Martin Miller has been hatching moneymaking schemes ever since he can remember. His early business ventures as a schoolboy included hamster breeding and a magazine for local teenagers. The ambitious youngster’s first small-scale money-earning success came with a mail-order dating book called Success with the Fairer Sex. He was 14; his work was an etiquette guide that taught readers to remember to wash their hands, open car doors and the like. It sold 50-100 copies a week for two years.
After the success of the dating guide, Miller struck out to make a fortune through antique buyer’s guides. 120 separate titles later, Miller sold for £2 million in 1994. Meanwhile, Miller had also been investing in scores of properties across England and a string of successful boutique hotels, including Miller’s Residence in Notting Hill, London. In 1999, he struck gold in the gin business with his eponymous Martin Miller’s Gin, capitalizing at a time when vodka was king. His brand’s been a leading name in gin ever since. We caught up with him on bucking industry trends, chess and what he’s working on next.
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Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. Never give up.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. Launching Martin Miller’s Gin in 1999. Back then we were the only super premium gin. We were certainly bucking the trend. Everybody thought we were mad launching a gin. I can’t tell you the number of doors slammed in our faces. It was all about vodka back then. I’m telling you, we couldn’t give gin away. Believe me, I tried it. We stood out on the corner of a street in New York looking for people to recruit for a market research group and couldn’t get a single taker. My, how things have changed since then. As I say, “never give up!”
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. 15th Anniversary edition, and before you ask we won’t be giving that away. Well, actually we might be; but only to good friends of the brand.
“You don’t have to marry every girl you meet.”
Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
A. My traveling chess set.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: I have an English art school background and my great influences come from that period. The most influence? Pablo Picasso. What I love about him was his restless need to keep re-inventing himself. As soon as he felt he had attained mastery of a technique or style he would abandon it and take up another new to him. He believed it was more productive to be in a constant cycle of attaining virtuosity rather than exploiting it. I would love to believe I live that way, but it’s a hard ask.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. An Iain Banks novel, Stonemouth. I love his books, full of dark humor. I also admire him as a man too, because he lives as he writes. Tragically he has been diagnosed with cancer, but typically he asked his live-in lover of ten years or so if she would “do him the honor of becoming his widow”. There you have it: style and humor in the face of extreme adversity.
Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
A. I don’t know either. That I’m quite a good chess player, but now that I’ve said that it’s screwed my opportunities to hustle friends and family.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. We talking lunch or dinner? If lunch, a cold Martin Miller’s and tonic to wash down some baby calamari, deep fried. Dinner? Maybe a nice bottle of Petrus and something totally over the top like Tournedos Rossini, very ‘70s, very me, I guess.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
A. You don’t have to marry every girl you meet.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. I think best forgotten. I hope the gin stays around for a while though.
Q. You’ve been involved with a lot of businesses over the years. Why did you get into gin?
A. Well there was a date back in the early ‘90s, I think around 1992, when the biggest drinks business in the world made clear its attitude to my favorite tipple by reducing the strength of its main brand from 40% down to 37.5%. That got me thinking: if the big boys are piling out of gin in favor of vodka, then maybe it’s time for me to do something with gin. That’s been our strategy ever since. When they zig, we zag. So you could even say the genesis of Martin Miller’s gin dates back to then, although we didn’t get product to market until 1998. But that still makes us the leaders of the so called “Gin Renaissance”.
“That got me thinking: if the big boys are piling out of gin in favor of vodka, then maybe it’s time for me to do something with gin. When they zig, we zag.”
Q. What differentiates Martin Miller’s from other gins and spirits today?
A. Icelandic water, in a nut shell. Although the distillation is important and in our case very complex, more so than any other gin, it is the fact that we ship the distillate to Iceland to have it cut to strength with Icelandic spring water that puts my gin in a different league. The water is the softest, purest water on earth, less than 30 parts per million of dissolved solids. It’s as close to naturally occurring H2O as you can get without “killing” it by de-mineralization. No one else in the world does this, and it’s what gives my gin its unique softness on the nose and softness in the mouth, without the usual alcohol burn you get with most spirits.
Q. Has anything surprised you about the spirits biz?
A. Lack of originality. I have never seen so many overloaded bandwagons. For example, we made a cucumber vodka first in Iceland in 1996, and then added it as a “drying” ingredient to Martin Miller’s in 1997. It’s taken them a long time, but everyone seems to have “discovered” cucumber now. It’s everywhere.
Q. How do you prefer to drink Martin Miller’s?
A. Gin and Tonic in the summer and Martinis in the winter.
Q. What do you like to drink when you’re not drinking gin?
A. Red wine almost exclusively.
Q. What’s your cheers of choice?
A. “Bottom’s Up!”