contacts.

“That deal with BWS was huge for us — credit to them for helping small businesses like ourselves,” he says.

“We have built a strong community around our product, and have variation in our product line that fitted the dramas of the day.”

“None of us wanted to get plastered”

Founded in 2017, Brunswick Aces was established by a group of neighbours in the inner-northern suburb of Melbourne.

With “disparate talents”, including backgrounds in engineering, science, economics, marketing, accounting and writing, the team of six regularly had dinner and drinks, and eventually discussed making beer and gin together.

They bought the gin stills, fermented the alcohol, got spices from around the world and started the project. But, as the initiative progressed, one member of the team started running marathons, and another became pregnant.

Lawrence says they were unable to drink, and felt left out of the conversation.

“None of us felt like getting plastered, but we still wanted to make delicious drinks and cocktails. So we put our heads together and made a version that oriented around the flavours rather than alcohol,” he says.

Over time friends, family and other members of the community became interested in the project.

“We learned that this was a problem not just for us but for others as well,” Lawrence says.

“When you’re hosting a party, you want everyone to feel welcome [and] sometimes, coke or water doesn’t have the same intimacy that helps to make people feel comfortable in their homes.

“When we started Brunswick Aces and developed our Sapiir [range], we were conscious that it was a niche that would [address] this problem.”

“We have gone down a low capital route”

During the foundational stages Brunswick Aces raised seed funding internally, and was able to grow on a “shoestring budget”.

After a few years, the team partnered with the Healesville-based Alchemy Distillers, which manufactured under its own license, and would enable for Brunswick Aces to scale-up production.

After starting with its own batch, Brunswick Aces now produces in over 1000 litre batches.

“Everything we made, we reinvested into the company,” Lawrence says.

The time is now right to take on external investment. Brunswick Aces is seeking to raise $500,000 through a funding round, with the aim of revamping the company’s bottle design, employing more staff members and expanding further in oversees markets.

“We’ve grown organically over the first couple of years, but that organic growth has reached its limit,” says Lawrence.

“Our progress [in the funding round] has been hampered by COVID-19, but we are still charging ahead and looking to complete that over the next month.

“We’ve built a really nice rocket, we just need to fuel it up.”

“The non-alcoholic sector definitely took a turn”

As the global pandemic took hold in Australia, Lawrence says individuals turned to products they were historically comfortable with and, as a result, the non-alcoholic drinks sector saw a downturn.

However, he is confident it will rebound when a version of normalcy is restored.

“The sector definitely took a turn as it’s more of a discretionary product at the moment, and it doesn’t have the same effect that people were looking for during the crisis,” he says.

“But when people return to their old routines, the desire for products that don’t ruin their run the next morning will come back as well.

“If anything, it reinforces the messages that has been driving the genre. One being the health aspect, and the other that we’re losing connection with each-other.

“It won’t just come back, but it will reinforce everything we’ve been talking about, and have been trying to provide the public.”

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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