food + drink people

Vodka Eastside

A Shot in the Dark

By Kelly Beswick

A self-confessed bon vivant with excellent knowledge of the drinks trade, Gabriella Thorpe decided to marry her two passions and create a new, luxurious variety of vodka called Vintage Velvet. We meet a local girl who has, both figuratively and literally, got spirit

When it comes to the increasingly crowded alcoholic beverage market, it pays dividends to firstly have an utterly unique product and secondly a supremely strong brand. Vintage Velvet smashes it on both counts.

Created by infusing locally sourced Chardonnay grape juice with British sugar beet vodka to produce a double-distilled spirit the likes of which has never been made before, Vintage Velvet has a wonderful caramel aroma and a buttery, smooth taste. What’s more it comes with such assured branding – from the slick website, through to the equally sleek packaging, all embossed with the distinctive lion doorknocker logo – that you immediately feel that you’re buying into a iconic British company with serious pedigree.

The fact that Vintage Velvet has only been in existence just a little over two years is testament to its creator, Gabriella Thorpe’s, vision and hard graft. A Hackney resident of some 15-years standing, Gabriella admits to a love of eating and drinking that has taken her to lots of the area’s best bars and restaurants, sampling many a cocktail along the way.

Meanwhile her work in hospitality meant she also got to mingle with top mixologists, thus gaining a perspective from behind the bar and not just in front of it. Throw in a stint working on a high end wine publication where she got to speak to lots of drinks brands and agencies, then you can see why, in December 2014, she suddenly had what she calls her ‘eureka moment’.

“I could see all these craft drinks coming through and I just knew I had to be part of the action,” says Gabriella. “Once I had the idea, it became fixed in my brain so I started researching. At first I was going to go down the grape-based product route, but I soon realized that was a very crowded market.

“So I then kind of stripped it back a little bit and thought if no-one is using the raw juice of the grape then that would be a better road to go down. That presented a blank canvas and vodka was the obvious choice in that sense. I then started to see if anyone had done something similar and they hadn’t. That really fuelled my fire as it’s quite hard to find something original in this day and age.”

What followed was a nine-month period of Gabriella visiting distilleries up and down the country, experimenting with the amount and variety of grape. “At one point we actually tried putting wine in the vodka,” she says somewhat incredulously. “Obviously that wasn’t a good thing. As the saying goes, never mix the grape and grain. Let’s just say there were a few headaches after that little experiment.”

Despite its Brigit Jones connotations, Chardonnay eventually became the grape of choice. “It’s familiar and quite accessible,” explains Gabriella. “Also, you only need a small percentage to give the product that extra dynamic.” However, at the risk of sounding like a Marks & Spencer advert, the Chardonnay grapes she settled on aren’t just any old Chardonnay grapes, coming as they do from one of the oldest, award-winning vineyards just outside Cambridge, hence the vintage element of the brand’s name.

Having found the recipe, next up was the branding. “To be honest, at first it kept changing on a monthly bases. I just couldn’t fix on one thing. Then I had my second ‘eureka moment’ and came up with the old lion doorknocker,” laughs Gabriella. “What’s so great about them is that they’re still everywhere, they’re very British, and they also represent something strong and courageous, which I really liked. On another level they also form a connection between home and visitor, between guest and host, which is an association I also found appealing.”

Getting all the artwork done helped further confirm Gabriella’s choice, and now, if you look closely enough, you’ll see that stern old lion staring down from the shelves of a fair few East London drinking dens. “It’s been great that local businesses have got behind it, and it’s getting on more bar, restaurant and cocktail menus,” says Gabriella. “It seems to be spreading through word of mouth, which really is the nicest way.”

Online sales are also booming, the number of stockists is growing at a steady rate, a PR company has also recently come on board and plans are afoot to appoint a brand ambassador. “It’s all moving in the right direction,” asserts Gabriella. “But I’m still really just a one man band, i.e. me. I have to wear lots of different hats and do lots of different jobs, but hopefully it will all be worth it.”

With distribution, exporting and new grape varieties all in the pipeline, Gabriella certainly has her work cut out for her. “But this is my baby and I have to put everything into it,” she says simply. “I’m getting out there and giving it my all.”

No Dutch courage needed here then!

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