In this chapter of Start-Up Stories, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Sherwin Acebuche, Co-Founder & Head of Sales at Tarsier Spirits. He tells all about the world of entrepreneurship, inspiration and the story of Tarsier…
What’s the story of Tarsier Spirit?
I was born in the Philippines which happens to be the biggest gin market in the world. On a trip back home in December 2014 with my future business partner, we realised that the local citrus fruit, Calamansi, would be an
amazing botanical to use in gin, and nobody was using it that way. As part of the trip, we went backpacking around Southeast Asia, visiting Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, where we discovered more exciting ingredients that could work really well in a gin. The common factor in all of these cuisines is that they take highly flavoursome ingredients
and combine them using simple techniques to create harmoniously balanced dishes that are greater than the sum of their parts. The idea behind Tarsier is to take these same cooking ingredients, distill them using simple distillation techniques and create well-balanced spirits that are as exciting and moreish as the food we ate on our travels. It’s also about the journey of discovery for three friends that have started their own business, and staying true to Southeast Asian culture by doing everything ourselves; from designing the label to developing and distilling the liquid and opening our own distillery. Just like our backpacking adventure, we have done everything to create and bottle the experience for you. And now, we are starting another chapter of this adventure by releasing the Tarsier into the wild.
Where did the interesting name come from?
A Tarsier is a small primate from the Philippines, it’s about the size of your palm. It is nocturnal, like us at the minute! It embodies our brand because we’re a small batch gin versus the big apes of the spirits industry. It’s got big eyes, we’ve got big flavours and personality!
Do you think you’ll be stocked alongside the ‘chimps and apes’ of the spirits industry?
We want to build a brand that will last long after we are gone. For us, this is a long game. I understand that there are a lot of so-called gins and contract gins out there cashing in on the trend. But yeah,
“We want to stand next to the big brands like Tanqueray and Johnnie Walker, who doesn’t? To leave a legacy and know that your creation which started from humble beginnings and is then loved by people globally is something we dream of.”
I know it takes a long time to do that, but for us, it’s about the bartending community and the consumers taking this little monkey into their hearts. We poured our heart and soul into this product and hopefully that will come through with the liquid.
When did you decide you wanted to start a business?
There’s always been entrepreneurial blood in my family. From textile traders, rice farmers from my mother’s side to pig roasters from my biological father’s side. You see massive businesses like Diageo which have a portfolio of great brands. If you trace back the heritage of these brands, they started small owning a grocery store and blending whiskeys like Johnnie Walker. I also worked for Funkin. Alex Carlton who founded Funkin in 1999 sold purees around London and it’s grown into this brand that people know and love. He is such a charismatic bloke and his energy is so infectious. Seeing how he built Funkin from the ground up, made me think that I can do that too.
Do you think you took inspiration from him?
Pretty much, when I was working there I was still part of his family. I was inspired by the passion of each team member for the brand, the family culture that they fostered and the way they celebrated small successes. It felt like everyone mattered no matter what role you did.
So, you’ve always had that entrepreneurial mindset?
Yes, I think being in business you have to be. You have to knock on doors, you have to win businesses for your company. I thought ‘why am I doing that for someone else when I could be doing that for myself’.
If you weren’t working on Tarsier what would you be doing?
Travelling! If I didn’t have a house and a mortgage I’d definitely be travelling. The great thing about travelling is meeting different people and being put in different situations. It tests your resilience and how you cope with a new environment. Taking in the culture, the food, experiencing life, to be honest. That’s what I’d do if I wasn’t doing this. I’d go to South America next because I also love rum, tequila, and mezcal.
What do you love most about your job?
The fact that I’m doing this for me. No matter how tired you are, you always think ‘right I’m doing this for my future’. Tarsier Spirt is a celebration of everything that’s good and that includes relationships.
“The ultimate aim for us is to build a company that looks after the people we love.”
The great thing about doing my job is seeing people’s reactions when they’re trying it for the first time because we’ve been so involved in the process for over 3 years now, we sometimes can’t believe it’s out there and that people actually like it and that it’s taken on a life of its own. For people to experience our liquid for the first time, savouring it and loving it we know we’ve done the right thing and you can’t put a price on that.
What made you decide on such specific flavours?
It took 49 attempts! It’s all to do with experimentation. You may have an idea of what the gin should taste like and what you want in it. But when you put it into practical terms and distill, it doesn’t always turn out the way you thought it would. Take lemongrass for example; it has an amazing aroma that is fresh, floral and citrusy. But when you distill it, it tastes really artificial, like sherbet lemon sweets! It was finding the right botanicals that would work together, I think experimentation is the only way you can find out what works. Like most things in life, if you keep doing the same thing you’ll just get the same results.
You mentioned earlier about being inspired by Alex Carlton, in the future what kind of company culture do you want to create. Do you want to be the person people are inspired by?
