A drink with… George Bagos, Three Cents Artisanal Beverages
Premium mixer brand Three Cents is celebrating 10 years. Co-founder and general manager George Bagos tells us about his inspiration for the brand and how the team made the Paloma big in Europe.
Three Cents is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. How did the business start?
The company started with four people, three of whom were bartenders, including me. As well as myself, there was George Tsirikos, Dimitris Dafopoulos and Vassilis Kalantzis.
Everything started when we read a book: Fix The Pumps by Darcy O’Neil. It’s about the history of sodas. In 2012, he presented the book in New Orleans, and George and I went to that seminar. We fell in love with carbonation. We started experimenting and emailing Darcy back and forth. We were carbonating everything, from vermouths to grapes.
Around that time, I was also working in a Tequila bar in Athens called Dos Agaves (which sadly closed in 2016). Dos Agaves was dedicated to Mexico and Tequila and agave spirits, so I really wanted to continue promoting Mexican drinks and culture.
In Greece 10 years ago, nobody knew what the Paloma was – nobody in Europe really knew what the Paloma was. We wanted to promote Palomas because nobody drinks Margaritas in Mexico. Margaritas are for tourists – Mexicans drink Palomas.
We wanted to replicate that, but Mexican grapefruit sodas weren’t available in Europe. Plus, they can be very sweet and a little artificial. They weren’t really up to European quality standards in terms of bartending. So we started making Palomas with grapefruit juice – we shook it with agave syrup and lime and topped it up with soda. But that’s not a Paloma – that’s a grapefruit Collins with Tequila. There were a lot of faults.
And that’s where your carbonation skills came in?
We realised that we knew how to carbonate well. We’d also realised that juice is very bad for carbonation. So we omitted the juice – we just added the skin from pink grapefruits, with water, citric acid and a little bit of salt. Then we carbonated it and we bottled it by hand.
We were one of the first companies to produce flavoured soda; before us, the common mixers were sparkling water, tonic water, ginger ale, Prosecco – things like that. Flavoured soda as a category was not really a thing. As bartenders, we saw that there was an opportunity there. Long drinks were on the rise. They’ve always been popular – the Mojito being one, the Aperol Spritz another.
From that first batch, we tried to scale production. We asked a factory to reproduce the recipe and they were like: “Why don’t you have any juice in it? Nobody makes this without juice.” It’s a consumer misbelief that you need juice – juice is bad for carbonation. You can’t carbonate anything that has fibres as high, but consumers think that the more juice something has, the better it is.
Three Cents was created in a bar by bartenders for bartenders – it’s the essence of the brand. We really kept that in mind in the factory.
We didn’t need any preservatives, because without juice, there’s nothing to preserve. We carbonated it as high as we could, which we could do by using cold water. You need the cold temperature to keep the carbonation in – that’s why you don’t drink Coca-Cola warm. Keeping a line below 1ºC costs a lot of money in terms of energy – especially as in Greece, it can be 35ºC in the summer.
If you leave a Coke open for a day, it’ll taste really sweet. That’s because the carbonation is missing, and carbonic acid is acidic. Acidity is an ingredient – it’s like the lime in a Daiquiri or a Mojito. If you forget it, it’s the wrong recipe. If you serve a flat gin and tonic, you’re missing a major ingredient.
Maximum carbonation, maximum acidity, maximum flavour delivery – that was the idea. We also wanted to give bartenders total flexibility – we didn’t want to make overly complicated products.
So you only work with glass packaging?
Yes, glass is the only packaging that can keep the carbonation. Plastic and cans breathe, so over time they lose carbonation slowly.
Glass is also more sustainable – you can recycle everything, from the glass to the carton box. There is no plastic in the product.
It is expensive, but that’s simply the cost you have to pay to create the best possible products. There are other more economical products, but we’re going for perfect quality, perfect delivery and perfect products every time. We don’t compromise.
That goes for the ingredients as well. We use very, very high-quality ingredients. Cost was never an issue for us – we never tried to reduce costs. We are always driven by flavour.
What’s in your portfolio?
We have pink grapefruit soda, which was the first of its kind. We also launched with tonic water, lemon tonic, ginger beer, lemon tonic and sparkling water – which we call Two Cents Plain. That’s where our inspiration comes from, from the era when soda was on tap, during the Great Depression. You ordered a Two Cents Plain in a pharmacy, which was a glass of carbonated water from a tap. If you added a flavour – cola, vanilla, or orange – it was one extra cent. So the total cost for a flavoured soda was three cents.
We started with those five flavours, then a little bit later we extended the range with mandarin and bergamot soda, and then cherry soda and pineapple soda.
All of the products have a similar process – so no juice, with high carbonation. With the cherry soda, we use cherry pits instead of the juice. It’s a true representation of the cherry. Cherries are not sweet – cherries are metallic and acidic, but the flavour industry has forgotten about that.
What changes have occurred in the past 10 years?
We were acquired in late 2022 by Coca-Cola Hellenic, which is one of the bottling arms of The Coca-Cola Company. It has around 35 countries under its umbrella, which is mainly Southern Europe, the Middle East and the Balkans. In those countries, we are distributed by Coca-Cola Hellenic, but everywhere else, we still do it all on our own.
With Coca-Cola Hellenic, we have the motto of ‘connected, not integrated’. We are basically independent – we do our own marketing. It’s in the best interests of both companies for us to be independent and flexible, to keep innovating so we can push this category forward.
How do you approach new product development?
It’s a combination of what bartenders need and what’s trending in the market, as well as something that works with carbonation. For example, coconut doesn’t work with carbonation. We will never do a coconut soda, no matter how popular the flavour might be.
The last product we launched was the pineapple soda. We researched pineapple and found out it works well in carbonation – but there’s an aspect of the pineapple that’s underused, which is the core of the pineapple. We did a distillate of the pineapple core and it turns out that it’s really fresh, really acidic and it gives a great depth to the soda. Through that research, we got a really flavoursome and diverse product that can be used in a lot of drinks.
We are hooked on long drinks. We have this concept where we take classic cocktails and add bubbles. We wanted to take the Piña Colada and turn it into a Fizzy Colada. I really like Cognac and pineapple, so the soda could be used in a long version of a Sazerac.
We’re always visiting bars and asking bartenders what cocktails they like. For every product, we make it by hand, and then we decide if it works before we launch it. We’re still a small team – the founders are still the ones who research and produce the flavours.
What are the brand’s plans for the future?
We definitely want to expand. Now we have the backing of Coca-Cola Hellenic, we will expand in the countries it distributes in. We’re also focusing a lot on export markets like the UK, France and the Netherlands. These countries are at the heart of the bartending world.
For this year, to celebrate our 10th anniversary, we’re going to do a whole Paloma month. We want to tell the story of the cocktail, why we created our soda, why we think it’s an amazing cocktail and do activations based around that.
We have a couple of new products that we’re working on, but it takes time as we create everything on our own. Hopefully, by the end of summer, we’ll have everything ready.
Have you considered expanding to the off-trade?
In some markets, we’ve made baby steps. We are available in certain liquor stores and also online. But we mainly want to support the bar industry. Three Cents is a very small group of people and we are committed to bars. Everybody loves bartending, so that’s our focus.