Jane and Neil Woodhead on Speakeasy’s approach to creating licensed alcohol-infused ice cream

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes catches up with the team at Speakeasy, delving into the ice cream firm’s collaborations with brands like Ableforth’s Rumbullion and Lazzaroni’s Limoncello.

Hi guys. First off, can you give us some background to Speakeasy Ice Creams?
Speakeasy was formed in late 2016, specifically to bring luxury ice cream with real alcohol to the market.

Alcohol in desserts is a long-standing classic: poached pears, tiramisu, sherry trifle, rum baba, Christmas pudding and so on… But with ice cream, the closest you could find was a rum and raisin. Even with this, it was the raisins soaked in rum, rather than the alcohol itself being used to create the flavour.

We saw this as a gap in a market, where luxury ice creams were seeing continued growth and consumers were seeking more innovative flavour profiles. Our aim was to create a new subcategory within ice cream.

The ice cream category is dominated by big brands and so to win your space in the freezer you must offer something truly unique that exceeds consumers expectations.

How do you go about infusing ice cream with alcohol? Is it tricky retaining both the distinct flavours of both the alcohol and the ice cream?
The first thing to mention is that the formulation of ice cream recipes is as much a scientific process as it is creative. Recipes are derived from formulas and algorithms to ensure the required texture, mouthfeel, taste and shelf-life are all achieved.

The addition of alcohol into ice cream has well documented downsides – including issues with meltdown rates, quality and shelf-life. Our challenge was to find a way to overcome these issues, achieve a strong flavour profile and produce a commercially viable product.

“The formulation of ice cream recipes is as much a scientific process as it is creative.”

This can create challenges with larger drinks brands who have commoditised their liquids for the food sector. The culinary alcohols or flavourings they produce for use under a license simply do not work in ice cream. Without direct access to their technical teams, we cannot access the specific information we need to make the recipe work.

Quite a hurdle to overcome!
Yes, it was obvious to us that the only way we were going to overcome this challenge would be to work closely with a selection of drinks companies. These close technical collaborations and a truly science-based approach has led to our co-branded, licenced products echoing the distinctive flavour and character of our partners’ drinks.

What can you tell us about this science-based approach?
We can’t share our exact process with you, as that’s our trade secret, but we have created a ‘blueprint’ formulation for alcohol-infused ice cream that we adjust for each new spirit or liqueur. This is a unique and innovative way to address those challenges through licencing.

Jane Woodhead, Neil Woodhead, Speakeasy, Ian Downes

How do you go about choosing which alcohol brands and flavours to collaborate with?
Flavour, flavour, flavour! We get approached regularly by brands that believe their drink will be amazing in an ice cream – but that’s not always the case. Sometimes the flavour cannot cut through the dairy, or it simply doesn’t taste very nice. It has to taste amazing for us to bring it to market.

We therefore started by looking at classic alcohol flavours for desserts and then searched for the rising independent producers on the market. They need to be open to work with us, have strong brand positioning themselves, and be able to meet the volumes of production as our brand scales. And importantly, they must share our values and reputation when it comes to quality.

Great stuff. Can you talk us through some of the brand collaborations you’ve launched so far?
Our first flavour was Spiced Rum, using Ableforth’s Rumbullion! Rum is something consumers recognise as a good flavour profile for ice cream, so a strong starting point to entice them to the brand and concept.

When we approached the brand owner, Atom Brands, to explore a partnership, they were incredibly receptive. A brand license was granted along with direct access to their master distiller. We have since also created a Cherry Brandy ice cream with Ableforth’s; a favourite for many at Christmas.

Jane Woodhead, Neil Woodhead, Speakeasy, Ian Downes

We then looked at more classic spirits associated with desserts: coffee liqueur, amaretto and limoncello. Again, the aim being authentic and familiar flavour profiles for consumers to recognise. We approached Conker Spirits to work with us with their Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur and we took almost two years working alongside the iconic Italian brand Lazzaroni to create our Amaretto and Limoncello ice creams; navigating language and geographic barriers along the way!

As opposed to cocktails, we use a single alcohol as the centrepiece of each flavour. We believe this is a key differentiator, and establishes us as a luxury, premium ice cream, using quality spirits and liqueurs with a strong provenance. This is essential in building customer trust and loyalty.

Jane Woodhead, Neil Woodhead, Speakeasy, Ian Downes

From a design point of view your brand and packaging is very distinctive. How did you develop it?
We had 3 key objectives:

• Must highlight our USP of alcohol; hence the name Speakeasy and the Blind Tiger symbol to reference prohibition
• Must be co-branded to showcase the provenance of our partners drinks
• Must evoke luxury and indulgence to reflect our quality and premium price point.