It is always a great feeling when people take inspiration from you and looking back at some of the managers I’ve had, I can count some who are great motivators and great leaders. I feel I’ve taken that from them and passed it on to people I’ve managed.
“I want to create an open and honest culture with people who have great ideas and want to bring those ideas to the table, so we can discuss them, not shut them down.”
I want them to be entrepreneurial, I want them to think outside the box. I know those are clichés but they are true! We want to be a company that celebrates success. It gets to a point, I’ve seen it before when you have a company that’s doing really well and know how they value people and they celebrate the successes of each individual. It makes that environment very inspiring. It makes people want to do more than you’re asking them to do. For me that’s important. If we become big I want to foster that. Also, I don’t want to have any favouritism, I’ve seen it happen. Because it belittles some people’s contribution. Yes, we’re human being we could have a stronger connection to one person than the other. But you don’t bring that into a professional environment.
The team you’re working with at the moment, are they close friends?
Yes! There are three of us, we’re all friends. We met each other about ten years ago. They’re very meticulous so great at distilling and all the production side of the business where a small difference can lead to inconsistency. I have been in the industry for about 13 years so I have built up a list of contacts and experience within the trade so it is a great mix of skills and capabilities.
What does it take to build a business from the ground up?
To build a successful business you need knowledge of the industry! You need to have the right contacts, passion, belief, attitude and a vision for your brand and where you want to take that brand. You need money and financial support but that can be easily obtained if you put the work in on the business planning side. We got our financing from the government-backed start-up loans company through Virgin Startup. You need to research your market and know the opportunity. You need support from your friends and family as you can’t always be there for their birthdays and other occasions. Days are up and down as no matter how great your product is and no matter how nice you are to people, there are haters out there. You need people who will be behind you and encourage you to keep going. You need a great idea and a clear vision, but you need the determination to see that through. Because it’s great to have a good idea but you have to be committed and put in as much hard work as possible to launch it. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s amazing how many people are out there to support you and vice versa but never doubt your product if you believe in it. Times will be challenging but you need to focus on what you want as you will get there if you work hard for it. Robinson’s Brewery has been behind us from the very start. They loved the brand and the liquid and they’ve been an amazing supporter of Tarsier. So always be good to people, it is not hard, and the universe will reward you back with the same kindness you have shown.
Has feedback been a big thing for you?
Definitely! It allows us to respond to what people want. In this industry,
“You need to be able to take feedback on board without losing your essence as a brand.”
It also allows us to know if we are heading in the right direction in terms of development and how we evolve in this ever-changing industry.
Where can people find it?
It’s in 200 venues across the UK. We have listings in Robinsons Brewery pubs, Burning Night Group who owns Bierkellers, The Potting Shed and the Firepit, Sukothai so mainly on-trade. We are not available in big retailers. We are really happy with the level of distribution we have achieved in just four months. There are still many listings that we are waiting confirmation for as it takes time for these to filter down to an outlet level.
Will you be doing any variations?
Yes! You have to respond to the trends within the category. It doesn’t mean that we do a Parma Violet gin or a Bubble Gum gin. It’s the new alcopop. Gin is having its Icarus moment and we don’t want to contribute to its downfall. We want to enliven the category and do it the Southeast Asian way. We are currently developing a Siam edition with jackfruit and also bringing out a Malay one hopefully. But these things take time. We want to make sure that they are right before releasing them rather than just cashing in on the trend.
What are your big plans for the next year or so?
Next year we want to move into new premises to give us the space to expand our production. Export is a big thing, people tend to look at the UK and Spain, but they forget that Germany is also a big market. We love Berlin and want to go there all the time! Southeast Asia too. The reason for that is there’s a lot of investment there and a lot of people drink there. There’s rapid growth in young working age people who are earning a little bit more and want higher quality experiences in both fashion and drinks. In the next two or three years, we want to bring in new people to spread the Tarsier love around the world. We want to release the Tarsier into the wild! We also want to put money in to the conservation of the Tarsier and I’ve already contacted the Philippine Tarsier Foundation. My dream is to have a Tarsier HQ in Southeast Asia where we can build bartending and hospitality programmes for disadvantaged kids. Although it’s going through an explosion of investment there’s still a lot of poverty. There’s still a massive gap between the poor and the rich, the people with disadvantaged backgrounds need the skills and education. They do not want handouts because that just keeps them in poverty, they want access. Access to jobs and opportunities. My hope is that by providing them the skills, they can be on their way to apply for jobs in cruise ships, hotels, restaurants and bars. Big plans but hopefully we’ll get there. Yes, this is a business, but it’s a business that will have a purpose.
Tarsier are destined for greatness, we can’t wait to see the next gorgeous spirits they make! Be sure to check out their website here