THE NICHOLSON LIONS
Truly historic brands never gather dust. They don’t have time. To survive, they must be energetic, relentlessly inventive and evolve constantly. But to thrive, they need something more: courage and vision – which is just what entrepreneurs Alex and Steve brought to Nicholson.
You needn’t believe in fate or happenstance to agree that Steve Goldman and Alex Johns were destined to be the custodians Nicholson. The two entrepreneurs, who met in 2018, quickly found they shared substantial common ground – most significantly, the desire to find a business challenge that was 1) anything but ordinary and 2) that needed them and their expertise.
“We were introduced to the Nicholson family through a friend of a friend,” explains Steve. “And we quickly realised what an incredible business it was. There can only be one first in gin – and Nicholson is it: it’s older than all the other distillers founded around that time. And even back then, the Nicholson family were pioneers in what they were doing.”
The brand’s unmatched heritage, combined with the current thirst for gin in the global market, meant Nicholson was an exciting prospect. “Around 90% of gin brands that are sold in the UK are less than 10 years old,” says Steve. “So with Nicholson being 285 years old, it gives an opportunity to tell stories about the brand that no one else can.”
The pair were also drawn to the scale of the challenge. Nicholson was emerging from a difficult period in its history – the family had recently bought it back from a drinks industry behemoth and it was struggling to reclaim the limelight. “When we took it on, I felt like a brand guardian with an absolute sense of purpose to put Nicholson back on the map,” says Alex. “It’s a truly Great British Brand which deserves its place in a modern drinker’s repertoire.”
A revolutionary approach
Doing things differently has been Steve’s modus operandi throughout his career. Working first in the wine trade, then financeand latterly in recruitment, he’s injected radical thinking into each of these ultra-traditional business areas. “Working in a slightly revolutionary way, and at speed, has very much been my way of operating,” he says. This, it turns out, is just what Nicholson needed.
Steve and Alex were determined to bring a fresh, fearless approach to Nicholson. “We’re making it an online-only proposition,” says Steve. “This is new ground in the spirits industry. But, while we are Nicholson’s custodians, you’ll never see it in the supermarket. Nicholson will be exclusively available online. It'll be in some of the most high-end, beautiful hotels in the world. It'll be sold in all the best bars and restaurants. But you won’t see it in the shops.”
This bold strategy requires strong nerves – and even stronger digital credentials. This is where Alex’s rock-solid digital marketing background comes into its own. “I’d spent 30 years in advertising – often creating stories for brands,” he says. Before working in brand consultancy, Alex cemented his reputation in the industry pioneering technology that redefined digital advertising.
“Nicholson, though, is something different,” says Alex. “It is characterised by this deep authenticity. It has so much history that no one has yet brought to life. We’ll be telling its stories in all possible avenues.”
Reinventing the aesthetic
Part of Alex and Steve’s bold approach was to redesign Nicholson’s packaging, putting to one side the historic red and yellow colour scheme in favour of a distinctive, modern aesthetic. “It was a big decision and a difficult one,” says Steve. “But we wanted a label that was a nod to the past but also to the future. We’re a London brand, we're associated with the River Thames. We’ve been around for centuries, but we’re looking to the future.
”The new design incorporates Nicholson’s unique heritage, using an original map of London from 1736 for the label. The silhouette of the river Thames wends its way across the front of the bottle. Standing proud above it, is the Nicholson Lion – the original mark of quality for gin. “It’s old meets new, striking, memorable and contemporary,” says Alex.
Reaching a new audience
Nicholson has long been associated with cricket. In its deep past, the brand supported Lords cricket ground, and even lent the famous MCC cricket club its traditional “egg and bacon” colours. It would have been natural, then, for Alex and Steve to explore Nicholson’s relationship with the sport further. But these two don’t take the obvious route.
“We are both huge cricket fans,” says Alex. “In fact, I once hoped I would follow in my uncle, grandfather and great uncle’s footsteps to play for England. But we felt that there was an audience for us out there beyond cricket.” So, Alex and Steve set their sights on a different kind of turf: the racetrack. “Horse racing has a brilliant, convivial atmosphere which is well-suited to Nicholson hospitality,” says Alex.
“We’re very fortunate to have developed a strong relationship with Goodwood,” he explains. “Lord March has built something really special down in West Sussex. It’s a go-getting event, with a great heritage. A perfect fit for us. And the perfect place to enjoy sport, Gin & Tonic in hand.”
It was through a combination of these twin sporting passions, cricket and racing, that Steve and Alex met television presenter Oli Bell. Oli, who cut his teeth in broadcasting in the racing world, now fronts a variety of sports. As soon as they met, Steve and Alex felt Oli was a natural choice as a Nicholson brand ambassador: they announced the partnership this winter. “Oli’s two great loves are cricket and horse racing. It was a match made in heaven,” says Alex. “He’s a lovely bloke. He’s a do-er. He’s energetic, hard-working and he loves our brand.”
Oli will be helping spread the word about Nicholson this year – trackside and beyond. But Steve and Alex have conceived another way that people can discover the gin: Nicholson Houses.
Like micro private members’ clubs – unique and perfectly curated – Nicholson Houses will be opening their doors at exclusive locations across the country. Combining immaculately made drinks, effortless service and stylish surroundings, each House offers a world-class Nicholson experience.
Putting Nicholson back on the map
Steve and Alex’s deep-held respect for Nicholson’s heritage, total conviction in the quality of the gin and tigerish pride in the brand are infectious. Their plans for the future of Nicholson are ambitious, yes – but they also fit with the relentless innovation that has characterised its past.
“We know we’ll have been successful with Nicholson when it’s well known around the world,” Steve says. “We want everyone to have the chance to enjoy this incredible spirit.” There’s little doubt that these bold, visionary entrepreneurs are the team to put it back on the map.
Meet Nicholson ambassador Oli Bell