The Maker - Alex Kammerling of Kamm & Sons
If you haven't had Kamm & Sons yet, you should. In a category of it's own, it's like gin, Campari and a vermouth all in one. Billing itself as the British Aperitif and distilled in London, it was Initially launched in 2011 by founder Alex Kammerling, who has a long history of working in the drinks industry, including being the global ambassador for Grey Goose vodka and stints with Martin Millers gin, Campari and Aperol. Since then, the brand has gone from strength to strength with a loyal following in the UK (and a growing international audience).
We sat down with Alex to speak quite candidly about what it's like being the first of its kind (sort of) and the challenges associated with trying to grow and maintain a unique brand such as Kamm.
Tell us the inspiration for Kamm & Sons and how it all came about.
The inspiration for Kamm came from my love of Campari but I wanted to make something that wasn’t as sweet or as bitter and something along the lines of an English style of gin. Campari can be quite polarising with its intense bitterness and sweetness but that’s why I’ve softened those elements and used a different mix of botanicals. Gin is quintessentially British but its ingredients are not all from the UK, which to me also reflects the melting pot of cultures that is so London. In the same way, our botanicals are sourced from all over the world.
I also wanted to make a healthier spirit so the botanicals we have chosen all have some form of historical medicinal use. I was living in Hong Kong when I first came about ginseng and all the different roots and leaves used in herbal remedies in the Asian culture. Ginseng is at the heart of Kamm but there’s also goji berries, Echinacea, gingko biloba, manuka honey (all of which are commonly found in health shops) and obviously juniper. The exact recipe is a secret (there's 43 botanicals in total in Kamm) and we weigh up the botanicals offsite before we bring them to Thames Distillers who distil it under contract for us. It’s the only product they make that’s not a gin. Not even the guys at Thames know what’s in it – we load the still with the botanicals and they do the rest!
How has Kamm & Sons grown from its inception to it being a family business today?
When my grandfather tried that first batch of Kamm, he said it reminded him of being a child in Vienna and the cough sweets his father made (Alex's great-grandfather had a sweet factory in Vienna). It was serendipity that it turned out that way so it seemed fitting for me to dedicate the brand to my him. The company really is Kamm and Sons - my brother designed the bottle, my cousin did my website and my father is one of the directors. My mother peels the grapefruits for us and my wife does work for me occasionally.
Kamm & Sons is quite a unique product – what have some of the challenges been with marketing it?
At the time I launched it, no one really knew what an aperitif was. So I thought I’d highlight the ginseng used in the spirit (Kamm & Sons was originally called a ginseng spirit when it was launched). My initial theory with that was, I’m using ginseng so let’s talk about it being a ginseng spirit but again, no one knew what it was or what it tasted like so people were kind of put off by it. They’d go, it sounds interesting, it looks interesting but I don’t know what it is so let’s have a gin and tonic instead.
So I changed course and thought we’d focus on the occasion and how you drink it – that was when we rebranded it as the British Aperitif and as soon as we changed it; that was when things started to pick up. Aperol started increasing its promotional activities as did Campari, and lots more vermouth were being launched which promoted awareness of the category in itself. Certainly, when we first started, I had to focus on educating bartenders about the aperitif, its different styles, the history of alcohol in medicine before I could introduce Kamm itself.
Dom Benedictine and Chartreuse are two of the oldest brands that started as medicine and given the medicinal qualities of some of our botanicals, I also started marketing the health aspects of Kamm & Sons. But people can’t get their minds off the idea that alcohol in moderation can be healthy and improve your life expectancy. It seems to be too much to accept. People would say, “what do you mean, it’s good for you?” and I would have to say that I didn’t say it’s good for you. It’s better for you if you’re going to drink. It’s less in alcoholic strength than other spirits (e.g. gin or vodka) and it’s got healthier botanicals. We also don’t have any artificial ingredients - our colouring comes from annatto instead of E colours that are found in other aperitif brands like Campari and Aperol.
The problem is where does moderation end and excess begin but then again, alcohol is no different to say medicine – my analogy is that everyone knows that if you take a whole packet of aspirin in one go, you’ll be ill and might even die.
What about Kamm in cocktails? How would you suggest someone who's not had it use it?
It’s really versatile in terms of cocktail mixing. The stronger ABV on it (as opposed to something like vermouth) means it is designed to be a base spirit. I find it also goes well with tequila, pisco, spirits like that. Not gin as obviously Kamm has a lot of juniper already.
Our signature cocktail is the Brit Spritz, which is a riff on the Aperol Spritz – I think Kamm makes for a better spritz because ours has a bit more of a kick and flavour from the botanicals whereas Aperol is lighter and sweeter. It was one of the guys who was working for me who actually suggested we build on the spritz as a base - he tried using some elderflower in his version and we worked on it from there. It's a great number - it's got a catchy name and gives you that element of Britishness with a lift from the sparkling wine/champagne. I’m looking to do a bottled version of it too because it’s been so popular.
