Interviews

Drink Mary - Eric Sampers

Meet one of the pioneering "Lo & No" producers

After years working with the biggest brands in the world and, arguably, at the height of his corporate career, Sampers decided to do what most only ever dream of - walk away and start afresh.

Today, as one of the early adopters in the new wave of producers in the low or no alcohol space, he is pursuing his own dream with an idea he believes to be truly spectacular.

His brand, Mary, is a refreshing low alcohol botanical blend that's fast seeding a place for itself on back bars on home shelves alike. We caught up to get the inside track...

You’ve been working in the drinks industry for a long time but when did you first have the idea to launch Mary and what prompted you to start?

I co-founded Illogical Drinks in 2019 when I left my 16 years job in a big booze industry player. We were fascinated by the emergence of the No & Low Alcohol drinks category and felt that no one was really giving a serious go at “Low Alcohol spirits”, it was all about alcohol free. That’s when Mary was born.

Did you have a specific flavour profile and idea in mind right from the start, or did that evolve through research and flavour trials?

We clearly knew what we wanted the liquid to do, how it should “behave” and how it would be consumed. That led us to write a brief with hints as to what the flavour and aroma profile could be, but it also left some creative leeway to the people who helped us with the recipe. 

I re read that brief recently and it’s actually impressive how Mary delivers on what we had requested. 

You were formerly in a senior role at Pernod Ricard, what is it like to be out of the corporate family and to be the tiny upstart brand competing for space?

It’s incredible, like night and day in many aspects. There’s definitely a huge sense of freedom and that anything is possible (because it depends on us) that is very gratifying and motivating. On the flip side we work with much less financial muscle and more uncertainty. 

On top of that we have chosen a new category and a different approach within that category but it’s very exciting.

How do you make Drink Mary and given that previously you were more on the marketing side of brand life - what was it like for you to be a part of that side of product development?

I absolutely love that part of my new job. I was always interested in the production process and close to the “makers”. I am still a good friend of Desmond Payne, the Beefeater Master Distiller with whom I worked previously (and he loves Mary which is probably my most significant personal achievement to date). 

The thing is: The world of Spirits is very traditional in the sense that the techniques have not fundamentally changed in hundreds of years and have become extremely glamorized – rightly so, I must say. In Low & No the techniques are being invented as the category emerges and the processes are often quite different (alcohol and stills do not play a central role, there are no master distillers etc.). There is a lot of creativity, DIY, alchemy, engineering… It’s fascinating and very fresh. It does not look as glamorous because it’s very new. It starts in kitchens, tiny labs, with budget and rudimentary equipment but always with quality in mind. 

The No & Low category is in a state of huge growth with many drinkers discovering it for the first time over the past year. There’s a big range of offerings out there, mixed quality and extreme price variances too. Let’s tackle some of these…

What do you think the category has done well so far?

It has answered a categoric no to the fundamental question many adults unconsciously ask themselves: “Do I have to drink alcohol in every social moment of my life to belong to these moments?”

What do you think the biggest challenges facing the no and low category are right now?

I think we need to convince consumers that quality and flavour, not alcohol content, are worth paying for. There’s this idea that a product that does not contain alcohol is worth less because there’s more “water” and it’s completely missing the point. Alcohol is super cheap to produce, taxes are expensive. 

Quality ingredients and how to obtain them are expensive, crafting a good liquid is expensive, bottling small batches is expensive. Another key aspect is to get the trade behind the category, more and more. Many drinkers are looking for, or are interested by Low & No alcohol options, healthier adult drinks, functional drinks… But for some reasons these are hard to find in areas of the trade which would systematically compare them to full strength alcoholic beverages. I appreciate that people in the trade are the guardians of certain traditions and products, but the trade also exists to give all people what they want and are looking for.

Where do you think it’s heading – are we going to see dozens of new releases of the coming months and a promiscuous style of shopper interchanging brands (much like the gin category), or are you seeing drinkers more static in that they find what they like and stick with it?

I think we are still only scratching the surface of what Low & No might become (the name is silly by the way). We are discovering a new form of flexibility in the adult drinking space. Before you had to choose between booze, sugary soft drinks, fruit juice and water. Low & No are adding many new options: From products that mimic existing spirits and beers to completely new beasts. Think about the spirits shelf of your local liquor store or the menu of your favourite bar. How many alcoholic options are on offer? 

What would be the right amount of exciting and delicious “Low & No” options? In my opinion a lot more than the 5 or so brands that you will find there if you are lucky. Many dozens more. 

You deliberately chose not to make Drink Mary a 0% ABV product. Why?

We deliberately chose to make a great liquid which would deliver everything you expect from an adult drinking experience without any of the negative side effects and we though alcohol could play an interesting role without being the centre piece. Because alcohol has interesting properties that have made it so successful: It carries and intensify flavours, it’s a purifier, it’s very stable. 

Without any alcohol there are some serious limitations to what you can do, and an excessive amount of alcohol takes its toll on consumers. We wanted to use alcohol just as an ingredient and strike the right balance.

What’s the biggest obstacle you face as a small brand owner, especially in regard to becoming more established on shelves?

We are part of an emerging category (low & no alcohol spirits) and we are taking a different approach in that category because we believe flexible lifestyles are eventually what people are looking for when drinking. 

The danger is to be seen as niche within the niche by traditional players of the industry, but we know we are at the start of something very exciting, we just need to find the partners who share that view because our existing consumers are loving Mary and they grow by the day.

Conversely, what’s the best bit about being at this phase of the journey?

I get to do a bit of everything, my days are never boring, it’s massively exciting and refreshing. Plus I work for something I have created with my partners.

Lastly, what’s your favourite way to enjoy it over the warmer months?

Mary, tonic, ice. Incredibly refreshing and light on the body, with a rewarding taste profile. It beats a cold beer on a very warm day. Sometimes I add a bit of Kombucha to get that little extra bite along with the herbal taste.

Spirits Kiosk
Mary Low Alcohol Botanical Blend
Mary Low Alcohol Botanical Blend
70cl6%GB
£23.95

4 May 2021