A global pandemic wouldn’t immediately suggest itself as the best time to ditch your corporate career and follow an entrepreneurial dream, but 28-year-old Hugo Hodgson did just that, launching Long Shots, distinctive alcoholic fresh-fruit infused ‘hard seltzers’, at the beginning of the year.

It was on a trip to the US last September that Hugo was introduced to hard seltzers and saw an opportunity. “I used to work as a chartered surveyor in London,” he explains, “and after that visit to the USA I decided I’d had enough of the corporate life and decided to have my ‘long shot’ moment.

Having recognised the appeal of hard seltzers – primarily how low in calories they are – he also recognised that all the brands he encountered in the US and here in the UK had a lot of artificial ingredients. “There are lots of brands just taking off, but they all use fruit extracts.”

So, coming from the Herefordshire borders and well aware of the reputation the county has for its fresh produce, Hugo had his lightbulb moment, realising that there could well be a gap in the market for a hard seltzer which included fresh fruit rather than artificial flavourings and acids to prolong shelf life.

“When I started research for the business,” says Hugo, “I wanted to keep it as local as possible, and we’re now manufacturing at Chase Farm Contract Canning and sourcing our fruit from Pixley Berries, with grapefruit obviously having to come from further afield and the natural grain alcohol from Liverpool.”

“In terms of the research I did before launching Long Shots, it was usually just a matter of talking to a lot of people, approaching a lot of suppliers and following every lead I was given.”

“I went to the suppliers and had face to face conversations and a lot of them helped me along the journey.” If that sounds simple, Hugo does add that many people he spoke to were unwilling to take a risk on an untried entrepreneur. “But Pixley Berries said they would do whatever they could, and put me in touch with a technical consultant based in Ross-on-Wye, and so I gradually built up this range of contacts.

“Finding manufacturers,” he reveals, “was simply a case of Googling and then turning up on their doorstep,” which is how he found his way to Chase. “I turned up on their doorstep and they were very helpful.”

As the business evolved, Hugo was joined by George …. “It was just me until earlier this year, but now we are building up our team.

“Blind optimism has carried me through,” he says now, “and it’s been a very steep learning curve, but the best thing has been going to meet other people and hearing their stories.”

In fact, he reports, the evolution of the business has been the result of all those conversations and of following up all the contacts he’d been given. Every time he meets someone, he says, he has a list of questions he needs answers to. “Things like, ‘where do you get a bar code from?’.

“Every time I went to see someone I took a list of about three or four pieces of crucial information I needed and that’s how my knowledge base grew.

“I went to see a gentleman in London who had set up two or three brands and he helped me out by introducing me to a designer who’d worked for Innocent, who in turn introduced me to a copywriter. It’s been a fantastic journey so far.”

But, of course, the success of Long Shots was going to rely on flavour as much as it was on having the infrastructure of his business in place.

“I looked at the US brands and the flavours were things like Florida orange, lime, cherry, pear and hibiscus, and while citrus was all very well, they’re not fruits you can get in the UK, and I wanted something local to bring this style of drink over to the UK – strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb – so that’s what I did.

“At first I bought fruit from the supermarket, mashed it up, strained it, added vodka and fizzy water and took the results to parties. He also rustled up some for his parents when they wondered aloud what it was he was actually doing.

“I wanted to make grapefruit and elderflower, but one of the things I quickly learned is that elderflower without sugar tastes of very little, so that went out of the window.

Long Shots, unlike other brands, are made with just five ingredients “the more artificial ingredients you have the more artificial preservatives you need,” he says, adding that, in common with almost all alcoholic drinks, once a Long Shot is in the can, the next step is for it to be pasteurised.

“We established the flavours – strawberry and rhubarb, raspberry and blackcurrant and grapefruit – in January and then it came to naming the brand. I had a copywriter on board and someone else helped with branding. I liked the idea of being a bit of a maverick, having blind optimism about the brand. I didn’t know anything about drinks, but I had passion and optimism and that drove us forward and all of that went into the name. After all, this is a complete long shot of an idea, so let’s call it Long Shots.

“We did a test manufacturing run in February – just ahead of the pandemic – something you can avoid doing, but if you do you run the risk of producing a drink that’s undrinkable!”

They had made 3,000 cans and were poised to launch “but by that time it was late March and the country had been shut”.

“Then we had to think about how we were going to do this. The stores weren’t taking on anyone , pubs and restaurants were closed so we sat back and decided that we wouldn’t let coronavirus stop us, and looked at what other people were doing. People still wanted to drink so we pushed ahead and launched an online store, which has worked very well so far.

We produced 30,000 cans just after launch, and it’s had a very good reception, and we’ve had orders from all over the place.

Looking to the future, Hugo is planning to introduce more drinks, but he also hopes that his story, his optimism and his decision to seize the moment will inspire others to take their own ‘long shot’ - “A long shot is for everyone,” says Hugo. “You should embrace uncertainty and risks. Everything has a way of working itself out.

After all, he concludes, he and George are just “a couple of blokes who took a bit of a gamble at the worst moment in history!”

Visit www.longshotdrinks.co.uk