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Top 50 Drinks Wholesalers

Published:  10 July, 2019

Once again Harpers brings you its annual list of the UK’s leading drinks wholesalers.

To be a successful supplier to today’s highly professional, quality-driven yet time-pressed on-trade is a demanding task – which is where Harpers’ Top 50 Wholesalers list steps up, looking to identify and celebrate the best in the business.

For this year, however, we’ve made some changes to the judging criteria, looking at the more holistic picture rather than focusing too heavily on turnover, shape and size. Aspects such as company ethos, investment, services offered, evolution of portfolio, added value, sustainability and ethical considerations now all play a part in the mix.

This, in turn, means the largest and smallest operators, specialists and generalists alike, are considered on a more level playing field, with their strengths and USPs sitting side by side.

Our judges performed an incredible task, carefully considering each Top 50 hopeful on its merits, across a wide range of factors that the judging criteria had set down (see below).

The result is a list that shines the spotlight on 50 of the very best drinks wholesalers in the UK, each of which firmly deserves its place as one of the most go-ahead, innovative, successful and popular operators in this influential market.

A big congratulations from the Harpers team to all who made the cut this year.

1. Boutinot

Billing itself as a “people business” that sells with passion the wines of those that make them, Boutinot has grown from early French specialist to a globally-focused agent and importer, complete with a growing hands-on approach to winemaking through partnerships in South Africa, Italy, France and England. Our judges praised not just the quality and interest to be found across the 1,600-strong portfolio, but also the quality of the relationship and service that Boutinot, under the directorship of Dennis Whiteley, looks to build with its customers in the UK and beyond. The hands-on Made by Boutinot winemaking projects, showing just how committed this company is to going beyond being just an agent and distributor, helped seal its position at No.1.

2. Liberty Wines

Narrowly pipped at the post for top position, Liberty continues to ride high, with praise for its 2,000-strong premium on-trade pitched portfolio, but also the service and personal touch that David Gleave MW and team continue to deliver to restaurants and bars in London and around the UK.

Liberty’s core strengths of Italy and Australia remain as varied and exciting as ever, sitting alongside a range that has continued to grow, with recent additions from Uruguay, Israel, India and China, along with a serious strengthening of the French portfolio, showing a company that constantly evolves with the times. Liberty also scored highly on its sustainability and staff welfare credentials.

David Gleave MW, managing director, Liberty Wines

3. Red Squirrel Wines

Founder Nik Darlington’s self-evidently named import business punches well above its weight in terms of reputation and respect garnered for what remains a niche – but growing – specialist in native and alternative grapes from lesser-known and emerging regions.

From Red Squirrel’s first two listings of Ligurian wines, Darlington’s team now presides over a portfolio from some 50 producers, selling into the independent-minded quarters of the on-and off-trades, seeking out equally intrepid customers to partner.

Innovation plays a big part at Red Squirrel, too, with sustainability to the fore, most notably with a growing range of quality keg wine, with half a dozen producers now available on tap, accounting for 20% of business, while investment in a new app is offering exciting new training and education possibilities.

NB: As we closed on this list Red Squirrel Wines and equally passionate and quality-driven The Knotted Vine announced a merger to form the The Graft Wine Company. 

Nik Darlington, managing director, Red Squirrel Wines

4. Speciality Drinks

From Japanese whiskies to rare aged rums, Speciality Drinks delivers a spirits portfolio of such diverse range and reach – including exclusive bottlings and niche finds – that it is without peer in the UK.

Breadth of offer, though, such as the market-leading 4,000 whiskies, is only part of the tale. Under the direction of head buyer Dawn Davies MW, who has been busy developing a new approach to classifying rum as part of a wider commitment to education and training, the company continues to build a reputation for impartial advice on how to best grow premium sales.

This same approach also delivered 25% year-on-year growth against the uncertainties of the on-trade outlook, with customer service, as our judges concurred, being second to none.

The Speciality Drinks team 

5. HT Drinks

As the largest independent drinks wholesaler in the UK, heavily invested in the latest technological systems and ecommerce solutions, with new depots in Brighton and Blackpool adding to its reach, HT Drinks was nonetheless most commended for remaining a people-focused business, putting the needs of its customers at the fore.

