In just a few years, Ellen Wakelam and co-founder Alex Jungmayr have found huge success with their gins and whisky at In the Welsh Wind Distillery.
Alex are the co-founders of the craft distillery, situated in the glorious west Wales countryside. I chatted to Ellen to hear about their incredible journey.
Ellen grew up in Tresaith, just down the road from where the In the Welsh Wind Distillery is now and went to school in Cardigan. She studied at John Moore’s University in Liverpool. Coming back from University, she worked in the local café and met Alex, who was new to the area. They have been together ever since.
Ellen did a teaching post-grad at Aberystwyth University but had to leave her beloved Wales to find a secondary school teaching job and settle in the West Midlands. Alex also moved and ran a pub for a while and trained as a baker. Ellen enjoyed the teaching, but the red tape and politics involved disconcerted her. Then, she had a car accident and found herself in a bad place.
Moving back to Wales helped, but she was still missing direction. Alex and Ellen decided to walk around Wales to de-stress and help Ellen believe in herself again. The trip proved cathartic, with no outside responsibilities other than finding food and places to camp.
They had time to talk over 1047 miles and started to dream again as they camped out under the stars. During the three months it took to complete the journey, Ellen became fit physically and mentally, and they decided they wanted to run a business together and be life partners.
The Entrepreneurial Journey
Alex’s parents had local holiday cottages, so they set up a business supplying food, with Alex baking. Problems set in as Alex discovered he was gluten intolerant, not great for a baker.
Taking a break to re-assess, they set off in their camper van to do the North Coast Road, 500 beautiful miles of Scottish scenery. They stopped at distilleries and started trying local produce. One local gin from Badachro particularly impressed, despite the fact they were drinking it neat as they couldn’t afford any tonic. They sent Badachro a message on social media to say how great it was and were invited to visit.
Afterward, they sat down and discussed it and thought, “this is something we could do in Wales”. They are still in touch with Badachro – the craft distilling world is small, which Ellen loves.
The start of the In the Welsh Wind Distillery
They had converted an old barn for the food business and managed to sell their bakery equipment to a local micro-bakery. Working with Business Wales, they learned how to start a business. Ellen says she recently found that first business plan and laughed over the naivety, estimating marketing at £50.00 a month. Where they are now is a world apart.
They talked to friends and family, many of whom had run businesses, and asked them to look at their plan for the In the Welsh Wind Distillery as they were going to apply for £25,000 from Start-Up Loans. One person was so impressed that they offered to invest on the same deal.
They had a lot of help and quickly learned about a vast array of things, including the all-important licenses. They complement each other. Both learned to distill though Ellen admits Alex is better at it as he has a fantastic palate while she loves the organisation. They learned colossal amounts from the Craft Distillery Business, who helped them create the design for their first custom still, ‘Meredith’, and make their first gin. Some of their first efforts were terrible, but they sipped, experimented, and found out what worked.
They also quickly realised that the old cowshed they were in was never going to be big enough. Their local pub, the Gogerddan Arms, was owned by friends. Alex and Ellen talked to them and asked for a first refusal if they ever thought about selling as it would make the perfect place for the In the Welsh Wind Distillery. They learned it had been on the market for a year, but of course, it was far too early for them to consider buying it. So, they struck a deal for a twelve-month lease with an option to buy after that time.
They arranged a mortgage via the Development Bank of Wales after only fourteen months in business, unusual as the Bank has an over-two-year-old rule. Two days before signing, the pandemic was hitting, and the Bank rang them and asked Ellen what she wanted to do. Ellen and Alex felt they had no choice but to take it on or risk losing it, and they decided they would just have to make it work. Lockdown hit two days later, but they renovated it and moved in. It was a phenomenal risk, but as it turned out, it enabled the Welsh Wind Distillery to catapult.
During the first few days of lockdown, Ellen put an image of some hand sanitizer they had made on social media. They sold a staggering 44,000 litres in the end. In those early days, they had frightened people queueing down the drive, and they gave the sanitizer away for free. This progressed to selling larger quantities to councils, Royal Mail, the police, doctors, dentist, and many more.
Ellen had taken on a Business Manager to join her team in January 2020. He was able to continue working from home during the first lockdown, but the remaining 3 staff had to be furloughed and then chose to go in their own different directions. They have now re-built and expanded In The Welsh Wind Distillery to fourteen full-time and three part-time. Ellen gives enormous credit to her team.
COVID saw several good people graduating without their planned job and moving back home to west Wales to live with their parents. Ellen commits the In the Welsh Wind Distillery training and employing young people in the rural area and runs a work experience and apprenticeship scheme. She was able to take several on and upskill them. They operate an 80% rule, wanting at least 80% of customers to love their gin and their team to love their work at least 80%.
In The Welsh Wind Whisky
The original Welsh Whisky Distillery Company was liquidated in 1920. Yet Wales did start to distill whisky once more in the early 2000s.
Ellen and Alex’s In the Welsh Wind Distillery is surrounded by woodlands and fields overlooking Cardigan Bay and the barley they grow for their Welsh whisky. They are the only distillery in Wales producing a 100% grain to glass Welsh whisky, using a system they pioneered working with the local farmer. Every process before sale takes place at or within ten miles of the In the Welsh Wind Distillery. They have created a true expression of the people and the land.
They also produce craft distilled gin and a range of “Eccentric Spirits, gin, and other spirits that celebrate Wales’ cities and coastline. Each bottle is a tribute to the people or places that inspired it.
The In the Welsh Wind Distillery also offers a custom spirits service to those people dreaming of their own drinks brands. They will consult and discuss a unique botanical profile to discover your own gin and create it in their copper pot stills, named Meredith and Afanc. Many of these have also won awards.
Also available at the Welsh Wind Distillery are experiences you can book to take part in, and enjoy the processes for yourself.
Now and the future for the In the Welsh Wind Distillery
Ellen has been determined that, bar the mortgage and a loan for a still, they would bootstrap and retain 100% ownership of the Welsh Wind Distillery, so they could look back and see it was them that created it.
However, they are now looking at an investor in return for equity as they have planning expansion to expand. Ellen says it is all about the right investor, who is not silent but not over-interfering and brings industry knowledge. They have several interested.
Ellen has big plans, with the planning permission already granted on-site for two cask warehouses first and then a larger research and education centre as part of In the Welsh Wind Distillery. At present, there is nowhere to train in the industry unless you go to London or the very far north of Scotland. Ellen wants to bring education in food and drink to Wales.
Ellen sums it up by saying that they work really hard but are also very agile with lots of avenues now so that they can pivot quickly. She works on the principle of asking what the worst that can happen is and answers – “something might come up”.
In the Welsh Wind Distillery has won several awards for its gins, and for the business, and in addition, in 2021, Ellen was one of the winners at the prestigious Nat West Everywoman Awards.
If you are interested in the food and drink business, you may also enjoy the story of The Three Spirit Drinks founders.