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'Deadly' Doug Ellis, the former football club owner behind super-strength cider targeted at the young

  • @martin_hickman

A multimillionaire former Premier League football boss is behind Britain's bestselling super-strength cider.

Doug Ellis, the former chairman of Aston Villa who was nicknamed "deadly", controls the maker of Frosty Jack's, whose sales rocketed by 40 per cent last year helped by controversial online marketing aimed at young people.

At 7.5 per cent alcohol, Frosty Jack's, made by the Aston Manor Brewing Company, is 60 per cent stronger than Stella Artois. According to the College of Physicians and alcohol charities, super-strong ciders and beers are causing problems among alcoholics because of their cheapness and potency.

At the request of the police and NHS in Ipswich, the Co-op is removing all ciders and beers above 6.5 per cent from its 54 stores in Suffolk and the Government is considering a 40p minimum price per unit of alcohol.

Concerned at their social impact, the Magners owner, C&C, said it intends to withdraw from sale three high-strength ciders, Diamond White, White Star, and K, which it inherited from its takeover of Gaymers two years ago.

Britain's biggest independent cider maker, the Aston Manor Brewery Company appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

The Birmingham -based firm makes a range of ciders including the 5.3 per cent Kingstone Press, but its biggest – and fastest-growing – brand is Frosty Jack's, which it portrays on YouTube and Facebook as a wacky alternative to mainstream drinks.

Aston Manor did not respond to The Independent's request for comment, but its website says the drink has achieved its success "through a full, integrated digital marketing campaign with a particular emphasis on social media". This includes a series of celebrity podcasts filmed in conjunction with the men's magazine, Loaded.

The Advertising Standards Authority banned three "irresponsible" online ads for Frosty Jack's in June, saying the "irreverent and juvenile" humour was likely to appeal to young people.

According to the market researcher Nielsen, Frosty Jack's had retail sales of 32 million litres in the year to September, around £40m by value, more than six times those of its next competitor, White Star.

Aston Manor's website makes no mention of the role of Mr Ellis, 88, whose 24-year stewardship of Aston Villa prior to its sale to Randy Lerner six years ago, was unpopular with fans. Accounts lodged at Companies House show Mr Ellis has the "controlling interest" in the company, of which his son, Peter, is managing director.

In an interview with the Western Morning News last September, Peter Ellis said: "People are turning to cider because it's less expensive and there's no viable alternative in terms of innovation, in wine and beer."

Aston Manor's sales rose from £79m in 2010 to £106m last year, though profits fell from £4.9m to £2m because of rising raw commodity costs and the installation of a new canning production line to cope with higher demand.

A two-litre bottle of Frosty Jack's with 15 units of alcohol is on sale at Tesco for £3.79, equivalent to 40p per unit.

Sir Ian Gilmour, a liver specialist and alcohol spokesman at the Royal College of Physicians, which backs a 50p per unit minimum price, said: "It's very difficult to square a position of social responsibility in marketing and selling white cider at a fraction of what would be a reasonable minimum price."

C&C emphasised that it saw its future in mainstream cider, rather than its high-strength variants. "The main spend and marketing pressure within C&C is within the Magners and Gaymers brands," a spokesman said.