Graham Norton has interviewed countless stars on his chat show. But in the crosshairs, in a confined, wood-panelled back room of a pub with a team of crew members listening, he is visibly outside his comfort zone. So far, Norton has never been interviewed about his brand of alcohol GN drinks. And when questioned, he glances at business partners Tim Lightbourne and Rob Cameron for reassurance.
The trio gathered at the White Horse in Parsons Green, London, to hold a pub quiz, inviting retail buyers, industry experts and journalists to learn more about the brand while collecting funds for hospitality industry charity The Drinks Trust.
They first connected in 2011, when classmates Lightbourne and Cameron contacted Norton’s production company to ask if they could supply wine for the Graham Norton Show. The duo had recently launched their own wine company – Invivo – in New Zealand and had heard that Sauvignon Blanc was Norton’s favorite drink.
Norton’s production team agreed – they had previously stocked liquor from the nearest corner store – and for the next two years Lightbourne and Cameron supplied 12 bottles of their own sauvignon blanc to the green room of the living room every week. In 2013, they found the courage to come up with a joint venture and launch a Graham Norton branded wine.
“Nobody else asked me,” says Norton, explaining why he took the plunge. “You don’t want to put your name on something that’s really left-leaning, like Graham Norton tennis racquets. It seems unlikely. While Graham Norton’s wine seems very likely.
Norton has been deeply involved in winemaking from the start. After being given the green light, Cameron flew to the UK with a basket full of grapes, bringing them to the Graham Norton Show set in a bucket, where they were stomped on stage by Norton. “We collected two bottles of juice, flew them back to New Zealand, then put them in the tank to make the first vintage,” he adds on the sidelines.
Almost a decade later, GN drinks are sold in 10 international markets including the UK, Ireland, USA, Canada and Australia. Even in Japan, where the Graham Norton Show is not currently airing. The range now includes seven varieties of wine and a quartet of spirits: a trio of gins and a vodka.
In the UK the brand is a huge success, earning listings at Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and in Iceland. Invivo claims that a bottle of GN liquor is sold every 10 seconds, and the brand’s first sauvignon blanc remains its bestseller. “We can’t do enough,” says Lightbourne. According to Nielsen IQ data for The Grocer’s Biggest Alcohol Brands 2022 report, the sales value of the brand’s light wine varietals increased by 5.9% to £5.8 million in the 52 weeks. ending April 30.
Ultimately, Norton decides which products will be launched and for him, authenticity is key. “If it’s something I don’t drink, I won’t put my name on it,” he says. The mere mention of pinot grigio, for example, makes him wince. Irish cream liqueur and whiskey were also vetoed.
Last name: Graham Norton
Hometown: Bandon, County Cork
Potted resume: Moved to London after college and made headlines in 1992 for Mother Theresa drag act. This led to television and radio work, including a role in Father Ted. Launched the Graham Norton Show in 2007, followed by a weekend radio show in 2010. Partners with Invivo to launch GN drinks in 2013
Mantra: You’re never too old or too rich for a free drink
I like to share a bottle with: Dogs. They don’t drink, but I’m here
Heaven and Hell of Wine: Sky: Sauvignon blanc. Hell: Pinot Gris
Number of costumes owned: Less than you think. Most belong to the studio
Norton’s pride in the brand is part of why he’s annoyed “now everyone’s jumping on the booze bandwagon.” The likes of George Clooney, Kendall Jenner, and Snoop Dogg have all launched their own liquor brands in recent years. And they aren’t a flash in the pan either. Some have been hugely successful, with Kylie Minogue’s wine quadrupling in sales to £18.9m in April 2022, a jump of 315%.
But Norton has doubts about the sustainability of some big name launches. “In five years, we will see who will remain because I think some will fall through,” he predicts. He submits that the quality of the product is always paramount to the name in question. “I’m sure a lot of people bought [GN wine] for the first time out of curiosity, or just for novelty… but the success of this range suggests that people are buying it again.
Lightbourne chimes in to add that Norton’s involvement in the production means “we don’t really call it or think of it as celebrity wine”. Since the first on-set stomp, Norton has been involved in Invivo’s shuffling sessions every year, though these had to be conducted over Zoom during the pandemic.
“They sent me the exact same samples they had taken the same day, and I had all the pipettes and little things to measure,” Norton explains. “But it’s a beautiful day; the mixing day is fascinating.
Norton’s enthusiasm for the process is palpable, and according to Cameron, these mixing sessions can take “two or three hours” because they go back and forth with him, trying to get the perfect mix. “We’re trying to, like, make it the same as the last vintage… You don’t want to [a consumer] to open a bottle and say ‘What the hell is that?’
Norton’s ownership of the process has resulted in the launch of a line of GN spirits, and Irish gin, pink gin, marmalade gin and Irish vodka are distilled near where Norton grew up in West Cork, which “really appeals to me,” he says.
In the coming months, Invivo will also mark the 10th anniversary of the brand through its marketing, as well as the recruitment of new talent. “We need to prepare our business, as well as manage growth and make sure we’re hiring the right people to do the right things,” Lightbourne says.
Invivo will also seek to boost the distribution of its drinks, including Norton’s “newborn” GN Vodka, but there are no further innovation plans yet.
Norton’s 15-year tenure at the BBC has lasted longer than six British prime ministers, and he hopes his liquor brand will also go far without the need for gimmicky limited-edition launches. “That’s the key, I think; that you are building it for the long term, not the short.