Photography: Alexis Liming
Why has ice tea never taken off in the UK? Ian O’Donohue, managing director of Tudor Drinks, the company behind Harry Brompton’s Alcoholic Ice Tea, is pretty unequivocal in his answer. “The ice teas here hardly have any good tea in them. They are very sweet, artificially-flavoured drinks. That’s what has really put people off.” In other words, they don’t bare any resemblance to your everyday cuppa. “The predominant tea that we drink in the UK is Kenyan. It is big, weighty, rich tea; really brisk and robust,” he adds.
O’Donohue’s first experience of ice tea came in the United States, where he lived for a number of years. “My wife is from Georgia in the south and ice tea is a very big thing over there,” he says. “People either have a glass of water or they have a glass of sweet or unsweetened tea at the table. But when I came back to the UK ice tea just didn’t exist and when it does exist it’s not very nice. It either has too much sugar and no acidity, or no sugar at all. And none of them really led with a distinct flavour of tea.”
Realising there was a sizeable gap in the British drinks market, O’Donohue set his mind to bringing a real ice tea to Blighty. However, at the time, he was tied down by a full-time job in the city. “I was working as a broker at Tradition,” he says. “I was doing oil options and weather derivatives.”
Thankfully, there was somebody else on hand to help get the ice tea business off the ground. With O’Donohue tied up with his job at Tradition, his father Martin set up Tudor Drinks and got things moving. “My dad was a roofing contractor and he had retired but he was not the sort of person who likes to rest,” says O’Donohue. “With all his knowledge of running a successful business, he was able to guide me through to getting everything in place.”
After testing various blends of tea and alcohol with a friend – “there were lots of caffeine-induced sleepless nights” – O’Donohue won his family’s approval, which convinced him he was onto something. The budding entrepreneur was still working at Tradition but when his dad was diagnosed with cancer, requiring surgery, O’Donohue had to dedicate more time to the business. “I was very lucky to have a fantastic boss at Tradition who let me jiggle my schedule around so I would start at 11 and finish at eight in the evening every day,” says O’Donohue. “That is when it went from being a hobby to a really serious project. We produced our first batch early in 2013 and the response was great.”
O’Donohue had enlisted the help of a designer from Holland who, after trying the ice tea, offered to do all of the branding for Harry Brompton’s in exchange for a small stake in the business. “He tasted it and said, ‘I love this stuff – this is great. I want to be involved,’ says O’Donohue. “That allowed us to bring it further to life and we started to have a real product. We had the liquid, we had the look.”
As O’Donohue explains, the name adorning his bottles of ice tea is inspired by a time when London was establishing itself as a global superpower. “Harry is our global gentleman. He is out there sourcing the tea. He is basically the person you would always want to be. I’d like to be called Harry Brompton.”
And his distinct personality shines through on the brand’s website. The Travel Journals of Harry Brompton, consisting of letters to his ‘Darling Minky’, detail his exertions in finding the finest Kenyan tea and purest grain spirit for his signature ice tea. As O’Donohue explains, it was vital to create a brand that people could identify with. “We want people to understand that it is a British brand but we are also a global brand, so we want people to resonate with Harry and have that personal connection with him,” he says. “We want to be like the Johnnie Walker of ice tea, so everywhere you go you recognise the name and it sticks with you.”
Fortunately, people aren’t just taking a shine to Harry. With its key ingredient ethically sourced from Kenya and all production and manufacturing carried out in the UK – except the bottle caps which are imported from Italy – a large part of the Harry Brompton’s appeal is the unmistakable taste of tea in every bottle. “I wanted to make something that tasted like great cold tea but with more of a twist to it,” says O’Donohue. “It has a little bit of carbonation, well-balanced acidity and a splash of natural citrus in there just to bring it all together.”
In early 2014, following a stint selling in independent stores, Waitrose agreed to trial Harry Brompton’s in 56 of its stores, although it came with a slight caveat. “The buyer at Waitrose really loved it [but] she asked if we could make it clearer on the label that it was alcoholic,” O’Donohue explains. “London Ice Tea is a point of difference for the rest of the world but in the UK at least, customers want to know what it is, so I addressed that directly and renamed it Alcoholic Ice Tea.”
Harry Brompton’s sold well enough to secure a full listing in Waitrose, with its new Berries and Cucumber variant now being trialled exclusively in a handful of stores. This was a turning point for O’Donohue. “I’d already told a few people I’d quit my job if Waitrose took it – and they took it,” he says. “I am a man of my word so I had to quit.”
Waitrose was followed by Ocado and Sainsbury’s, and with Harrods taking its first stock of Harry Brompton’s this month, things are certainly on the up for the O’Donohues’ fledgling ice tea brand.
But the challenge of getting into supermarkets differs markedly to convincing pub and restaurant owners to replace the big-selling brands in their fridges. Exhibiting at trade shows, including the recent Craft Beer Rising, is a key part of gaining traction in what is a slightly trickier market.
O’Donohue certainly believes his alcoholic ice tea has more in common with craft beer than any other drink. “We are definitely closer to that than anything else,” he says. “Tea is the equivalent of grapes, hops and botanicals when you look at it. It is tannic and it carries the characteristics of where it is grown, and the flavour of that resonates through the drink. We are taking something natural and making something natural. It is a crafted artisanal product.”
At 4% abv (alcohol by volume), Harry Brompton’s can certainly stand up and be counted among its craft beer peers, and O’Donohue is proud to be a parent of the world’s first premium alcoholic ice tea. While admitting it comes with additional obstacles, his passion for the alcoholic drinks industry was such that he always wanted a piece of the action. “It never really dawned on me until we started producing an alcoholic drink – and had all the hoops to jump through – that a non-alcoholic drink may have been a bit easier,” he laughs. “But it was never on my mind – it was always going to be an alcoholic drink.”
The new Berries and Cucumber variant is undoubtedly a sign of things to come. As O’Donohue says, his mind is always awash with new and exciting blends, such is the variety and versatility of tea. “You can just do so many fun things with it,” he enthuses. “You have got teas that bring smokiness; you have got teas that bring more honeyed notes; you have got teas that bring astringency.”
Yet with the company now seeking investment to help meet ever-increasing demand, O’Donohue is wary of running before he can walk. “Your ambition and your drive and your imagination can, if you are not careful, unravel you,” he says. “So we have to be very careful about how we continue to develop new products and what products we do bring to market. As a broker, I am so used to everything happening immediately but I have got to get my head around the fact that things do take time.”