Tonic boom: Producers look beyond gin

9th January, 2019 by Owen Bellwood

As the popularity of gin has exploded in recent years, so has the success of its ubiquitous partner – tonic water. But, as SB discovers, progressive mixers are now looking to branch out.

*This feature was originally published in the September 2018 issue of The Spirits Business

Tonic water will forever be synonymous with gin. But as some of Europe’s biggest premium producers eye growth opportunities, are ties to the juniper­-based spirit limiting their ambitions?

According to the latest figures from The Wine and Spirit Trade Association, value gin sales in the UK grew by 33% last year. With such rapid advancement, which extends to a number of other nations, commentators have warned that the spirit’s bubble looks set to burst. If the naysayers are correct, it seems logical for tonic producers to tap into other categories, such as whisky, rum and Tequila.

“The category can expand but we definitely have to think outside of gin,” says Sigrid Bachert, managing director for marketing and sales at German tonic manufacturer Thomas Henry. “In Germany, the gin category is still small. It started to grow five years ago and now it is in a good position, but it’s not as big as categories such as rum. For tonic sales to keep growing you have to find a way to get out of that strong gin connection, and that’s what we are working towards.”

As mixer manufacturers look to align themselves with untapped categories, many have begun experimenting with flavour. Sugar-­laden flavoured vodka may have fallen out of favour with consumers, but other sectors are joining the craze, and the past 12 months have seen everything from hot cross bun-­flavoured gin to coffee-­infused rum hit the market.

The tonic world is no different. From an Oriental Yuzu expression released by botanically brewed tonic brand Fentimans to a basil-flavoured variant from newly launched mixer maker Lamb & Watt, tonic flavoured only with quinine simply doesn’t cut it anymore. One brand that is using its knowledge of flavour to appeal to a wide spectrum of spirits drinkers is The London Essence Company, which was created by Britvic-­backed incubator outfit WiseHead Productions in 2016.

Ounal Bailey, co­-founder of the brand, says: “We started out with the idea that it would be nice to pair our tonics with lots of different styles of gin. But as we went on we realised that not only were we able to do this, we were also able to accentuate flavours in spirits such as vodka, mezcal and Tequila.”

The brand’s current portfolio includes: a classic tonic water; a grapefruit and rosemary-­flavoured expression, said to work well with bitter flavours and apéritifs; a bitter­-orange and elderflower bottling, which complements rye­-heavy vodkas and reposado Tequila; and a ginger ale. Bailey adds: “Our range allows bartenders and people at home to discover new recipes that they might not have tried.”

Fever-­Tree is also hoping to grab a slice of this demographic with the launch of its latest product. The premium tonic manufacturer has partnered with Bacardi-­owned Tequila brand Patrón for its latest release, Fever-­Tree Citrus Tonic Water. The new expression has been created to complement the Tequila’s flavour and includes botanicals such as Key lime, Tahitian lime, tangerine and bitter orange.

Patrón teamed up with Fever-Tree

Patrón teamed up with Fever-Tree

SHARED VALUES

“This is an incredibly exciting collaboration,” says Fever-­Tree cofounder Tim Warrillow. “Consumers are searching for authenticity, taste and substance, and both our brands have these shared values and joint ambitions. Provenance and using the highest-­quality ingredients are integral to us both and that is why, in developing our Citrus Tonic, we travelled across Mexico to discover the passionate producers growing the finest citrus fruits enabling us to create a mixer to perfectly complement Patrón Tequila.”

Creating mixers to appeal to different spirits is clearly a key focus for many of Europe’s biggest brands. Last year, Thomas Henry unveiled its Coffee Tonic, which combines tonic water with cold-­brew coffee from South America. “The focus of our Coffee Tonic is not on mixing with gin,” says Bachert. “The coffee taste matches with bitterness, so we would use it with Campari or Jägermeister. But it also matches very well with the sweeter, caramel tastes found in rum and in whisky.”

