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Howard Davies
A 360 Exclusive Interview

Howard with bottle on yacht 1.jpg

Howard, a huge welcome to you. Let's open our chat with a look back at how the Salcombe Distilling Co. came to be? What inspired you to enter the world of gin, and what were the key factors that led you to this industry?

 

The journey to creating Salcombe Gin is deeply rooted in my lifelong connection to Salcombe, a place that captured my heart from a very young age. Every summer, my family would escape to Salcombe, where I spent countless days sailing around the estuary, exploring rock pools, and absorbing the beauty of the coastal walks. This town wasn’t just a holiday destination; it was a pivotal part of my upbringing, shaping my love for the sea and sailing.

My passion for gin emerged in the same waters, as evenings after sailing were often spent at the Salcombe Yacht Club, where the ritual of enjoying a gin and tonic while watching the sunset became a cherished tradition. This early exposure to gin, combined with my adoration for Salcombe, planted the seeds for what was to come.

After pursuing a career that took me from corporate life in London to teaching sailing in some of the world's most beautiful waters, the desire to create something meaningful and rooted in Salcombe grew irresistible. Together with Angus, a friend and previous fellow sailing instructor from Salcombe’s Island Cruising Club sailing school, we noticed the burgeoning interest in craft distilleries and saw our chance to blend our love for gin with our devotion to Salcombe.

Our journey wasn't straightforward; we were novices in the spirits industry, but our passion and commitment to authenticity were clear. We wanted Salcombe Gin to be a true reflection of its namesake, so ensuring the distillery was based in Salcombe was non-negotiable. We stumbled upon plans to develop an old boat store, once owned by the Island Cruising Club where I had spent so much of my youth. It felt like fate. Working with an architect, we transformed the site of this ramshackle building into a stunning distillery and it became the home of Salcombe Gin.

In parallel, we raised the necessary investment and refined our gin-making technique, starting with a miniature still, identical to the ones we now use in our gin school, to experiment and develop our signature blend.

This entire process, from concept to creation, was driven by a desire to produce a gin that wasn’t just made in Salcombe but was of Salcombe. A gin that carried the essence of those sunsets and coastal adventures in every bottle. That's the story of Salcombe Gin, a tale of passion, place, and the pursuit of crafting something exceptional.

You clearly had so much support, and belief in the product, during this process. Could you elaborate on how the personalities and passions of the founders play a crucial role in the evolution and success of a brand?

 

It sounds a bit egotistical since I’m referring to myself and Angus, but the truth is, the people behind a brand are of equal importance to the product concept itself. You need passionate individuals who possess not only common sense in their approach but also the drive to see things through. And as the old saying goes, 'people do business with people.' It's crucial that the team behind the business can forge positive, constructive relationships with everyone involved — be it future customers, staff, suppliers, investors, or partners.

This aspect is massively important in determining the success of a business. You see, you could have the most innovative business concept, but if the people behind it aren’t the right fit, it simply won’t work. Conversely, you can have a team of incredible people, but if the business concept is flawed, that too will likely falter. So, you really need a balance of both — strong, passionate people and a solid, viable business concept to truly succeed.

 

Reflecting on the rapid evolution of the brand, from its inception to becoming an award-winning brand in just six months, could you share some of the pivotal decisions and challenges you faced during this journey. 

Initially, one of the most important decisions was to ensure the integrity of our location and operations. We were adamant that Salcombe Gin had to be distilled right in the heart of Salcombe, to maintain the authenticity and soul of our brand. This commitment to place and heritage was more than a business decision; it was about staying true to what Salcombe meant to us and ensuring that the spirit of the place was infused into every bottle we produced.

Right from the start, we defined the core values of our business, which centered around passion, integrity, and an uncompromising attention to detail. These values weren’t just words on a page; they were the standards by which we operated every single day.

Passion was essential—not just for Angus and me but for every person who joined our team. We sought to cultivate a deep, abiding love for what we did, believing that this passion would translate into every aspect of our work, from distillation to customer service.

Integrity was another cornerstone, influencing how we communicated about our product and ensuring we didn’t cut corners in any process, whether in dealing with regulatory bodies like HMRC regarding excise duty or maintaining rigorous standards in food and health safety.

The third pillar, attention to detail, was both a blessing and a challenge. It meant that we were meticulous about everything from the quality of the ingredients we sourced to the distillation process itself. For example, the development of our original gin, Start Point, involved painstaking adjustments over an 18 month period to perfect its unique blend of flavors.

