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Meet the Mixologist: Gemma Wakeham of Two Drifters Distillery

Life pivots sometimes happen when we least expect them. Whist on maternity leave from her medical sales role, Gemma Wakeham’s husband Russ was offered a postdoctoral position in Vancouver. With a newborn baby in tow, the couple put their house up for sale, packed their belongings and made the move to Canada. “We spent two and a half years there and eventually decided we wanted to move home to Devon and start our own business. We wanted to make it as sustainable as possible to show the world how it can be done, and use rum to showcase it all!” Now going from medicine to rum may seem like a leap to some, but the Wakeham’s were long-time rum fans by that point and had even gone on a rum tasting on their first date a decade prior.
That initial business idea evolved into what is now Two Drifters Distillery, the world’s first distillery with a carbon negative footprint. They are now able to produce over 1,800 bottles of rum from their bespoke Devon warehouse. Their collection includes a smooth white rum made from 100% fermented molasses, a fuller-flavoured dark rum with natural burnt sugar, an award-winning spiced rum with their signature blend of spices and flavours like star anise, an overproof spiced pineapple rum with salted caramel notes, and their newest Gold rum which has been aged in American oak casks.

Wakeham tells us about the whirlwind ride she’s been on as a new entrepreneur. “It’s relentless! There is no ‘leaving work’ or ‘out of office’. The highs are amazing, and the lows are crushing. The stress is like nothing else, but the pride you feel when someone finally says ‘Oh I’ve heard great things about Two Drifters’ makes it all worthwhile!” The Sybarite chats with Wakeham to learn more about her business tips for success and her idea of the perfect BBQ.

• With your marketing background, you’ve really been able to create a following for your brand. Do you have any tips for standing out in a crowded space?
 
Never stop talking! You don’t always have to be shouting about your product, in fact that can become quite tiresome very quickly and annoy your followers, but just always be talking. The best advice I ever got was to imagine your followers are in the pub all together. Apart from your business, what else are they talking about? Then talk about all of those things! Just be as interesting and engaging as possible, then when you do mention your product or business, people will be interested and know you are genuine about what you say.
 
• Most people don’t think of the UK when they think rum. Do British consumers need a lot of convincing to try something home-grown?
 
Yes! Not necessarily because we’re making a British rum, but I feel British consumers are a bit stuck when it comes to drinking rum. Preconceptions are focussed on rum and coke or an elaborate, time-consuming cocktail. Rum is made from sugar and so versatile. Yes, it is the basis of a lot of great cocktails but also, I love our rums with soda water and a wedge of citrus. We have some new signature serves coming out this summer and they are very easy to make and showcase our rums in a simple way. I’m hoping they will encourage consumers to have a go as they are so delicious and easy.
 
• You were distilling beer for a time as well. Why did you decide to go all-in on rum?
 
It was always going to be rum, but we underestimated the demand for it. So we started out as a big brewery and a small distillery, thinking the beer would pay until the rum was a constant addition. However, within three months of having a lot of beer and a little bit of rum, we couldn’t keep up with the rum sales. So we took the plunge and stopped beer, converted all the equipment into making rum, and since August 2019 we’ve been 100% rum.
 
• Why was it important for you to launch a carbon negative product?
 
Russ has a PhD in Organic Chemistry, and before the distillery he worked in carbon dioxide capture, storage and utilisation. He learnt so many ways to be more sustainable that we couldn’t, in good conscience, start a business and not do as much as possible to remove CO2. We love rum, but not enough to contribute to climate change. The product is a delicious, crafted, genuine rum but the business has a carbon negative footprint.
 
• Did you and Russ have an easy time adapting to your new roles as co-founders?
 
Because we set up the business ourselves—we sold our house to fund it—we didn’t have any money left for employees, so we had to do everything ourselves. We spent 18 months doing every role—sales, marketing, producing, cleaning, accounting, delivering, distilling, brewing, that by the time we could finally bring on some employees, we knew exactly what we were each good at and what we enjoyed. So now we’re able to focus on our strengths and it’s working really well. I also spent 18 months making beer, learning to distil rum, learning how to look after the equipment, delivering to customers, so I’m much better placed to tell the story.

• Are there any misconceptions about rum that you’d like to debunk? 
 
That it only goes in a rum and coke or a heavy cocktail. Good rum is an absolute joy to drink and can be paired with almost anything, have a play!
 
• You’re tasked with hosting a dinner with dishes paired with each of your rums. What are you making and which rum are you drinking it with?
 
Easy – a bright, vibrant, fun summer BBQ in you garden filled with friends and music. The drinks table would be a party station of our rums, mixers, and syrups so people can play pick-and-mix with whatever they fancy. I would also have jugs of our signature cocktails readily available. The recipes will be launched this summer and work perfectly in a glass but also scaled up in a sharing jug. Watch this space!
 
• On an evening out in your neighbourhood, where will we most probably find you drinking and dining?
 
There is a floating restaurant, only accessible by boat, not far from us called River Exe Café and it’s amazing. If you’re lucky enough to catch the weather just right, then enjoying a drink as the sun sets, surrounded by calm waters is magic.

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