Recognised as a leading wholesaler that clearly goes the extra mile, what most impresses clients and accounts is the emphasis on working strategically to the benefit of all in the supply and retail relationship. This boils down to building partnerships for the longer term while meeting the demands of an ever-evolving market.

6. Berkmann Wine Cellars

With the company’s roots stretching back to the hospitality industry, Berkmann continues to major on supplying the on-trade, bringing a mix of being the largest family-owned agent-importer business in the UK together with an impressive ongoing programme of innovation and investment.

With the 2,000-strong mostly exclusive portfolio of big-hitting names and emerging producers and regions as the springboard, Berkmann shows a strong commitment to tailoring its offer around its customers’ needs. These are met with a host of positives in the Berkmann armoury, from its own network of regional warehouses and delivery vehicles to an innovative Veraison training programme, all delivered with flexibility, insight and on a human level.

Managing director Rupert Berkmann and purchasing director Alex Hunt MW

7. Alliance Wines

Judges were impressed with the holistic approach of Alliance. This is a company that has, under the innovative direction of chief executive Fergal Tynan MW and team, blended in the distribution of a superior selection of exciting and individual agency wines with hands-on winemaking projects, expansion south into London and beyond, while growing an export side beyond UK shores.

Moreover, Alliance has developed a notable emphasis on the organic, environmental and social aspects of the business of wine, being something of a leader and standard-bearer when it comes to sustainability in all its forms, which is to be equally applauded.

Fergal Tynan, managing director, Alliance Wines 

8. Roberson Wine

Swinging in high on this year’s list, Roberson was a favourite with judges for its blend of innovation and adaptation. That has seen this sometimes esoteric and always interest-provoking merchant evolve from local shop to online retailer and bespoke wholesaler, while leading the pack by being early in on initiatives such as championing a resurgent California and setting up London Cru, the UK’s first urban winery. And, with well-sought out, typically artisanal-scale, finds across the breadth of its global list, it would seem that restaurant buyers and sommeliers agree, with Roberson able to count some 70 Michelin Stars among its clients.

London Cru

9. Les Caves de Pyrene

When Eric Narioo co-founded Les Caves de Pyrene late last century, with the aim of championing smaller-scale and highly independent winemakers – initially from his native Gascony – few could have predicted that this left-field importer would become the near-£30m turnover champion of natural and sustainably-made wines that it is today.

Integrity is more than a buzzword at Les Caves, and the innovations that sales and marketing director Doug Wregg and team have delivered, from ground-breaking natural, bio and organic Terroirs and Soif wine bars to the annual Real Wine Fair and Real Wine Month promotions have shifted perception on the UK wine scene.

Les Caves de Pyrene's Doug Wregg

10. Amathus Drinks

With some 4,650-odd skus, covering specialisms such as mezcal, aquavit, rhum agricole and whisky, plus pretty much every other premium and artisanally-crafted spirit besides – not to mention a recently added 100 wines to this formidable spirits agency portfolio – Amathus is, for many operators, the go-to wholesaler for exclusive and exciting brands. Moreover, the company continues to build on the reputation of those brands with the further roll-out of new retail outlets, in Brighton and Bath, which, along with its three London locations, act as shop windows to some of the more exotic and esoteric spirits in its portfolio.

11. Bibendum PLB

Now with the largely hands-off backing of C&C Group and the fresh stability that has delivered, Bibendum is throttling ahead under the direction of Michael Saunders once more, serving some 13% of the collective on-trade.

Exciting new additions to the portfolio, plus a renewed drive to support and help build premium sales, along with an ever-innovative and flexible approach to delivering a tailored offer for each given account – whether through its on-trade focused Bibendum Wine arm, off-trade serving PLB or indies and wholesaler-focused Walker & Wodehouse division – all point to a company on fighting-fit form.

12. Soho Wine Supply

Brothers Peter and Kyri Sotiri operate one of the best-loved wholesalers in the business out of their central London store. Primarily serving the prestigious London on-trade, with a highly personal and sometimes situation-saving last-minute capability to run around a required special bottle, Soho Wine Supply lives up to the personality implied by its name.

13. Fields, Morris & Verdin

As the wholesaling division of Berry Bros & Rudd, FMV scores highly for presenting an impeccable range of producers, stretching from the likes of Pulenta in Argentina, Australian Giaconda and California’s Ridge to Old World strengths such as Burgundy and much else besides, while selling these wines into the trade with personality and professionalism.