As well as producing new flavoured expressions, some brands are innovating in the different formats tonic water can take. Global Brands­-owned Franklin & Sons sees potential in the ready-­to-­drink market, and the brand recently partnered with London­-based gin maker Portobello Road to release its own canned gin and tonic. Jen Draper, head of marketing at Global Brands, says: “Putting a well known and well respected craft London gin and a well known, well respected craft London tonic water into a can has been great and it is definitely something that we are looking to expand on in the future.”

The other option for brands chasing innovation and growth is to branch out into new mixer types. Fever­-Tree, Fentimans, Thomas Henry and Franklin & Sons all offer expressions such as lemonade, cola, ginger ale and ginger beer. Rose Cottingham, senior innovation manager at Fever­Tree, says: “In 2016 we launched our cola in the UK, and it was the first in the market designed to be a mixer. It’s made with 12 botanicals and they were all picked to perfectly complement the flavours in dark spirits. When you look at global spirits sales, gin accounts for 6% while whisky makes up 60%, which puts the potential of dark spirit mixers into perspective.”

The brand furthered its aim of capturing the dark spirits market with the launch of spiced orange and smoky ginger ale bottlings. According to Cottingham, the spiced orange ginger ale complements Scotch, rum and Cognac, while the brand’s smoky ginger ale pairs well with Bourbon and blended whisky.

More than gin: Thomas Henry

More than gin: Thomas Henry

With such abundant examples of diversification, it’s clear the world’s tonic makers are fighting to appeal to a wider demographic. To create these innovations, producers have drawn on the wealth of knowledge found in the on­-trade. “

Developing new flavours can be a collaborative process, with many people involved,” says Bachert. “We always work with bar professionals – unlike some companies that work with consumers and ask them what they want. Our focus is always on mixing.”

The same is true for Franklin & Sons, which works with bartenders from “hotbeds of bar innovation” such as London, Manchester and Glasgow. Fever­Tree has also shown its support for superstar bartenders – indeed, the first people to receive bottles of the brand’s new Citrus Tonic Water in the coming weeks will be past and present members of the Patrón Perfectionists Cocktail Competition.

After research and development, Draper believes brands should prioritise marketing how their products work with other spirits. She says: “Vermouth and tonic, Sherry and tonic, white Port and tonic – they’re all big serves on the Continent, and we’re starting to see these serves coming through in the UK. It is something that we’ve really focused on with the Dual Flavour Collection, which we launched recently.”

Released this year, Franklin & Sons’ Dual Flavour Collection is a range of tonic waters that consists of: Rosemary & Black Olive; Pink Grapefruit & Bergamot; Rhubarb & Hibiscus; and Elderflower & Cucumber expressions. The line is targeted towards trendy long serves, such as vermouth and tonic.

Another of the year’s biggest imbibing trends has been the rise of no­- and low-drinks. From low-­abv cocktail menus to alcohol-­free spirits hitting the market, this hot trend is something that mixer makers are keen to explore.

Cottingham says: “While we very much position our tonic waters as mixers, we know that a lot of consumers are drinking them as soft drinks too. They’re also popular in lower-­abv serves and with non-­alcoholic spirits, which are proving to be a really exciting opportunity for us from an innovation perspective.”

Portobello Road and Franklin & Sons

Portobello Road and Franklin & Sons

The potential of low-­abv serves hasn’t gone unnoticed by other brands either; for Franklin & Sons the market throws up a number of new occasions for consumers to enjoy its products. “The innovation around low and no is something we have our eyes firmly on,” Draper says. “We already have our soft drinks range, as well as the tonics and the mixers, and we want to enable bars and restaurants to pair them more easily with food. We have seen people start to swap their traditional alcoholic drinks with their evening­ or lunch­time meal, so for soft drinks there is now a greater focus on matching them with food.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

As new trends continue to work in the favour of the mixer category, London Essence Company’s Bailey concludes that the consumer now has the power to dictate what tonic water producers should do next.

She says: “For the slightly more discerning consumer and the younger market, the future is going to be about flexibility, variety and options for what they can do with some of these products. The mixer category will go beyond tonics, and it will start to become more about a breadth of spirits and enjoying these mixers on their own. This means there is still quite a lot more room in the category to manoeuvre.”

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