The Feed talks with Diana Miller about Ecology + Co and creating space for a new premium product and how concocting tasty alcohol-free spirits morphed into a successful drinks business
Navigating the roller coaster of the first lockdown many of us Kiwis got into the habit of drinking more alcohol than usual. As subsequent lockdowns rolled around a significant number of us also decided we needed to take it a bit easier and started looking for novel, non-alcoholic alternatives.
Alcohol-free spirits makers Diana and Will Miller were ready to help, with their signature distilled gin-like drinks, London Dry and Asian Spice. A few years earlier Diana had also gone looking for alcoholic-free alternatives after developing an inability to process alcohol.“After I had my daughter I just found if I drank more than a glass of alcohol it would help me get to sleep, but then I’d be lying awake in the middle of the night. And apparently, I’m one of those people who are impossible to live with if they don’t get enough sleep!” she laughs.
Diana soon found herself short on alcohol-free alternatives. “I wanted something with the smell and taste of a sophisticated drink, that had an adult experience with it. Not just a glass of orange juice or a sweet kid’s drink.”
New Zealand is different from many countries in allowing home alcohol distilleries, as in most countries people are only permitted to brew beer or make wine at home. Diana had previously had bought Will a small still and after completing a course on Waiheke Island in 2017, he’d been making gin as a hobby distiller.
As Diana was casting about for something to drink, Will switched to making an alcohol-free gin using traditional botanicals. The drink was an instant hit with friends and family.
Describing herself as a serial entrepreneur, Diana felt confident there must be lots of others out there who’d enjoy an alcohol, sugar and calorie-free alternative. Will continued to develop the distilling craft and in 2019 they decided to test the market, taking some drinks and marked-up cups to a Go Green Expo, held annually in Auckland. This year it’s on in November 12-13, at the North Shore Events Centre.
“We’d made various blends, including some more gin-like blends and trying different plants and botanicals. We set up a table with drinks for people to taste, giving them the option of putting it on put it in boxes marked ‘Hell yes’ or ‘Hey no’.
It was two days of intense marketing, but by the end of it Diana knew by the number of cups in the yes box, they had the flavours of two market-fit products. That and the impressive fact that they’d also taken in a few thousand dollars on the expo stand, simply from people handing over money saying that, if and, when the product was made commercially they wanted some.
Will travelled to Scotland to attend another distillers’ course and in Oct 2018 he and Diana started making their drinks for sale, launching Ecology + Co.
Diana says she can absolutely recommend a trial like this as a great way to get instant feedback. “It was like a Kickstarter before Kickstarter. You can waste a ton of money quietly making a product and bringing it to market only to discover no one wants it”.
These days the premium, zero-alcohol spirits are distilled in small batches at Ecology + Co’s North Shore distillery in Auckland, and both Diana and Will work fulltime on the business.
The distilling method is a time consuming and labour intensive process, but Will and Diana believe the extra effort and attention delivers a superior taste. “Will goes into work at 5am in the morning to turn the stills on. He can work all day just to produce the cardamon and that’s just one spice of many”, says Diana. “We’re not shortcutting by buying flavours”.
The couple are still grappling with the challenges and opportunities faced by small business during the disruptions of the past few years. “During the first Lockdown everyone hit the booze big time”, agrees Diana. “By the second lockdown we realised we had a whole new audience, as a huge number of people came onboard.”
The influx of new customers were very welcome, as along with the rest of New Zealand’s hospitality industry Diana and Will had overnight lost 100 percent of their hospitality-related business. “It was really tough”, Diana says. “We suddenly had to really up our game with the business-to-consumer market. But it was good for us in the long run being forced to get better with direct sales and social media.
Diana says she and Will have been on a massive learning curve as to how to market themselves, including first educating potential customers to create space in the market for a premium product. As the hospitality sector slowly rebuilds, one of the challenges of being so dependent on social media is investing so much into platforms you don’t own or have any control over.
The various challenges of running their own business has also fuelled the couple’s passion for giving others a leg up. Through the social enterprise Kiva, they’re making a difference in the lives of women in developing countries, and have so far helped 362 women with their small businesses through Kiva’s microfinance loans, healthcare support, business advice and more.
Despite the challenges of growing a small business, and the complexity of a their product’s production, Will and Diana believe that the purity of the distillation process also matters at a time when consumers are increasingly concerned about what they are putting into their bodies. Lifestyle medicine educators Prekure are just one of the health agencies Diana has worked with. Ecology + Co’s regular newsletter also has a loyal following, and anyone wanting support on their sober journey can sign up for daily emails with tips, advice and encouragement.
Diana remains confident they’re tapping into a large market of consumers, given the wider trends of falling alcohol consumption. “I still enjoy a gin and tonic occasionally, but don’t always want to drink alcohol and it’s this freedom and ability to choose that people enjoy”, she says.