John Coe

17 Apr. 2019
The wholesaler who helped change London's bar scene

From Juan Valls to Rhys Oldfield, all the judges of the Havana Club Bar Entrepreneur Awards own or have owned bars or run events for bartenders. John Coe, the last judge we’re profiling on Bar News, is different. Although he likes a drink — « I enjoy a cocktail before a meal and I love my ale », he told us — and knows a great deal about the business, he didn’t make a career shaking cocktails, although he certainly did shake the industry.

Until three years ago, John owned Coe Vintners, the family business he turned into the UK’s largest independent wholesaler of wine and spirits. Now 64 and « virtually retired », he has seen the industry boom — and helped it along in a defining manner. « I was around when every bar and restaurant had one gin, one vodka and two or three whiskies and that was it. Cocktails were something you’d find in America, unless it was a gin & tonic », he told us. « When I took over from my father we had three kinds of gin. By the time I sold the business, it was more like 50. We were at the cutting edge of all of that. We evolved from being a very boring London wholesaler and supplier, providing nightclubs with gallon bottles of gin and vodka to actually extending our range to 3000 products. »

The transformation of the spirit landscape in the UK would probably have happened with or without John and Coe Vintners — after all, it has happened in most western countries. If he came to play such an essential part in the process, it’s because he spotted an opportunity when International Distillers & Vintners (today’s Diageo), then a neighbour, asked him to help them out with dropping samples of new products — those where the heady days of Bailey’s and Malibu — at influential bars. « I thought: I can do that. I can become the exclusive agent for brands. That’s what inspired me ». Since at the time the London bar scene was waking up from its torpor, there was interest for new products. « Because I was an independent wholesaler at the time, when the London bars started to require things other than the bog standard spirits to try and have a point of difference, they would ask me to get it for them because they were not available in the UK. I got myself a reputation: if you want something that’s unavailable, John Coe can get it. »

On this journey, he was helped along by one of his employees: a young Simon Difford. « He was passionate about the idea of spirits and cocktails and I supported him through the journey of making that happen ». Of course, as John is quick to point out, he didn’t get involved just because of Simon’s passion… « I wasn’t doing that to help people make better cocktails: if it’s not available and you can get hold of it, there’s a good profit in it. » Still, on the way, it helped turn bars in the UK into more interesting places. And today, we are faced with an embarrassment of riches — which also has an impact on wholesalers who now « have to be more selective ».

Although Coe Vintners has now been sold, John remains very much involved with the industry. For example, with Mangrove, a spirit marketing company, handling a wide range of premium brands. « We put some value behind new and interesting quirky spirits », he told us. He has also companies specialising in supplying embassies, both in London and in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. To us, the most interesting of his current ventures is the back office service his team offers from the old business premises of Coe Vintners. « We’ve discovered that there are a whole lot of innovative distillers and brand owners out there who have all the concept and ability to create new spirits but don’t have the back office or the scale to afford a full back office to do the job for them. For a fee they can get all of that.  We do the boring bits so they can just get on with the job of sales and marketing », he told us. « If I had a brand of spirit right now that’s trying to sell to all the customers I know so well from the past, I’d have to hire and I’d have to take an office, get softwares and all those things that make it difficult to get started. We do the things they can’t afford. » 

Although he is less involved with the running of the business, it helps him stay in touch with the industry and its changes. At a time when many go into hysterics because people drink less, John sees great opportunity for « expensive and higher quality » spirits. « Everybody is striving to find some perfection. It seems to me that people’s pockets are deeper and deeper if they believe they’re getting something special ». Music to the ears of all the bar entrepreneurs who strive to make something special day after day.

Photo source: harpers.co.uk