The Lowenstein brothers have only been at St Andrews for one semester, yet their “First Kiss” video has already caused quite a stir. Both have a keen interest in marketing and entrepreneurship as seen in their latest venture: The St Andrews Gin Society. Over a requisite Gin and Tonic, Toby (21) and Jonah (18) Lowenstein converse about their most recent operational hiccup: having to cancel an expensive ice luge that they never even ordered. Their swift response which was comprised of tight legalese — a lawyer was consulted — successfully epitomises the professional approach the pair exhort. Both are fiercely enthusiastic and driven to fulfil their own vision, not dissimilar from the Blackberry-wielding generation of a decade ago. “It’s a Family thing”, commented Toby. Jonah then interposed with the story of their grandfather and his brother, a business duo who ran a multinational business from a single office under a sign on the wall, written in German and translating as “Do it Yourself”.
I asked them briefly to explain why gin has captured the zeitgeist. “Toby knows all about this,” Jonah jokes. Toby explained how, in 1751, a law was established in the height of the gin craze, restricting retail licences to large distilleries. The government essentially created a monopoly as no small start-up or home distillery could produce enough gin in a single still. Sipsmith, their partners for the “Maiden Event”, planned to open with a 300-litre still, so small that HMRC classed it as moonshine. However, after years of lobbying they were granted a licence in 2009 for the first new copper-pot-based distillery in London in over 180 years, a change in precedent that has resulted in the opening of 70 new distilleries between 2009 and 2014. The “gin-naissance” had begun. The brothers see gin as a “youth drink,” with Toby commenting that “people are ordering G&Ts as much as they’re ordering pints and shots.”
Marketing for the “Maiden Event” has been a polished affair with interest building up around the rich green colour palette they use for each announcement. Jonah explained that they aim to “give people an experience which is the world of the brand. We have tailored a marketing campaign to ask: Are you in? Are you with us?”. “Everybody loves detail,” added Toby. I asked the pair if creating their successful, yet contentious, “First Kiss” video was a challenge. Jonah responded: “A lot of work went into it. 16 people took part, 50 people were asked, four dropped out on the day.” They pitched it as “artistic” with a focus on “the emotion of the moment.”
According to Jonah, they had varying reactions: “that it was hilarious, weird, that it made me feel sick, feel in love. We wanted a reaction.”
However, at the same time, more personal criticisms about the pair came to light. Jonah stated, “Someone will always disagree with you.” At the time of publication, the video has 36,886 views. No shortage of “hype” was developed as seen in the quick sell-out of all 200 tickets on the night of release. “If you believe in something enough, others will get behind it as well.” The pair also detailed their intention to produce more videos for each future occasion. Whether the “Maiden Event” will fulfil expectations, already set high by the marketing, is another matter.
Many people have questioned the semantics of the Gin Society. Toby was not afraid of stating that they’re “essentially a business, not a society.” Jonah notes that a friend told him that he “has never sat down and not tried to sell [her] something.” Jonah censures other St Andrews events as overpriced: “We don’t think people get what they pay for. You buy an £80 ticket and get a bit of pork on a plate.” Toby added, “[You’re] paying to be with your friends in a room in black tie.” Instead, they want to get people appreciating gin. Jonah said, “We thought that the best way to make everyone excited was to make every event an experience, an immersive one.” From here their business model becomes clear. For Toby, he “can’t think of a more thematically versatile drink.” According to Jonah, “We’ll be different every time. We’re an immersive events company where gin is the constant.” Though brands such as Gordon’s and Tanqueray have an austere feel, Toby was quick to note how gin is a fun, adaptable drink. The brothers also stress their aim to eliminate exclusivity. There was a rush to get tickets yet Jonah sees this as out of “passion and interest.” “If you wanted to get tickets, you could have got them in time,” he said. Instead, Toby saw the main challenge being to make it inclusive when there is already “a base of fans” for events. This is something they believe that they have succeeded in by restricting its size, allowing it to be a non-essential part of the events calendar.
Before we had even begun talking, Jonah was quick to slide me a business card. One side was adorned with a golden symmetrical art deco pattern with the title of their next event, the reverse detailing when the table ballot opened. Clearly the parts are in motion for their next endeavour. The final part of their model is the Gin Bar: “We want to give people an even better experience for events we’re not running, hence the Gin Bar: Don’t Walk, Octoberfest, Polo. We like their brands.” When asked about the future they made it clear that they are focusing on the “short term goal of four events.” Jonah notes that they did not want to go too quickly: “You’re only as good as your last event.” Toby compared their aim to Matthew McConaughey’s speech at the 86th Oscars, where he states that his hero is always himself in 10 years’ time, a goal to chase while being content that you’re not there yet.
The brothers are particularly independent, both co-managing directors within the small committee of eight members. While they appreciate other influences, Jonah made it clear that “the worst thing, we think, is to get someone else to fill out your vision.” They insist on only bringing in people who can do a better job of a task than themselves; hence, Luke Arghiros’ job as Director of Photography for the video, Ewan Harvey’s photography and film work, as well as Harry Carden in the role of Finance Director. “If we think we can do better, we’ll just do it ourselves.” The pair worked tirelessly over the holiday—“not one day off”— making prospectuses, cards, and a host of other tasks. For the video itself the crew rented lights which required a £100 deposit. According to Toby they “didn’t even have the money.” It is clear that they have fully invested themselves into the project; “A lot gin consumption goes into the running of a gin society.”
Though a challenge, entrepreneurship appears to come naturally to the pair. However, such a brotherly collaboration was a long time going. While they have never worked together before, they appear to be perpetually engaged in parallel yet similar endeavours. Jonah had success in 2017, winning the HSBC Young Enterprise UK Company of the Year award, while Toby worked on a similar project at the same time. According to Jonah, it was only a year and a half ago when they realised how similar they were. Both have to be working on a project and Toby made it clear that gin was not necessarily the frontrunning option: “Champagne is bigger, more scalable; but it has an image already, we want to make something new.” Ultimately, gin became the versatile medium whereby something could be created. They both fell in love with the idea of producing something new. Jonah proudly pointed out, “Four weeks before selling those 200 tickets, Gin Society didn’t exist. We made something that people got behind. I couldn’t be more excited.”
Jonah and Toby have developed a reputation for joint enterprises. Ou est le Poulet, the hugely popular hide-and-seek-cum-bar-crawl, flourished. They also host regular rugby-watching parties for the autumn internationals and, more recently, the Six Nations. They share the belief that if you want something to happen, just do it yourself. However, when I suggested that a brotherly brand was emerging, they were quick to dispel the notion that it was their prime intention. “We’re not defined by the project,” said Jonah. Toby responded, “It was never in mind about us, we just have to be doing something.”
The biggest test for the St Andrews Gin Society will be the “Maiden Event” on 7 February. The media machine has been in motion, yet it is impossible to see whether the other elements will successfully coalesce. However, from the drive and enthusiasm both demonstrate, it is clear that a lot of effort has been dedicated to their work.