This attention to detail extended beyond the liquid itself to how we presented our brand to the world. The packaging and branding were as important as the gin. We worked with experts, including one of our non-exec directors who had experience with major brands like Bacardi and Moet Hennessy, to develop a visually stunning brand presentation for Salcombe Gin.

However, this high standard also set a high bar internally. It was crucial to maintain a positive and energising environment within the company, even as we aimed for perfection in every aspect of our work. This approach helped us avoid negativity and instead foster a culture where everyone was motivated to improve and innovate continuously.

Those early days were about laying a foundation of passion, integrity, and quality that allowed us to quickly scale and achieve success. These decisions and our approach to overcoming the associated challenges were instrumental in transforming Salcombe Gin into the award-winning brand it is today.

 

What I’m hearing is the philosophy that high achievers often mention: 'Don't chase perfection; chase excellence.' Could you elaborate on how this principle has guided your approach in developing and growing Salcombe Gin?

Absolutely, it's about the relentless pursuit of excellence and continuous improvement in everything we do. From the outset, we've been deeply committed to not just creating a brand but nurturing and evolving it over time.

We were incredibly proud of what we initially created, but we also recognised that excellence isn't a static achievement; it's dynamic. This understanding led us to undertake a brand refresh every two to three years. These aren't just arbitrary changes; they're thoughtful improvements that reflect new ideas, respond to changes in consumer tastes, and adapt to the evolving market.

This approach keeps our brand fresh and vibrant. It ensures that we, as founders, along with our entire team, remain fully engaged and never become complacent. Staying lively and responsive is key to our success and is what allows us to continuously strive for and achieve excellence. 

 

Given the importance of craftsmanship to the company, how do you balance maintaining this high level of craftsmanship with the need to scale production in a business that prioritises quality?

It’s a challenge we take very seriously at Salcombe Gin. We simply do not accept any compromise on quality, no matter how hard it might be to maintain. It’s a continuous, relentless effort.

We've built an incredible team that embodies this philosophy. Take our master distiller, Jason, for instance. He joined Gus and me when we were just starting out, working on our second batch of Gin. His brilliance and understanding of our vision are profound. He wouldn’t accept any compromise on quality and has a deep appreciation for the need to scale while maintaining that quality. This ethos is embedded in our culture; it’s part of our DNA.

But even beyond individual brilliance, we are always involved in the details. As we scale up, we personally check the taste and ensure the quality remains top-notch. We've faced times when things didn't go as planned, but we see those as opportunities to learn and improve. For example, as we scaled up, we noticed an increase in packaging breakages during shipping. This wasn’t just a production issue; it was a customer experience issue too.

To address this, we evolved our packaging to reduce these breakages significantly. However, this solution slightly reduced the aesthetic appeal of the packaging. So, our next project is to enhance the packaging's look without compromising protection. This iterative process is a delicate dance of give and take.

And actually, one thing I want to add is how this culture of continuous improvement is embedded in the entire team. It wasn’t just Angus and me deciding we needed to improve the aesthetics of the packaging again. It was a team member who proactively came to us and said, 'You know what, guys? Great that we’ve improved our packaging, but I think we should enhance its aesthetics even more.' They even offered a few ideas on how to do this.

This proactive involvement is what makes our approach so effective. It shows that our commitment to excellence and improvement isn’t a top-down mandate but a shared mission. Everyone in the team is aligned and actively looking for ways to support our goals, contributing ideas and solutions. This collaborative atmosphere is key to our ability to balance craftsmanship with scaling production, ensuring that our growth never comes at the cost of the quality and integrity that define Salcombe Gin.

This approach shows how we balance craftsmanship with scaling. We improve one aspect, monitor for any slips in another, and correct it. It’s about moving upwards step by step, ensuring that as we grow, we never lose sight of the craftsmanship that defines us. It’s not just about maintaining standards but about embedding a drive for continuous improvement and excellence in every layer of our operations.

 

Let’s move on to sustainability and ocean conservation which I know are pivotal to the your identity. Could you discuss the initial motivations for integrating these elements into your business model?

Where to start? Well, sustainability and specifically ocean conservation have always been integral to who we are.  We've undertaken numerous initiatives, like almost completely removing plastic use within our operations and focusing on reducing any key contributors to carbon footprint, but we wanted to push even further. The urgency of climate change, which should concern everyone, has especially resonated with us given our deep connection to the ocean.

