Q&A: Dave Steward, Marblehead

This week db talks to Dave Steward, business development director of Marblehead, which distributes spirits brands such as Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka and The Kraken Black Spiced Rum.

How did you get into the drinks trade?

In my early ‘20s, I used to go out in London a lot, and stumbled upon Covent Garden Tequila bar Café Pacifico one night. Seeing the depth of their range got me excited about brands. Pubs at the time were identical and boring, with a limited drinks offering. I started working for a catering company buying in brands for special events, then ran a club in Brighton for a bit and launched Japanese beer Sapporo in the UK. I was fascinated by exotic brands.

What was your big break?

In 1989, after a stint in New York, which was light years ahead of London in terms of spirits brands, I was part of the team to bring Absolut Vodka into the UK. It wasn’t well known in Britain back then, but had been on sale in the US for a decade, becoming famous for its iconic print adverts designed by Andy Warhol shortly before his death.

How is the rum category doing?

Rum is such a hot sector; it’s on fire at the moment and we’re running with it. There’s so much activity in the spiced rum category, with a lot of the standard brands bringing out spiced versions, but we don’t want to get too close to it and embroiled in rum wars  – we’re keen to plough our own furrow. With The Kraken Black Spiced Rum, we’re getting the bourbon drinkers and the Hendrick’s lovers. It’s great for the rum category as a whole to have so much consumer interest.

What trends are you noticing in the spirits world?

A lot of new brands are emerging. Many will fall by the wayside and we’ll be left with the decent ones. It’s great that rum is stealing the spotlight from vodka a bit, which has been grabbing all the headlines for too long. It’s an exciting time for the spirits industry, with a wealth of opportunities for entrepreneurial companies to launch new brands. There’s fruit for everyone now; the door is wide open. It used to be really hard to develop brands in the UK, but things have changed – the UK is ripe for innovation.

How hard it is to sell spirits in the UK?

The UK’s a notoriously hard place to sell spirits, as the bigger brands have the monopoly of the on trade. They’re massively underselling themselves – there are too many deals going on and margins are way too low, which makes it hard for small companies to get a look in. Brands should earn market share on merit not muscle.

Who would you invite to a dinner party, and what would you serve them?

I’d have a Thomas Crown Affair with Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen, and would share a flute of Cristal with Faye and a neat Rye Whiskey with Steve.

Tell me a quirky fact about yourself…

I’m ashamed to say I punched the doorman of the Met Bar back in its heyday when he wouldn’t let me in after my “don’t you know who I am?” line failed miserably. I also used to sleep under my desk a lot during my more debauched clubbing days.

What’s on your iPod?

I’m taking Lindy Hop classes at the moment, so I’ve got a lot of ‘40s big band swing on rotation.

What’s your philosophy?

Older and wider.

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