The Distillers’ City Debate 2022

On Tuesday 17th May at Vintners’ Hall, an audience of 120 people attended the 10th City Debate organised by the Worshipful Company of Distillers, and after a two-year hiatus due to covid, were treated to a lively debate addressing the topic: “This House believes that the consumption trends of today’s younger generations will have significant impact on the future shape of the spirits industry”.

The Debate Panel

The debate was ably chaired by Trevor Sterling, who explained that there would be a pre-debate vote on the opinion of the audience, and this showed 73% in favour of the motion, with 27% disagreeing.

Paul Mathew opened the debate, proposing the motion. Paul owns several high-profile bars in London, and also launched his own brand of 0% alcohol aperitifs under the ‘Everleaf’ brand – his key message was “ignore change at your peril”, concluding with the example of the dairy milk industry, with its many alternatives which are now in demand, and readily available.

Tom Warner, founder of Warner Edwards Distillery, then opposed the motion – giving many examples of how the spirits industry was grabbing “the rampant opportunity presented by changing trends”, and his animated speech was built around the firm belief that human nature is driven by the desire to get together, and it is the ‘ritual’ which is important, although the products consumed may change.

Sanjeet Aujla, Beverages Analyst at Credit Suisse, seconding the proposal, homing in on ‘Generation Z’, and the current trends of younger generations living their lives through social media, with the obsession of looking and feeling good, which was one of the key drivers of the growth in lo- and no-alcohol beverages. He quoted that “Gen Z spends 40% less on alcohol than millennials” and questioned whether the spirits industry is able to compete successfully with beer.

Finally, and seconding the opposition, Claire Warner – co-founder of the Æcorn Brand – pointed out that the drinks industry is one of the most creative and innovative industries and yet many have missed the glaring opportunity to use their talents to add greater breadth to the drinks industry. It took an outsider, someone without distilling or drinks knowledge (Ben Branson), to show the industry what they were missing. She commented “imagine how much creative power is sitting in this room!”

There followed a lively Q&A session, facilitated by Trevor, which asked the panellists to comment on many issues, including: “what happens when Gen Z ‘comes of age’ and has more disposable income?” and “shouldn’t the spirits industry be targeting the over 40s, who already have more disposable income?”. The final point – on which all panellists agreed – was that there was a significant risk of misleading (and losing) consumers if poor quality beverage products (alcoholic and 0% alcohol) are allowed to proliferate the market.

The Chairman closed the debate by asking for a show of hands to see whether the speakers had managed to sway opinion, and this showed the ‘team Warner’ had indeed done so, with 48% in favour of the motion and 52% voting AGAINST the motion.

Concluding the formal proceedings, the Master of the Worshipful Company of Distillers – Chris Porter – thanked the Chairman, the speakers and the organisers for a highly successful Debate, and invited everyone to join him for a drink, with products kindly supplied by the speakers. For the first time in the history of the Distillers’ Debate, two-thirds of the drinks served contained no alcohol.

Ian Harris