Approximately 60% of the pot echoes the branding on our partners’ bottles to provide two-way brand recognition. Some consumers will discover our partners’ brands and flavour profiles through our ice cream and our packaging will play its part in them recognising their drinks in the spirit aisles. Obviously, our partners are required to sign off the packaging design as part of the development process.

Jane Woodhead, Neil Woodhead, Speakeasy, Ian Downes

While we did engage with a packaging design specialist, we already had a large part of the design concept such as brand name, colours and symbols in mind. The result was a distinctive design, which highlights our quality and evokes a degree of decadence – with a nod to the prohibition era of the speakeasy bars.

I believe your product has just launched in Morrisons. Can you tell us how this came about?
In September 2018, we applied to the Morrisons Local Foodmaker programme and were offered a place at the St Albans Local Foodmaker Fair. This process gathers brands and Morrisons customers together to sample new products. They obtain ratings from the customers on quality, packaging and taste, along with an expected price point. The day also provides the brands with a Meet the Buyer session.

We received some of the highest scores ever obtained by a brand at this event and a year later, in November 2019, our Limoncello and Amaretto ice creams were listed in a new high-profile store in London’s Canning Town.

We ran regular sampling sessions to engage trial from the customers and our consistent high performing sales were grabbing the attention of the Morrisons team. A successful listing on this scheme would normally be gradually expanded from a handful of stores to maybe 10 in the same area, then a regional listing and then – subject to performance – inclusion in the range review and a national listing.

“We get approached regularly by brands that believe their drink will be amazing in an ice cream – but that’s not always the case”

With the pandemic, the local teams were understandably redeployed and our planned expansion in March 2020 to a regional listing paused. In July 2021, we relaunched in Canning Town and were asked to participate in the upcoming Range Review. As a result of this, we gained a national listing and, this week, launched our Amaretto and Limoncello ice creams in 188 stores across the UK and Morrisons online.

We have been supported by both the Local Foodmaker Team and the buying teams throughout this process; all keen to help us be successful.

Great news. Congratulations. What do you think it is that consumers like about your range?
We have run numerous samplings at customer events and the overwhelming response is: “Oh my! That’s incredible, I wasn’t expecting it to be so good!’ We focus on quality – we are a premium product with premium drinks as our flavours. It’s critical to us that the customer is blown away by our ice cream.

It’s also a unique, but at the same time familiar, flavour pairing. We regularly hear: ‘I can’t believe this hasn’t been done before’. Customers start talking excitedly about what they will pair each flavour with. It’s a versatile product and is exceptional on its own from the tub, but it can really elevate a simple dessert to something special without the need to be an experienced cook.

What combos would you suggest?
Amaretto Ice Cream with an espresso gives you an affogato, Spiced Rum with apple crumble is delicious! Pair our Limoncello with berries and meringue and you have an Italian version of Eton mess. Each a contemporary twist on a classic!

The ice cream market seems to be a dynamic one with lots going on it. How easy is it to stand out?
This sector is dominated by two major players. Most innovation from new brands has been on format or health and free-from. Our mission was to become known for luxury alcohol ice cream. Having a clear message and a unique proposition always helps capture attention.

Ice cream is seen as a seasonal sector, but we have managed to flatten that seasonality somewhat with strong sales at Christmas, matching those of the traditional summer peak.

“Approximately 60% of the pot echoes the branding on our partners’ bottles to provide two-way brand recognition.”

With regards to keeping up to date on trends, everything is about building network, reading reports and visiting trade shows. We take time at shows to explore what’s new and see the response it’s getting. It’s easy to forget that trends can spring from anywhere, take the sector by surprise, and disappear again just as quickly.

True innovation, quality and authenticity is what we look for in NPD in the market.

Do you have any new flavours or products in development that you can tell us about?
We are in early-stage discussions with a global drinks brand at the moment. This is something we hope to be able to bring to market, and potentially will create some innovation in their existing licencing approach and model. We’re under NDA I’m afraid, so can’t share anymore at this stage.

No worries! We’ll keep our eyes peeled. Finally, we can’t let you go without finding out your top childhood ice cream and lollie picks?
Neil: For me, it’s a Mr Whippy 99 bought – very – regularly from a van and a strawberry Mivvi… Of course it has the ice cream!

Jane: Ice Cream cut thickly from a block by my grandmother and placed between two wafers to create a sandwich and a Fab ice lolly – they just looked so indulgent to the Seventies me, with all those hundreds and thousands on the top.

Great picks. Thanks guys, and good luck with the Morrisons roll-out.

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