One of my personal favourites is the Grosvenor cocktail, which mixes Kamm & Sons with Punt e Mes and Laphroaig then stirred down like a Martinez - you could say that was what inspired me to do the barrel aged Kamm.
In the colder months, Kamm goes well in a hot cocktail too – something with ginger and apple is nice. Or for a bit of punch, it goes well in a riff on a daiquiri with Wray and Nephew OP Rum, Kamm, lime and sugar to taste. It’s really easy to make and easy to drink; you really could use Kamm in so many different variations of the classic cocktail.
What's next for Kamm & Sons? Your own distillery? (Currently Kamm is distilled under contract with Thames Distillers)
We would like to have our own distillery but it’s a big investment and it’s not that important at this stage. When you look at it, (aperitif) brands like Campari and Aperol don’t have their own standalone distillery either and it certainly isn’t a key thing that people look for when they’re choosing an aperitif or vermouth – it hasn’t been an issue for us.
Innovation wise, we’ve released a barrel aged Islay cask Kamm & Sons – it was a limited run and only available in the UK but we may see about doing another. It’s been aged in Laphroaig barrels for 3 months and is 43% ABV (the original Kamm is a 33% ABV). For us, doing something like this (a limited batch) is an easier way to engage with the top end of the industry without sponsoring cocktail competitions (which can be a costly exercise for a smaller brand like us) or diluting the brand with a lot of line extensions but it still keeps it interesting and exciting for me.
What do you think is the next big thing in the drinks world?
Well, there’s been a lot of talk about vermouth and lighter style spritzers but who knows, you can’t really pick it. Of course, I'll be gunning for Kamm & Sons to be the next big thing! We’ve gained momentum but we’ve still got a lot of work to do. We’re in our own category in a way and it's been slow going because we have had to first build awareness of the category and then the brand, unlike gin. But in a way, I am pleased we’re not a gin. Of course with gin, if you get it right, there’s so many more possibilities and so much more opportunities. But everyone’s got the same idea, and it’s harder in its own way to cut through. Someone like Sipsmiths were the first out of the gate, and they did it at the right time and got it right so they’re leading by leaps and bounds. Everyone else is fighting for that tiny space on the menu, being the house pour gin, the same press. There’s still a lot of consumers coming into gin but there’s also consumers who are thinking alright, I’m over it now, what’s the next thing?
How do you see Kamm growing?
Our growth will never be revolutionary. Well, not unless (David) Beckham leaves Haig Club (a whisky brand) and decides he prefers Kamm so offers to do free promotional work for us – we’ll need something like that to see any overnight seismic shift. But it’ll grow slowly and the rate of growth will increase as we go. To push a massive rock, you need everyone you can to get it moving but you don’t need as many to keep it going and eventually it may roll itself but you still have to keep the momentum going consistently after.
The challenge for us to is keep the momentum going. The product doesn’t sell itself; if you’re not there talking about it or people aren’t talking about it, people forget about it. So that's the challenge for us - keeping Kamm in the forefront of people's minds. And that can be expensive so we have to be creative about how we do it. We used to have a PR company manage our PR but it simply got too expensive for a smaller brand like us.
Looking back at the last 5 years and all the lessons you've learnt, would you still have jumped into this? What would you be doing otherwise?
If I wasn't doing this, I’d probably be working on a brand in the industry. But I have no regrets. There may have been certain things I would have done slightly differently but ignorance is bliss sometimes and anything worth doing will always be difficult. The first few years especially are hard graft and you don't see any money because you're battling against the big companies who have bigger budgets. It's a hard market to get into unless you have the contacts and even with my experience and contacts in the industry, it was hard yards. I met a lady the other day who was looking to launch her own vermouth and my advice to her was not to do it unless you're prepared to give up your weekends and life to the brand.
Having said that, I now have my own brand and I work for myself. And you can't beat the satisfaction I get when people tweet about the brand, or write about it. Sometimes when I've been behind the bar and people come up and name call Kamm or ask specifically for a Brit Spritz like it’s a classic, I have to take a step back and go, whoa, I built this brand. This was me.
One of the big companies might turn around one day and say we like what you're doing and want to buy it. I'd be silly not to consider it - their distribution network alone is much bigger and they'd get Kamm to places we just couldn't afford to - we’re very much focussed on the UK market at the moment and the way we’ve been finding new markets have been through word of mouth (rather than me cold calling potential distributors). I’ve had people who know Kamm approach us and want to distribute us, which is great because it means they already know the product. Outside of the UK, I’d say Australia is one of our biggest markets. Maybe it’s got the climate for drinking something like our product. I would love for Kamm to be at every back bar in bars around the world but for now, I'm chuffed with the work we've done.