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Master of Malt owner Atom Group sends gin ingredients into space and makes whiskey advent calendars

By Chris Price

Designing whisky advent calendars and sending gin ingredients into space has made a spirits maker one of the drinks industry’s most exciting players.

Justin Petszaft was not impressed after his first encounter with the company he has helped grow into Atom Group.

In 1999, before he went to Durham University to study theoretical physics, he designed a website for Master of Malt, a whisky mail order business which his father had invested in.

Atom Group sent botanicals used in one of its gins into space. Picture: Thinkstock
Atom Group sent botanicals used in one of its gins into space. Picture: Thinkstock

“I did a deal which I thought was very clever whereby I would get a cut of the turnover from every whisky sold online,” he said.

“It was actually a terrible idea because, back then, no one bought anything online.

“We sold about two bottles a week and I earned enough commission to buy a pint each week at uni.”

Despite his underwhelming first experience, after graduating in 2005 Mr Petszaft saw an opportunity when the team running the company wanted to “get out”.

“I thought it was an exciting business and took over the running,” he said.

“We sold about two bottles a week and I earned enough commission to buy a pint each week at uni...” - Justin Petszaft, Atom Group

“At first, it was a website and me taking calls in the dining room. It was a tiny operation.”

Today, Master of Malt is almost unrecognisable, selling a range of bespoke gins and other spirits through a revamped website developed by Mr Petszaft and his closely-knit team of directors.

It is part of the Atom Group, along with international distributor Maverick Drinks and Atom Brands, where the team develop their new product ideas, such as whisky advent calendars and its award-winning Bathtub Gin.

The company has its head office in Tunbridge Wells and production facility in Tonbridge, although all scotch-related operations have to be based at its site in Edinburgh for legal reasons.

The business has grown sales by 46% to £34 million over the last three years, earning it a slot in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 list.

Atom Group directors, from left, Tom McGuinness, Ben Ellefsen, Justin Petszaft and Joel Kelly
Atom Group directors, from left, Tom McGuinness, Ben Ellefsen, Justin Petszaft and Joel Kelly

It employs about 150 people, which rises to about 300 in the run-up to Christmas.

“We occupy every part of the spirits value chain, from initial inception to a new drink idea and developing packaging, taking it to manufacturing and retailing it to customers.

“We do everything and although each business operates autonomously, they are closely coupled, which means we can do things faster than other companies.

"A big firm takes years to develop a new idea. For us it takes weeks.”

One of those ideas was the “crazy idea to make a gin where all the botanicals have been to space”.

Within two weeks, they had designed the gin, launched the botanicals into space using an atmospheric monitoring balloon and had begun manufacturing. Most of it had been presold before it hit the online shop.

"We have an idea of something awesome and can get it made within weeks and put it up on Master of Malt, where is available to millions..." - Justin Petszaft, Atom Group

Mr Petszaft, 36, said: “We have an idea of something awesome and can get it made within weeks and put it up on Master of Malt, where is available to millions.

“Then we quickly get an answer if it’s something people care about. Sometimes we put something up and people don’t want to buy it.

"Other times we get the answer that something’s really cool and we develop the brand further.”

Master of Malt “rebooted”, as managing director Justin Petszaft describes it, in 2009 when he persuaded lifelong friends Ben Ellefsen corrand Tom McGuinness to join the business.

They have since been joined by legal director Joel Kelly.

Back then the firm was based in a 380 sq ft shed on a farm in Lye Green near Crowborough, on the Kent and Sussex border.

Mr Petszaft was working with his father packing orders on his pool table.

He said: “I managed to convince Ben and Tom to leave their really good jobs – with real salaries and prospects – to come and join me in my shed.

“My powers of persuasion must have been good because the first couple of years were touch-and-go. As far as their wives could see, the business wasn’t a good idea.

“The driving force for our success was that we had all previously had a bad customer experience.

“We wanted to create something that didn’t feel like that and give people an experience which was delightful.

"We wanted them to think the business cared.”

Atom Group was one of three Kent companies to rank in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100.

It reached 99th position, one spot ahead of housebuilder Chartway Group, based in Maidstone, which increased turnover 46% to £68.6 million over three years.

The highest ranked company in the county was pre-owned watch retailer Watchfinder, also headquartered in Maidstone.

It reached 88th position with a 51% rise to £85.8 million.

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