Russ and Gemma Wakeham, Two Drifters Distillery

You’re going to make mistakes. You have to be OK with that.

10 mins

Gemma and Russ Wakeham have two passions – making great rum and environmental sustainability. Happily, for rum lovers and the planet, they’ve brought these two passions together and created Two Drifters Distillery, a carbon negative – not neutral, negative! – distillery making award-winning, sustainable rums.

This was something utterly unique in our experience, so we jumped at the chance to ask them all about it – about their start-up journey, the role of technology in their business and what advice they have for budding entrepreneurs.

Tell us about Two Drifters Distillery.  What’s the story behind it?

RUSS: Gemma and I are the two drifters; we’ve stopped drifting now but before I was a chemist  – academic – and every two years we’d be dragged to a different job in a different country and were taken all over the place. Then I got a postdoc position in Vancouver and we were super inspired by the craft beer scene. It’s such a great place and then there’s the West Coast vibe that we got caught by as well, which is to just go for it, entrepreneur-style, just get on with it.

That all came together with the fact that we wanted to get back to the UK, back to Devon but there’s not a lot in the way of chemistry jobs down here so we thought we’d start our own business. And that’s how the idea began. Then I got a fellowship in Swansea 

GEMMA: That gave us time to get some skills. I did a social media marketing course. Before we went to Vancouver, I’d been a business development manager

RUSS: She had the sales part nailed down and was exploring the marketing while I was researching the carbon capture. But in the evenings, we were both out the back in our garage brewing, making beer and thinking ‘This is it – this is the business we’re going to set up.’ There’s no way to practice making spirits – you just have to do it

GEMMA: Also beer and cider you can make at home so that was what we started with, to get to grips with the whole process. 

RUSS: The plan was to start with a brewery and purchase a distillery from selling that. That was how we imagined it in our heads. We were completely wrong. 

I was going to ask if the business turned out exactly as you initially envisioned it.

RUSS: No, hindsight and all. But we got very good at making beer and set up a company to sell it. That’s how Two Drifters was born. Turned out distilling equipment was affordable so we started with a 2000 litre brewery and a distillery that could make about 80 bottles a week.

GEMMA: There’s a gap in that story, though – when we decided to open the business, we sold the house in Swansea, moved in with my parents and so the investment was literally the sale of our house.

RUSS: Yes, it took about 6 months to set up and we started selling in April 2019. And within 3 months, it was clear that 80 bottles a week of rum wasn’t going to cut it.

GEMMA: We were a bit naive at the beginning, thinking we needed the beer to carry the rum.  

RUSS: So, three months in we stopped selling beer all together and we’ve gone from 80 bottles a week to between 1800-2000 bottles.  

What was the moment when you realised you were really onto something?

RUSS: I don’t know if we’ve had that moment.

GEMMA: Actually, yes. I know exactly when it was. People had asked if we were open to investment and we always said no because we felt we wanted to get ourselves to a place first where we felt – as you asked – that we were on to something. It was in October 2020 when we decided to go for crowdfunding. We went for it then because we knew we were making the rum as amazing as we possibly could, we knew how we could offset the CO2 – no footprint. That’s as far as we could take it on our own. We needed to scale up, needed money for branding, expansion. So, we went for crowdfunding and within 3 hours of going live, we’d reached 100%. That’s when we knew. By Christmas we were at 190%.

How dependent is your business on technology? You each run different aspects of the business – which tools or applications allow you to do what you do?

RUSS: A lot, a lot. Let’s start with the accounting software. That’s number one and I love Xero for that. Then ShipStation links the website to the carrier, and Squarespace is the website. We’re moving – probably – to Shopify soon. We’re probably at the limit of what SquareSpace can do – it’s very much ‘fill-in, plug and play.’ When you’re busy, starting out you don’t want something that’s going to take ages and it looks great very quickly. So that was kind of the big appeal.

GEMMA: From a sales point of view, HubSpot, we use for CRM, and that links to the sales channels as well. Crowdcast for online tours.

I saw on the website you were doing online tours. How has that been?

GEMMA: They’ve been amazing. It’s sort of like Zoom, but the people aren’t on screen – and we sometimes have 60, 70 people on a tour, so we don’t want them all on screen – but they can comment, ask questions and you can do polls.  In person tours were always limited to 8 people so this is a big opportunity especially from a sales point of view. I’m able to contact journalists, bloggers and distributors and say, come and do a tour. So, we’ve had key people doing these things who would never have been able to come down to Devon. 

Is there anything you wish technology could help with more?

GEMMA: Russ is desperately trying to find an inventory software….

RUSS: I’m on the hunt. An MRP (Material Requirements Planning) system would just be amazing. I have loads of spreadsheets – technology as it starts for everyone. We have batch traceability requirements, being able to say this bottle was made on this date with all of these ingredients; we do the forward and back traceability for our food hygiene levels to keep that certification. So, we have spreadsheets to do that, but they don’t integrate with the selling side or Xero. That means a lot of duplication and very manual. The trials I’ve tried are just so overly complicated. Other distilleries I’ve talked to make their own. There is no good solution.

