Each year, the economic activity of wine and spirits is estimated to be around £50 billion in the UK. Despite this, Aidy has found an astonishing lack of LGBTQIA+ support, highlighting much more work is still needed for acceptance and understanding. After researching a piece highlighting brands supporting the community for his column on the Evening Standard, it became clear there were only a small handful of brands raising money for charities or causes for Pride month, with substantially less throughout the entire year. While donning a rainbow flag for one month is a nod to inclusion, the conversation of whether brands actually support these values or feel obliged to partake at risk of looking unsupportive comes to question.
In this month’s newsletter, Aidy has set out to interview a smaller but fiercely passionate and evolving LGBTQIA+ drinks brand that can help set an example to the rest of the industry. In this piece, Aidy sits down with Joe Wilson, the Founder of Stonewall Gin.
Tell me about your company! How did it come to be?
Stonewall Spirits is a family run brand which we started in 2020. We make quality Craft Gins at our distillery in Lincolnshire that we wanted to have a real message. Basically, a brand that could give back to the community. I’d just re-discovered the story of the New York Stonewall Riots in 1969 which left me inspired. These riots were a turning point for LGBTQIA+ and the fight for our acceptance. The impact they made on the world resulted in many of the freedoms we have today. So, from this conversation in a bar in Leeds, our Stonewall Gin was born.
What does it mean do you to be one of the few LGBTQIA+ community brands that is actively helping to raise funds 365 days a year with each sale of a product?
The immediate aim was to create a brand that tasted great but could also support a community. I’m honestly so proud to say we’re the UK’s first LGBTQ+ spirit brand, supporting, promoting & donating to my LGBTQIA+ community 365 days a year, not just in June. The ‘Stonewall Riots’ is an amazing piece of LGBTQ history and I am very honoured to re-tell this story throughout our brand to not only educate the younger generation but also honour our predecessors who fought for our rights. This is a story of bravery, courage and rebellion – fighting for what is right and I think anyone can relate to this story and hopefully be inspired by it, just like I was.
Tell me about your past and what got you into creating a gin brand?
I started in hospitality, working at the iconic ‘New Penny’ in Leeds where I was pulling pints and slamming the tequila shots. From there I moved to ‘Stonegate’ as a deputy manager (who now also stocks our gin!) before meeting my partner, Tom. It turned out his Mum and Stepdad own a distillery in Skegness and upon telling them the story of the ‘Stonewall Riots’, the conversation led us to the conclusion there was an amazing opportunity to launch an LGBTQIA+ gin. Sarah and Richard created the recipe and now produce the product. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are now. People often think of myself as the brand creator, but in truth, we’re a big family each with a vital part in making Stonewall Gin what it is (and I am not just saying that to keep my in-laws sweet).
What has your biggest hurdle to date been?
The mentally exhausting nature of owning your own brand. I got to the point where I struggled to sleep because all I could think about is what I wasn’t doing versus the daily wins. I’d begin drowning in doubts, thinking we were missing out on opportunities and getting frustrated with myself. But the simple truth is, we just aren’t big enough to enter every event or to supply such a large amount of stocks to companies. I was afraid to fail because I believe so much in what the brand does. It’s good to check in with yourself though, and I quickly realised you need to learn to step back and acknowledge that you can’t ‘do everything’. You just have to go with the flow and enjoy the ride. When I look back from when we launched in February 2020 to where we are now we have come such a long way. I live by a saying now that really helps me ‘Failure only happens if you quit, until then, it is simply just an experience’.
How are you supporting the wider LGBTQIA+ world?
It starts with us re-telling the Stonewall Riots story, something very few people think about. The LGBTQIA+ community has progressed massively, but we should never forget the hardship that was faced to get here. It’s really important that the younger generation know where their rights came from, that our community wasn’t always accepted and most importantly how there is still vast amounts of work to be done. Beyond this, it’s incredibly important to me that I support my LGTBQ community all-year round, not just for one month of the year. That’s why £1 from each bottle is donated to LGBTQ charities and since our launch in 2020 we have raised thousands. Every single penny of the funds we raise go towards creating more acceptance for our community, 365 days of the year.
What are your current thoughts on LGBTQIA+ in the drinks industry?
Honestly, I don’t think there is enough representation for the LGBTQ community within the drinks industry, which is why we started our brand. I’m fed up of seeing brands plaster a pride rainbow on a bottle at the start of June for it to be as quickly taken down at the start of July. To a point, I respect brands who do this as they are showing us a form of support, but I wish they would do more throughout the rest of the year or help actually raise funds with their ‘Pride Month Product’. We aren’t just queer for the month of June.
What help or assistance (if any) has the wider drinks world offered to you as you grow your company?
To be completely truthful I wouldn’t say we’ve had any ‘help’. Everything we’ve achieved is off the back of relentless resilience and hard work. We’re in some great on-trade venues such as ‘Stonegate’, ‘Laine’, ‘Red Engine’ and ‘Brunning and Price’ who have been incredible supporters and we’re extremely grateful to them for that. Harvey Nichols were the first major retailer to stock us and you’ll often find us in stores doing tastings. The bar staff teams have also been great, serving up various Stonewall Gin Cocktails.
Do you think there are many brands contributing to supporting the LGBTQIA+ community in the drinks industry?
There are a handful of brands that are working year-round to support LGBTQIA and a few I want to recognise such as ‘Luv Jus’ and ‘PROUD beer’. Then there are other major brands such as ‘Absolut’ and ‘Barefoot Wine’ who have been supporting the community for years and definitely deserve a mention. I also want to give a nod to ‘Ask For Clive’, a charity who partner with on-trade venues to help promote inclusion and create welcoming and safe environments for the LGBTQ community. What is noticeable, however, is the lack of annual support from brands for the LGBTQ community. Can you think of many? Because I can’t.
Could the drinks industry be doing anything better to support LGBTQIA+?
I think the on-trade need to do a better job at stocking smaller brands like ourselves and really think about what we represent versus just focusing on larger brands because it’s easier. I struggle with the intentions of some on-trade companies who I see promoting LGBTQIA+ over June and splashing the Pride logo everywhere they possibly can, yet when we get in touch about our own brand and values, we seem to be ignored or given a negative response about what we represent. If they are going to wave the rainbow flag for June, why wouldn’t they be looking to support the brands who represent this community all year round and have a much greater impact in raising money for charities. I understand it’s not always as black and white as this and there’s many factors involved with stocking a new brand, but sometimes, we’re not even able to get to that conversation which doesn’t add up for me.
What is your advice to the drinks industry in terms of how they can support the wider LGTBQIA+ community as a whole?
While support for one month during PRIDE is doing some good, representation all year round will have a much larger and authentic impact for the community and not feel like ‘rainbow-washing’. It would also be nice to see the on-trade supporting the smaller brands versus only larger brands they are aware of. Remembering not everyone has the same marketing budget to build awareness, a little bit of research to support LGBTQIA+ holistically would go a long way. Brands and the on-trade could work together to raise funds from an LGBTQ cocktail year-round, for example. I’d urge anyone interested to speak with ‘Ask For Clive’ which helps venues become more inclusive. Also remember to stock brands that represent the local community. I could go on and on here, but I’ve only got so much word count!
What advice do you have for the LGBTQIA+ community wishing to get into the drinks industry?
Be resilient, keep pushing and believe in yourself and what you represent! It’s a bloody hard gig and a cutthroat industry and if you want any advice and help then get in touch – I’m always happy to offer it where I can.