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Perfect tonic

Written by Josh Russell on Tuesday, 01 October 2013. Posted in Scaling up, Interviews

Premium mixer brand Fever-Tree is stirring up a long-neglected industry

Perfect tonic

Premium food and drinks entrants are now ten-a-penny. With a wealth of first-rate fruit juices, pukka pastries and choice confectionery hitting the market, it’d be a surprise if there was anything left that hadn’t been given a facelift. But in bringing top quality mixers to the market, Fever-Tree has almost single-handedly reinvented the way we accompany our aperitifs.

Neither of Fever-Tree’s co-founders, Tim Warrillow and Charles Rolls, were strangers to premium brands. Having cut his teeth in the promotion of high-end foods, Warrillow decided the time was right to start his own business. After he mentioned to some leading figures in the drinks industry that he was interested in the premium gin market, he was told that he should get in contact with Rolls, who had not long before revived the Plymouth Gin brand, generating much acclaim and securing a sale to the Absolut Vodka producer V&S Group in the process.

“We met for coffee,” says Warrillow. “Our conversation turned straight away from gin to tonic.” Rolls had engaged in a high profile gin tasting in New York a couple of years previously; the intended focus was to educate the palette of the assembled journalists to the various nuances and subtleties of a variety of premium gins, as well as allowing them to pair each spirit with a suitable tonic water.

However, there was something of a drawback to this. “It was universally agreed that by the time you poured this rather overpowering, rather unofficial tonic water on to their gin, all you could taste was the tonic.”

Obviously, the duo’s first port of call was to carry out extensive tasting and ingredient-analysis upon the competition – what little there was of it. “Schweppes had a monopoly,” Warrillow comments. “A branded monopoly. Its market was not growing so to return shareholder value, it had been looking at cutting its costs.” Essentially, this meant introducing preservatives like sodium benzoate to increase shelf-life, cheap additives such as the orange aromatic decanal and, perhaps worst of all, saccharin.

“Saccharin is the oldest, cheapest and – famously in the food and drink industry – the worst-tasting sweetener,” he explains. “No one would ever choose to put that in if flavour was their priority.”

Given that the drinks market was increasingly dominated by high-end spirits, it seemed counter-intuitive that these should be coupled together with cheap ingredients destined only to ruin the drinking experience. Warrillow continues: “Our big adage has always been that given three-quarters of your gin and tonic is tonic, it should command as much interest and attention as the gin that you are drinking.”

This sparked the co-founders’ staunch commitment to use the genuine article wherever possible. “We decided to return – quite literally – to the root of tonic water,” quips Warrillow. Core to their concept was the importance of using the genuine article and finding the highest quality ingredients. “We approached it in a totally different way to anyone else in the soft drinks industry,” he explains. “We source the best botanical flavours. We source the best sugars. We didn’t compromise on anything.”

This is perhaps evinced by the lengths they went to in order to obtain first-rate quinine, one of tonic water’s key ingredients. Warrillow’s research into natural sources of quinine led him to the cinchona tree and a plantation in the eastern Congo, which he insisted on visiting personally – not without some misgivings. “As you probably know it’s pretty much the most lawless place on the planet,” he says. “But one thing they have there is this fantastic source of quinine.”

Ultimately, it was the importance of this natural source of quinine that helped the entrepreneurs make perhaps their most important brand decision. Because of quinine’s use as an antimalarial and fever-reducing treatment, for centuries the cinchona tree has been referred to under a very different name: ‘fever tree’.

“As a name, Fever-Tree got right to the heart of our proposition, of quinine, of quality and also denoted natural with the tree association,” says Warrillow. “It’s true to its roots.”

Although one would like to think doing things naturally would be a walk in the park, making use of their meticulously sourced ingredients took much longer than either Warrillow or Rolls had imagined. “When you start using natural flavours, they are harder to use because the flavour migrates; it changes over time,” Warrilow explains. “This is why so often people use artificial flavours.” In part as a result of their commitment to keeping their ingredients kosher, it was a full 18 months before they had a finished product rolling off the production line.

Fortunately, Fever-Tree quickly won over some very big clients by taking the fight right to the front line. “We went knocking on doors, going to get the Ritz and Claridge’s and some of these places to sample the product,” says Warrillow. Their simple approach quickly made converts of those they visited, encouraging clients to engage in side-by-side tastings comparing Fever-Tree to existing mixers – a tactic that they still use today. “Every time we travel anywhere, we’re the real travelling salesmen with a bag full of our products versus the competition,” he says.

Fever-Tree had more in its corner than its superior taste however – there were some advocates that played an essential role in putting the brand on the map. The first came when the Waitrose buyer happened to stumble across an article on Fever-Tree in The Times whilst on a train to Wales. Clipping out the feature, she put it in her pocket and called the team at the next opportunity. “She said ‘we have been waiting for a product like this’,” he recalls. “‘We’re well aware of what’s happened to mainstream mixers and that the premium spirit market’s growing. How quickly can you get it on the shelf?’” And no sooner had they done so than it began flying straight off again, proving a huge hit with the store’s customers.

Co-founder Charles Rolls selecting lemon thyme in Provence

The second was, if anything, even more serendipitous. Coming across the product in a Waitrose store, the late British artist Richard Hamilton quickly became a Fever-Tree convert and decided to send a sample to Spain for his friend and fellow G&T fan, world-renowned chef Ferran Adria. Adria was suitably impressed. “He said ‘fantastic, at last someone is taking this category seriously’,” relates Warrillow. “He got his sommelier to find out who produced it and how he could get more of it. Then he made it into a dish on his world famous tasting menu.” Adria’s ‘Sopa de Fever-Tree tonica’ put the product on the map in Spain.

Before long Fever-Tree products were being stored in a variety of locations including Majestic, Oddbins, Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason, not to mention securing shelf space in both Sainsbury’s and Tesco.

But perhaps more significant is the way the products have been received by producers of high quality spirits. “Premium spirit businesses are all about, as they say, elevating their customers’ experience,” says Warrillow. “Giving them better quality mixers means that their customer gets a better experience of their spirits.” Because of this, Fever-Tree has been approached by a lot of the big brands, securing promotional partnerships with household names such as Bombay Sapphire, as well as more boutique offerings such as Sipsmith.

It’s fair to say, then, that Fever-Tree have entered the market with a splash. “We’ve started to make people sit up and think about the importance of the mixer, which has been so long forgotten,”  comments Warrillow. However, the Fever-Tree team is still swinging for the fences. Despite in-roads to plenty of markets and their product in seven out of ten of Restaurant Magazine’s top eateries in the world, the enterprise isn’t just willing to rest on its laurels. “We have done the really hard work of getting ourselves understood and established; now we’ve got to push forward in the markets we’re in,” he concludes. “We are the David taking on the Goliath of the mass-market brands.” 

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

As editor, Russell is the man in charge of properly apostrophising our publication and ensuring Oxford commas are mercilessly excised. Our digital doyen, he’s also a Photoshop Pro, a dab hand with InDesign and the man to go to if you need a four-hour soliloquy about the UK's best silicon startups.

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