J&B expansion teaches spirits a lesson

“Spirits can learn a lot from fine wine,” believes Sarah Miles, as the new managing director of Diageo Wines Europe outlined her growth plans for fine wine merchant Justerini & Brooks.

Justerini & Brooks’ St James’s office in London

Despite the dramatic growth experienced by luxury spirits such as Johnnie Walker whisky, which fell under Mile’s former remit as UK managing director of Diageo Reserve Brands, she emphasised the strength of the fine wine trade in building close relationships with its customers.

“If you look at J&B, the way it understands its private clients and their needs, the importance of exemplary service – sometimes spirits can learn in that area,” Miles told the drinks business.

Even in areas such as product development and marketing, where the spirits industry can often be seen as the more dynamic sector, Miles revealed that the £100,000 Diamond Jubilee decanters of whisky released by Johnnie Walker earlier this year had seen the brand “work very closely with our J&B team”.

Having lived in India and travelled extensively across South East Asia, Miles also highlighted the “emotional connection” with wine she found within many of these markets. “Spirits do well, but often the real love people have is for wine,” she remarked.

Promising significant investment across the J&B business, which has already seen the internal promotion of a number of key figures, Miles outlined a priority focus on “private clients, Asia, marketing ‘with a soft M’, and operations.” This push forward will be aided by a recruitment drive to support the existing team.

“In the last three years at J&B we have been phenomenally profitable,” she emphasised. “What we’re hoping to do now is to kick on.” Having formally launched its Hong Kong office, which began trading late last year, Miles confirmed: “It’s going really well and we will continue to invest there.”

However, in addition to this pursuit of “absolute growth in the UK, absolute growth in Asia,” Miles pointed to opportunities in other markets, “whether the Americas, BRICM or other small pockets of South East Asia.”

Including the US within these ambitions for J&B, she said of the market: “We have some strong private clients but it hasn’t been a traditional stronghold for us.”

Within the UK, Miles confirmed an on-trade strategy “focused on the top end of HoReCa.” Although acknowledging this would mean “primarily London”, she added: “Our Scotland office is going from strength to strength.”

While highlighting the current J&B list’s strength as “very deep but also broad with different price points and some fantastic drinking wines,” Miles emphasised: “We will not be in the business of building operations on the scale of Matthew Clark.”

For the moment, Miles said that there were no plans to open a shop for J&B, but she did admit this idea was “something we will review.” Although the company used to have a shop in Edinburgh, Miles insisted: “We still have a very strong relationship with our clients and I don’t know that we need people to be able to walk in off the street as long as we maintain that personal connection.”

Turning to the Percy Fox side of the Diageo Wines Europe business, whose brand portfolio includes Blossom Hill, Santa Carolina, Arniston Bay and Champagne Pommery, Miles confirmed: “We will continue to support our main brands in the UK and explore international opportunities.”

However, Miles acknowledged that, when it comes to big wine brands, “The UK is a profitable place but it’s a tougher market than it once was.”  Nevertheless, she described Blossom Hill as “a phenomenal wine and a phenomenal brand,” adding: “there are opportunities to take that success to other markets.”

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