My entire life has revolved around water sports and the ocean, and our distillery is uniquely positioned by the water in Salcombe, accessible by boat — one of the very few in the world. This proximity to the ocean isn't just a detail; it's embedded in the essence of our brand and underscores our commitment to protecting this environment.

In seeking meaningful ways to contribute, we delved into research and discovered the critical role of seagrass meadows in the battle against climate change. Seagrass is responsible for 10% of the ocean's carbon sequestration but covers only about 0.1% of the ocean floor. It sequesters carbon up to 35 times faster than rainforests do over the same area, yet many people are unaware of its existence and importance.

Our collaboration with the Marine Conservation Society emerged from this research. They were involved in seagrass restoration, which we identified as a profoundly impactful initiative. We didn't want to just sound good on paper; we sought genuinely effective actions. Thus, we launched our initiative to donate 1% of net sales from Salcombe Gin and our New London Light to support seagrass regeneration projects.

One project we funded was near Weymouth at Portland. Here, a simple but transformative approach was taken: protecting the seabed to allow seagrass to regenerate naturally. We helped establish a no-anchor zone by deploying markers, which I personally assisted with, to prevent anchors from dragging and damaging the seabed. As well as creating an environment where seagrass can once again flourish it also encouraged local communities and organisations to adopt similar protective measures.

To efficiently monitor these efforts, we invested in a remote underwater vehicle — like a miniature version of something out of a James Bond film — to navigate and video the seagrass beds. This allows us to observe the seabed's condition and the recovery of the seagrass without the extensive costs and efforts of human divers.

This work with the Marine Conservation Society is something we're proud of, not just for its environmental impact but also for allowing us to maintain our integrity in the face of growing commercial pressures. Initially, I was hesitant to talk too much about these initiatives, fearing it might seem like a marketing ploy rather than a genuine effort. However, by being open and detailed about our actions and intentions, we've inspired others within and outside our industry.

Our bottle refill scheme is another example of our commitment. Customers can return their empty Salcombe Gin bottles to be refilled at a discount, reducing waste and promoting sustainability. This initiative, too, has been adopted by others, further spreading the positive impact.

 

These are hugely impressive initiatives. How do you measure and evaluate their success?

 

For our seagrass projects, we can get quite detailed statistics on the area of seagrass we're protecting or helping to regenerate. It's about looking at the physical space we're impacting and seeing how that regenerates over time. We can also easily quantify the level of donation we're making to charities like the Marine Conservation Society, but that's just one part of the picture.

For our bottle refill scheme, we can directly measure how many bottles we've prevented from being recycled or remanufactured by tracking the refills. We've thought about translating this into the equivalent amount of fossil fuels saved, though that's a more complex calculation. But, even at the base level, counting the number of bottles is straightforward and impactful.

There are also things we do that you just feel are right, and you don't necessarily measure them in the traditional sense. For instance, when we started, we moved away from using inflatable plastic protective packaging for our bottles — it was like an inflatable life vest for each bottle. Now, it’s hard to find anyone who uses these anymore. It’s a change that just makes sense, and we don’t need numbers to justify it.

We've also conducted a carbon footprint analysis of our business twice. This analysis is invaluable not just to see the numbers but to understand where we can make the most significant impact. For instance, one major area is our supply chain — looking at how far goods are shipped to the UK, where they're manufactured, and what materials are used. We’ve made efforts to bring a lot of our production, especially our packaging, closer to the UK to reduce this footprint.

All of our gin is made right here in Salcombe, which helps us keep our operations local and reduce our environmental impact. These are the kinds of measures that tell us we’re moving in the right direction and help us focus our efforts where they can really count.

 

As a leader, how do you foster a culture of innovation and sustainability within your team, ensuring that everyone is aligned with the company's mission and purpose?

It always feels a bit odd to answer questions like this, as it implies that we've already perfected our approach. While we strive for excellence, there's always room for improvement. I like to think we've cultivated a strong culture within our organisation, centred around effective communication and a shared understanding of our goals.

So, what do we do to instil this sense of mission and purpose, especially around themes like innovation and sustainability? It starts with communication. We aim for the clearest, most comprehensive communication possible throughout the business. 

Balancing communication is crucial; too much can lead to meeting fatigue, while too little can lead to misalignments and misunderstandings.