14. Venus Wine & Spirit Merchants

One of the bigger composite players, with a turnover now exceeding £100m off some 4,500 skus, Venus was singled out for delivering on its promise of fast and efficient service, while also tailoring its portfolio to be driven by its customer wants, all adding up to a great and professional package for its customers.

15. Indigo & Biercraft

Long a champion of Spain and with a growing global portfolio of honestly-made, typically indigenous styles of wine, Indigo – and sister company, the unbeatable craft beer supplier that is Biercraft – punches well above its £3.5m turnover weight. Moreover, Indigo’s notable sustainability philosophy is also now being applied to the company’s own winemaking projects, adding an extra dimension to this quality-minded supplier.

16. Carson & Carnevale

This still-young business, formed of an innovative collaboration between quality Italian food wholesaler Carnevale and father and son Christopher and Jonathan Carson, has fast established a quality roster of estates and producers in its portfolio, with Italy and Australia among several high points in a still-growing range. Noted for its collaborative and customer-focused approach, building towards long-term relationships rather than short-term gain.

Christopher and Jon Carson

17. Hallgarten Novum

Turning over £55m and with 1,100 wines under the HN umbrella, this is a portfolio that covers all the major bases and regions, with an important side helping – via the Novum arm – of more esoteric

and emerging wines. Notable strengths (courtesy of head buyer Steve Daniel) include Greece plus newcomers such as Japan, India, Georgia and Armenia.

Under the direction of Andrew Bewes, this is a company very much focused on delivering its offer in a collaborative and mutually beneficial way, with training and education at its core.

18. LWC

LWC may already be the UK’s largest independent wholesaler of beers, wines and spirits, but Robin Gray and Ebrahim Mukadam’s company continues to impress and grow by delivering a wholly professional service to its 9,000 on-trade customers, with buying director Shaun Healy a well-respected face in the trade.

19. Flint Wines

Very much a specialist operator at the smaller end of the scale, Flint has carved out an enviable reputation in the premium on-trade as a supplier of quality finds from Burgundy, more latterly supplemented with the best of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the US, with the ever-passionate and professional founders Jason Haynes and Sam Clarke, plus Gearoid Devaney MS, at the helm.

20. Hills Prospect

Director Trevor Bowers, co-director and wine director Collette Whittington-Bowers and commercial director Nick Callaghan are the dynamic face of this very successful Essex-based business, being a major composite supplier to businesses in London and the wider south east, with a reach that runs from Kent and Surrey to Cambridge and Suffolk.

From the now firmly established premium wine portfolio to the more traditional beers, spirits and softs supplied, Hills Prospect hums along with a wholly professional efficiency rooted in top service to its wide range of accounts.

21. WoodWinters Wine & Whiskies

With its reach expanding, via a London office, beyond its traditional Scottish and north of England heartlands, Woodwinters has proved itself a nimble and popular merchant and wholesaler. An increasingly impressive agency list of smaller, artisanal-scale producers is at the core of its well-honed offer.

22. Inverarity Morton

A big player on the Scottish scene, where Inverarity supplies 25% of wine sold into the on-trade, the company is increasingly being noticed south of the border too for its increasingly innovative range – including organic, minimal-intervention and sustainably focused own-brand projects – and strong focus on education and training.

Ian Cumming, commercial director, Inverarity Morton 

23. Hennings Wine

Sussex-based Hennings, now fronted by third-generation family member Matthew Hennings, has organically grown from a single shop in Pulborough to a four-site merchant, with an impressive wholesale operation that now accounts for two-thirds of business turnover. An exemplary independent regional supplier, combining a great list of wines and spirits with a local touch and knowledge.

24. Ellis Wines

As a £25m turnover business supplying more than 1,000 accounts through London and the south east, Ellis remains firmly rooted in the founding family ethos of delivering excellent service and long-standing relationships, which it considers to be an integral part of having a quality-focused list of individual and exclusive wines.

The Ellis brothers 

25. Oxford Wine Company

A leading independent merchant wholesaler, supplying a wide range of businesses across its native Oxford and into the counties beyond. This success is rooted in the way that company founder Ted Sandbach and his team have successfully transferred the quality, interest and originality found in the retail portfolio to the wholesale operation, while bringing a professional yet local touch to bear.

