Bob Rothman has sampled gins all over the world. The Tampa private equity investor, a minority owner of the Washington Football Team, got into the spirit during his extensive world travels and was amazed at the variety of small-batch gins across Europe.
“You always kind of think in the back of your mind, Someday, I’ll be more involved in it,” he said.
Susan Martinez, a retired Tampa bank executive, didn’t think of gin the same way.
“I’m more of a wine snob,” she said.
But at the enthusiastic urging of her son Daniel and longtime friend Rothman, she started to get sold on it. And so it was that in the year of the coronavirus pandemic, the investor, the banker and her entrepreneurial son threw their lot into the craft gin game.
The three have partnered up to be the U.S. importer for Bristol, U.K. distiller 6 O’Clock Gin, which has already found a home behind bars at Tampa restaurants like Bern’s Steak House, Meat Market and 717 South.
“It’s hard to get people excited about banking these days,” Rothman said, “but they seem to get excited about artisan gin.”
It wasn’t always this way. Gin has been around for centuries, but to some it remains an acquired taste, its juniper-forward astringency finding more of a home in cocktails like the Negroni, Tom Collins or the good ol' G&T.
But after bourbon and craft beer got their moments, gin is getting one, too. Demand in recent years has surged in both the United Kingdom and United States, with small-batch distilleries opening across America. In the past decade, more than a half-dozen distilleries producing gin have opened in the Tampa Bay area alone.
"It’s this whole boom that you’re seeing in the U.S. that happened abroad already a decade ago in the U.K.,” Daniel Martinez said. “The U.S. seems to be catching up.”
A market is there. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, take-home alcohol sales have shot up year-over-year, according to the research firm Nielsen, with gin right up there with tequila among the most popular pandemic spirits this spring.
Gin is also a player in another booming market: The ready-to-drink cocktail. Just like hard seltzers before them, canned cocktails are exploding in popularity, according to Nielsen, which is why 6 O’Clock aims to launch a canned gin and tonic in 2021.
“The initial feedback I’m getting from hotels, retailers, distributors is really positive,” Daniel Martinez said. “We’re not trying to compete against White Claw and Truly, but in terms of the spirit RTD (ready-to-drink) category, there’s not anything like it in the market.”
Follow trends affecting the local economy
Subscribe to our free Business by the Bay newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
As such, Rothman sees “expansion possibilities,” he said. “A lot of these small craft facilities don’t have any access to capital. We think we’re sitting in a little bit of a unique position where we can provide more growth capital, should those opportunities present themselves.”
They toyed with the idea of investing in an American distillery; Daniel Martinez spent two years touring facilities in Florida, the United States and Europe. 6 O’Clock, he and Rothman agreed, was the winner. It’s a classic London Dry that drinks “exceptionally smooth,” Rothman said, with hints of citrus and elderflower alongside the juniper.
“What we noticed in the U.S. is that distilleries have different products,” Daniel Martinez said. “They’re not gin-specific or vodka-specific or rum-specific. They make a bunch of different things and they don’t specialize."
6 O’Clock “didn’t dabble with whiskeys or other products," he said. "They were really good at making gin: ‘We want to be a gin distillery, not a distillery that tries to brand eight different products.’”
Daniel Martinez said the partners have invested a “substantial” amount in 6 O’Clock, including office space in a Tampa high-rise and a storage facility in New Jersey. The gin has made its way into local liquor stores like Bern’s Fine Wine and Spirits and Luekens Wine and Spirits, and the company plans to expand.
“We are very committed to seeing 6 O’Clock Gin becoming very successful in the United States and understand what that will take financially,” he said.
Launching during a pandemic has created setbacks, especially as they try to get their brand on cocktail menus at local restaurants, all of which have been limited during the pandemic.
“As these places start to rewrite their cocktail menus, going into the holiday season, we’re going to be appearing on a lot more,” Daniel Martinez said. “That’s the whole strategy.”
If that happens, and 6 O’Clock becomes as common on local menus as Beefeater or Tanqueray, Susie Martinez might just trade in her wine stem.
“I am probably going to learn how to drink gin," she said. “How about that?”