Food and Drink Revolution: Demijohn
"Angus talks calmly and slowly, and you can hear the pride in his voice as he outlines the background behind Demijohn’s success"
As you first step into Demijohn on Little Clarendon Street, you’d be forgiven for not knowing exactly what the shop does
“Some people think we sell bath oils”, manager Darren Anderson tells me as I’m cheerfully greeted on a damp Monday morning, surrounded by apothecaric glassware full of colourful liquids. But whilst the majority of their products are certainly fragrant, it’d be an awful waste to pour them into bathwater, as the potions that line the shelves in Demijohn are far too delicious to be kept in a bathroom cupboard. From damson gin liqueur to white truffle oil via gooseberry vinegar and elderberry wine, each bottle contains a product sourced by the owners and produced by tiny brewers, distillers and farms across the continent. So how do you end up running such an eclectically stocked and locally focused shop?
“I had one of those 'eureka' moments” explains founder Angus Ferguson. Angus talks calmly and slowly, and you can hear the pride in his voice as he outlines the background behind Demijohn’s success. “Back when I was a student in Southern Italy, I partied quite a lot, and we used to get all of our wine from a cantina and I'd go along with a big drum and they'd scoop it in from a big vat. It was a cracking idea, a little seed stuck in my head, and I thought ‘I wonder whether you could do that in Britain?’". Angus is talking to me from Maison Blanc in Winchester, and gives the impression that good food and drink make him extremely happy indeed. “After the Italy experience I'd fallen in love with olive oil, and I thought it would be amazing to have rows and rows of different types of oil and vinegar, and do the bottling for those things. But there was one particular dinner party in early 2004 where I met a wonderful couple, Robin and Derry Ford, who were retired PE teachers, and they brought along a bottle of this bramble Scotch whisky liqueur made using local fruits and whisky. They were actually making it in their bath at the time, and it was wonderfully quirky but utterly delicious and a very, very clever drink. That became our founding drink, actually, because we suddenly thought "hang on a minute", if we can make that...”
Happy coincidences seem to be a recurring feature of the Demijohn story. Each of their products has a story of a chance meeting that has ended up with another flavoursome elixir gracing the shelves in Demijohn’s four stores, located in Edinburgh, Glasgow and York and Oxford. In fact, the chance meeting Angus described earlier ended up being the catalyst which led to the store’s first decision to stock liqueurs and alcohols alongside fine oil and vinegar. In his quest to find the best products the country has to offer, it seems that Angus has discovered more than he bargained for.
“It’s led us to discover what I describe as the underworld of British production” he continues, “which is, if you can imagine, an amazing group of quirky, passionate, British producers, and they range from PE teachers to farmers' wives, ex-bankers, hospital pharmacists... There's a whole crowd of folk out there having a go. You have to remember this was 11 years ago, and what we said was that this was the start of a food and drink revolution. We were absolutely right, and we were very lucky to be right at the start of it.”
I ask Angus whether the increasing popularity of the internet at the time also played a part in Demijohn’s success, and his response is characteristically insightful.
“There were a couple of revolutions going on. There was the food and drink revolution then there was the ecommerce revolution, both of which we were at the start of, which I think really helped us. Essentially we started with just 20 lines in Edinburgh 11 years ago. The R&D department has always been our kitchen table at home, so between Frances and I we’d think up wild and crazy ideas for new products and then really commission the pieces, like a work of art, to those who have a skill in making them. We have about 16 small producers, and we almost work like a cooperative where our success is their success and vice versa.”
It’s certainly paying off. During the short time I spent in the Oxford branch, I was lucky enough to taste a wide array of liqueurs and spirits (I’ve had worse Monday mornings). As someone who usually finds liqueurs too sweet and syrupy, I can confirm beyond doubt that Demijohn’s selection is far from ordinary. Robin and Derry Ford’s bramble whisky liqueur is rich, warm and complex, a perfect autumn sipping drink that would work perfectly with cheese. The ‘Demijohnnie’ gin is bright and uncharacteristically smooth for its 50% alcohol content, and my personal favourite, the Seville Orange Gin, has a zesty astringency and marmalade smoothness that I can’t wait to try in a G&T. Whilst I’m certainly a convert, it seems that it’s not just those local to the four stores that have become fans of the “liquid deli”, as Demijohn’s unique attitude to small-scale produce and early adoption of internet shopping has led to orders being sent all over the world.
“Our online shop has been an extraordinary portal to allow small amounts of a good thing to be sent anywhere. I love that orders come in from America going to people who live in France, but they may have met us in Oxford. I mean, this morning a lady walks in, she was from San Francisco. She was in Oxford visiting family who live close by, and she said that when she goes home her main mission is to place an order online to send to some other friends who she thought would appreciate what we do. Isn't that amazing? That is the world today, I think.” And as I leave the store to return to the OX office, my head full of recipes and new cocktail ideas, I can’t help but agree.
Want to see and taste Demijohn’s products for yourself (and why wouldn’t you)? Pop into their store at 20 Little Clarendon Street, or visit their website.
- Jack Rayner