GEMMA: I think with distilleries, they’re unique – even from each other so nothing is going to suit all of them.

Ah, sounds like a chat with a friendly, problem-solving, software team might be in your future!? Speaking of problem solving software teams, we’ve been having a conversation here at Spork about sustainability, the carbon footprint of the internet etc. so I have a question related to that we don’t normally ask…

Were the CO2 emissions and reducing the carbon footprint something you wanted to address right at the start?

RUSS: Yes. Absolutely. It was never in question that it was going to be at the basis of every decision we made. It was something I’d already been working on in my previous professional life. It was while I was working on energy safety and using carbon capture storage utilization that I met Climeworks at a CO2 conference. The technology they were using – it’s a bit like a giant air conditioner, sucks the CO2 out of the air, collects it, concentrates it and then converts it to stone and that’s what gets stored underground. I was just like, ‘I have to find a way to make this part of what we’re about.’

Also, I knew that we would need to incorporate something like this – because we can only deal directly with the carbon footprint of our specific part in the process. All our equipment is electric, it’s all run on renewable energy, our delivery van is electric – all the things we can control directly. But we wanted to go further. That difference between carbon neutral and carbon negative was really important to us. We wanted to offset the emissions involved in the agriculture, shipping, refining, packaging, all that as well. So, we calculate the emissions across the whole process – from field to glass – come up with a total and, working with Climeworks, we offset more than that total. That’s how we operate as carbon negative.

Of course, there’s a cost to that and it’s expensive which is why we are so careful about controlling the things we can control directly. Because everything else is offset by the CO2 extraction. To put it in perspective – the price of a ton of CO2 in the EU is about 42 Euro per ton. That’s how much a company gets charged to emit CO2 into the atmosphere. The cost of using Climeworks to offset that same ton works out to about 700 Euros.

GEMMA: There’s a lot of green marketing out there and talk about being sustainable. I think we may be one of those rare beasts where it’s all very genuine. Russ and I want to run a rum distillery and however we choose to make our rum makes the rum delicious and good for the consumer. But why should others pay for the CO2 created just because we want to own a rum distillery. 

All of the shipping, the growing of the sugar cane, the refining – all those things that happen only because that’s what we wanted to do – the impact of that is on us. It’s a cost we bear so we can go to bed at night, wake up in the morning and just carry on making great rum without also knowing decisions we’re making are harming the planet. We can just be like, ‘right we’ve removed our footprint on the earth so let’s focus on making great rum.’

If you were to go back and do it all again, what would you do differently?

RUSS: Actually – I don’t know that we would have changed that much. Maybe we wouldn’t have started selling beer. 

GEMMA: But even that – the beer was a part of the story, an accident that led us to the rums.

RUSS: True. It was a valuable lesson and I wouldn’t want to lose that.

GEMMA: Because it was our own money, our own investment, every penny was put into it – we made every decision very carefully, avoided silly purchases. I mean we made some – like a barrel mover, which we ended up not needing. We’ve been very cautious.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting their own business?

RUSS: Read everything. Read a lot. 

GEMMA: Every part will be more expensive than you thought.

RUSS: Add 30% to everything. It’s all going to cost more and take longer than you think. 

GEMMA: My big thing is making sure you know exactly where you want to be. Because along the way, there are a lot of people out there who want to make money from your business and they will try and sway you this way or that way – ‘Oh you definitely have to have this’ or ‘if you’re a start-up, you must have this thing’ or ‘That was last year you now need to go this route.’ You just need to stand firm when you are struggling with decisions and people are throwing all sorts of stuff at you. Just remember why you’re doing it in the first place. 

What do you want to accomplish in the next year?

GEMMA: We’ve grown a lot in two years – 205% in the middle of a pandemic – that’s a lot of home drinking. Next, I want people to be drinking Two Drifters runs in bars and hotels. Our new look is going to look great behind the bar and being thrown into the air by bartenders.

Any last bits of advice?

RUSS: You’re going to make mistakes. You have to be OK with that. You need to be able to make them, move on and deal with it. Because you are going to make them.

GEMMA: Start-ups need to find ways to make their voices louder. Start-ups have small voices; big brands have HUGE voices. You have to be loud everywhere, all the time. A social media post lasts 20 minutes. You need to keep doing it and it will take longer than you think but someone will eventually say ‘Oh, I think I’ve heard of Two Drifters.’ And that… when that happens, it’s so worth it, that’s a warm fuzzy feeling.

Thanks to Gemma and Russ for taking the time to tell us about Two Drifters Distillery and about what it takes to run a carbon negative business. 

Make sure to check out their website and follow them on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook to get all the latest news from the distillery in Devon.

We love finding out what motivates and inspires people to start their own businesses. It’s one of the reasons start-ups have always been a big part of our client list. If you’ve got an idea you want to develop, get in touch. Let’s see how we can help you startup your start-up.

For more advice on how to tackle start-up challenges, pop over to our blog where we dispense advice gained, not only by our own experience, but also by working with startups in a wide range of sectors.

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