26. Yapp Brothers

A company in it for the long term, with outstanding strengths in the Rhône, Loire and Languedoc-Roussillon. This business has long turned heads among on-trade buyers, delivering to a healthy proportion of Michelin-starred restaurants as clients among the 500 or so accounts that Yapp has as it enters its 50th year.

27. Jascots Wine Merchants

With a core focus on central London and the home counties, Jascots brings 25 years of experience to the table and supplies some of the capital’s best restaurants, hotels and caterers. Hot on sustainability, the company doubled its number of organic wines in the last year and also invested in high-profile, industry-leading professionals to join its team as part of its growth strategy.

28. Morgenrot

Established in 1970, Morgenrot claims the crown as Manchester’s oldest established importer of beers and wines. Distributing locally and nationwide, the business has a broad global portfolio – 500-plus skus – but with a particular specialism in Spain. It recently expanded its repertoire with a range of high-quality Spanish gins.

29. Cambridge Wine Merchant

With Hal Wilson at the helm, Cambridge Wine continues to go from strength to strength. Supplying the rest of Cambridgeshire and the south with a 2,700-strong range comprising wines, beers, spirits and soft drinks, the company’s wholesale arm accounts for 65% of sales in terms of volume. In a bid to further improve its overall service, it is on the verge of installing a new EPOS system specially developed for indies.

30. Matthew Clark

Under the ‘new’ ownership of C&C Group following the collapse of Conviviality, Matthew Clark has come out fighting after a major restructure headed up by managing director David Phillips. Earlier this year the national wholesaler, which remains a serious and highly competitive supplier to the UK restaurant and bar world, said it was “firmly back on track” with its far-reaching restructure of the business completed and having “delivered one of the best Christmases in terms of service and performance”.

31. H2Vin

H2Vin was founded in 2009 by Christian Honorez and Matt Wilkin MS, since when the duo has established an enviable reputation for offering an exceptional range of wines to restaurants, hotels and independent wine merchants across the UK. Exemplary service and sharing wines at competitive prices is key to the business, which also works hard to uncover under-the-radar gems, notably from France and Spain.

32. Clark Foyster Wine

Founded in 2002, Clark Foyster’s philosophy is simple but effective: “Aim to be the best in our chosen field and sell only wines in which we believe.” Specialising in fine wines, it has offerings from Austria, Portugal, England, Greece, Georgia, Australia and New Zealand, with a focus on small, family-run estates producing wines to the highest standards.

33. Amps Fine Wines

Amps Fine Wines makes it on to this list for a hands-on approach that has made it one of the go-to wholesalers servicing the Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Rutland and Lincolnshire area. The family-run merchant is also pushing the envelope on the innovation front, most recently with keg wine, while also adding Level One and Two WSET education for wholesale clients.

34. Tanners Wine Merchants

Its traditional DNA is crucial to what has made Tanners so successful over its 175-year history. Today, it is known for its carefully considered wine portfolio which it supplies to equally quality-minded hotels, restaurants and private clients, not only in its native Shropshire but countrywide too.

Chairman James Tanner 

35. Wine Importers

Reliability and passion are at the forefront of what has made this Scottish supplier successful over its 40-year history. Today, it continues to grow its customer base north of the border with a highly trained sales team that works to the mantra of having “the right stock in the right place at the right time”.

36. Christopher Piper Wine

Celebrating 40 years of trading in 2019, this West Country all-rounder has made its mark by getting involved in every aspect of the wine trade, from growing vines to winemaking, shipping, importing, warehousing and distribution. From there, it supplies some of the best-loved restaurants and on-trade accounts in Devon and beyond, with a reputation for a level of service and care that puts it a cut above the rest.

37. RD Wines

Quality, service and product remain the backbone of RD Wines, which juggles a destination retail shop in the town of Nantwich with also somehow finding time to supply more than 1,000 still and sparkling wines and one of the country’s most comprehensive ranges of premium spirits, beers and soft drinks to its wholesale clients across the Midlands.

38. Enotria & Co

This year, major player Enotria & Coe has once again proven it has the chops to stay ahead of the game by striking two major deals with foodservice suppliers Compass and Bidfood. The deals, made in the second half of 2018, mean chief executive Troy Christensen and his team now have a strong hand in supplying some of the UK’s top sports and entertainment venues, while also recently expanding their range around craft beer, low and no, and kombucha.