Regarding fostering innovation, it's about ensuring everyone knows what we aim to achieve. Our goal is to produce outstanding quality products with a compelling consumer proposition and marketing. By clearly communicating our objectives, team members can identify and suggest innovations that align with our strategic direction.

I hugely believe in the power of informal interactions. I make it a point to be physically present and accessible to the team so I'm there for those casual chats with team members around every part of our company. These little nuggets of conversation are invaluable. I get to hear insights and ideas firsthand and engage in meaningful, informal dialogues with the team. Whether I'm working out of the bar at the distillery, the office, or the warehouse, these interactions are crucial.

This direct engagement is vital. As a leader, being visible and actively involved, not just with the senior management but with the entire team, helps foster a connected and responsive culture. This approach ensures that our mission and values are not just communicated but lived and experienced daily by everyone in the organisation.

This method helps ensure that innovation isn't just spontaneous but directed towards meaningful improvement and aligned with our broader goals. By fostering this environment, we enable our team to contribute actively to our mission, enhancing our collective effort towards innovation and sustainability.

 

As you look to the future, Howard, could you share what new horizons the Salcombe Distilling Co. is exploring? Are there any upcoming products, exciting partnerships, or plans for market expansion that you're able to discuss?

Firstly, it's interesting to note the amount of innovation we've undertaken in recent years. We started with Salcombe Gin which now includes a number of different gins and expanded our portfolio, introduced Salcombe Rum with two varieties, and launched our non-alcoholic spirits range, New London Light which has three varieties. Creating a high-quality non-alcoholic spirit is extremely challenging, and we're proud of what we've achieved with these innovations.

However, we've learned that whilst there are often other spirits sectors that are rapidly expanding, jumping on every opportunity can spread you too thin. Each new product requires support and marketing, which can lead to neglecting your core products if you're not careful.

At Salcombe Gin, we've built a strong portfolio with Salcombe Gin, Salcombe Rum, and New London Light. For the next 12 months, we've decided to pause on further expanding the range so we can focus on these core products. This involves raising their profiles, increasing brand equity, and expanding distribution, rather than being distracted by continual new product development.

Of course, there are exceptions! For instance, we've created a special edition of our Start Point gin for the Craft Gin Club this month, which has reached over 25,000 people. And we have a special gin that's been maturing and will soon launch exclusively with a high-profile retailer in London.

Moving forward, we're also focusing on strengthening our partnerships. A key partnership is with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), especially significant this year as it marks their 200th anniversary. Last October, we launched a new gin called Four Seas in collaboration with them, inspired by botanicals around the British coastline. We donate 10% of net sales from this and our Island Street Rum to the RNLI.

Looking further ahead, our Voyager series continues to be a focus. This series allows us to create ultra-premium gins in partnership with world-famous chefs and iconic winemakers. The most recent was a gin called ‘Daring’ with Paul Ainsworth, and we've previously worked with chefs like Michael Caines and Monica Galetti. The Voyager series is an excellent way for us to innovate at the top end without needing to launch entirely new products.

Innovation is crucial for evolving any business and keeping up with the market, but we also recognise the importance of focusing on our core products to ensure sustainable growth and brand integrity. This balance between innovation and maintaining our core is a delicate but essential part of our strategy.

Howard, as always, it's been a pleasure. Welcome to 360!  Here's to embracing that spirit of adventure and all that lies ahead! ​



Next Steps

Book Howard Davies for your next event and let your audience be inspired by the journey of a visionary entrepreneur who has transformed passion into a successful business. His talks are filled with engaging stories, practical insights, and a deep understanding of how to balance innovation with maintaining core business values.

What you’ll get:

  • Real-World Insights: From crafting award-winning gins to pioneering sustainability efforts in the beverage industry, Howard brings you stories directly from the trenches of entrepreneurial success.

  • A Dynamic Speaker: Howard’s energy and enthusiasm are contagious. His interactive style ensures your audience is not just listening but actively participating and engaging with the content.

  • A Proven Leader: Discover the strategies Howard has used to navigate the complexities of a growing business, from refining product lines to embedding a culture of quality and integrity.

  • Customised Content for Your Audience: Whether your audience comprises startup enthusiasts, business veterans, sustainability advocates, or global marketers, Howard tailors his talks to resonate with everyone, providing valuable takeaways for all.

Booking Howard Davies means choosing a speaker who will educate and inspire your audience to strive for excellence in their endeavours. His blend of storytelling, practical advice, and infectious optimism will leave a lasting impact, motivating your audience to think bigger and act boldly.

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