39. Hammonds of Knutsford

Now in its 59th year Hammonds, which for the first 50 years operated as a traditional wholesaler, has developed one of the most exciting, extensive and exclusive agency range of brands. With a wealth of experience in servicing the licensed trade, the family-run wine and spirits supplier has an impressive portfolio comprising in excess of 2,000 wines, beers and spirits.

40. HB Clark

Family-owned HB Clark, founded by Henry Boon Clark in 1906, has grown from one depot in Wakefield to nine located throughout the north of England – all having the facility for customers to cash and carry. Ever since the beginning, the business ethos of “delivering all your drinks needs when you want them and with a smile” has continued, with customer service paramount in its strategy.

Jay Mackay, managing director, HB Clark 

41. L’Art du Vin

With a focus on artisan, independent producers, independent wine merchant L’Art du Vin supplies the independent on-trade from the mid to top end of the market and offers the largest selection of organic wines to the Scottish trade. It recently acquired a new warehouse with top storage facilities and offices in Dalgety Bay, Fife, as part of its growth strategy.

42. Lea & Sandeman

Working with small, family-owned producers, Lea & Sandeman’s wine list covers the whole spectrum of prices, styles and regions, championing quality and value from all over the world with a focus on drinkability. The portfolio has developed over time, however many producers have remained on the list since day one.

43. Nectar Imports

For well over 30 years Nectar has been a leading drinks supplier to the trade in the south. Stocking everything from the latest craft beer to premium spirits, wines and soft drinks, sourced from around the world, the business is known not only for its impressive portfolio, but also for superior levels of customer service.

44. Daniel Lambert Wines

With sustainability high on the agenda, owner Daniel Lambert prides himself on putting quality before price, with each of his 800-plus wines, sourced from family-owned properties. Trading for more than 28 years, the company recently posted a 40% increase in sales for 2018/19 compared to the previous year.

45. Alexander Wines

Glasgow-based supplier Alexander Wines built its foundations on boutique wines and bespoke customer service when it opened in 1981. Since then, founder Fraser Alexander and current managing director Paul Graham have continued to grow the family-owned company’s reputation with a personal and personable ethos, while focusing on characterful, “value-for-quality” wines.

46. General Wine Company

Hampshire-based General Wine Company owns a large double warehouse in Liphook, from where it supplies an impressive number of on-trade accounts. Its focus is on hunting out small producers with something exceptional to bring to the table, which it has succeeded in doing throughout its 30-plus year history.

47. Weavers of Nottingham

Five generations on, this Midlands-based outfit continues to win over customers with a portfolio built around interesting South American styles and wines that the family would be happy to drink over dinner. Not content with merely supplying pubs and restaurants both regionally and around the country, Weavers has also developed its own gin, Castle Gate, which sold out with its first two variants when it launched in 2017.

48. Villeneuve Wine

Having built up a portfolio of mainly exclusive wines, Villeneuve sets itself apart by keeping things small and interesting. Based in Scotland, the quality-focused supplier now boasts two retail shops, an online store, a thriving restaurant client-base, and has a fantastic whisky range to boot.

49. Steevenson Wines

Thirty years after Charles Steevenson started the business, he and son Liam Steevenson MW continue to be singled out for their knowledge, product range and adaptability. This is a service-driven and much sought-after supplier, which delivers a desirable range to top on-trade accounts scattered across the south west.

Liam Steevenson MW

50. Regency Wines

Exeter-based Regency Wines prides itself on providing 360° support to its customers, offering everything from staff training to wine list design, wine dinners, spirits masterclasses and wine trips. Alongside its extensive wine list, it also represents an impressive list of West Country spirits, including a slew of top-notch rums and gins.

How Harpers’ Top 50 Wholesaler List was compiled:

Based on a survey questionnaire of our on-trade readership, the most frequent nominations were vetted and a “long shortlist” of possible candidates for the Top 50 list was drafted.

Our judges then convened to assess each wholesaler on its individual merits, drawing on information in entry packs provided by the shortlisted companies (available ahead of time to allow judges to create their own order of preference, to be discussed and debated on the day), plus a visual presentation linking to company websites, along with a wealth of first-hand knowledge shared by the on-trade representatives on the judging panel.

The challenging task of ordering the Top 50 listing then began, with comparisons made, points discussed and strengths (and weaknesses) highlighted, until positions were – one by one – decided upon.