If you offer Charles Rolls a gin and tonic you'd better have a well-stocked drinks cabinet. The MD of premium mixer company Fever-Tree takes his tipple seriously - so seriously he set up a company to ensure he never had a bad drink again.
Rolls, a former owner of Plymouth Gin, one of England's oldest gin distillers, set up Fever-Tree in 2004. His motivation to create the mixers brand, he says, was spending four years manufacturing a spirit almost exclusively drunk with tonic and finding that the majority of tonics on the market did not come up to scratch.
Things came to a head when, during a test to find the best tonic water to mix with gin, he felt all the world's best gin brands tasted the same when mixed with the artificially sweetened tonics on the market. "At Plymouth Gin we had to distinguish our brand from all the others and were incredibly frustrated we had to use run-of-the-mill tonic water," he says. "It was very hard to recognise the different gins when they were mixed with brands that contained saccharin and left a bitter aftertaste."
Fever-Tree is positioned as an antidote to cheaper mixers, thanks to its use of spring water and premium ingredients and the avoidance of artificial sweeteners. Tonic water is the mainstay of its business, but bitter lemon, ginger ale, lemonade and soda water are also in the portfolio.
The products are bottled in Somerset but the ingredients are international. Quinine is sourced from Rwanda and cold-pressed bitter oranges from Tanzania for the tonic, while lemons from the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily are used in the bitter lemon and a combination of root ginger from India and Nigeria and green ginger from
Ecuador in the ginger ale.
All this comes at a price and Rolls says it costs six times as much to sweeten his products compared with those that use saccharin. This means packs of four 200ml bottles of Fever-Tree sell for £2.99 compared with 89p for a litre of Schweppes and 40p for own label, a bit of a gamble in a heavily deflationary market, he admits. "The tonic water market is an incredibly deflated sector and we started doing something different," he says. "We didn't have a clue whether we were just being esoteric dreamers."
The company got its breakthrough when a piece on its products appeared in the national press in July 2005. The next day Rolls got a call from Waitrose saying it was interested in stocking the brand. Three months later it was on shelf. "It was a seminal moment," he says. "Having Waitrose interested was something we had been waiting for. We were not surprised because it had 3.5% of the grocery market at the time but 7% of the mixer market."
Waitrose is the company's biggest grocery customer, but Fever-Tree is also stocked in top-end retailers such as Harrods, Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason, as well as drinks retailers Oddbins and Majestic Wine. Thirty per cent of its business is in the off-trade and it is also served in some the world's top restaurants, including elBulli in Spain and the UK's Fat Duck.
Despite the brand's pedigree, Rolls doesn't want it to be the preserve of just the premium retailers. "We agreed from the start that the drink would be premium but not so exclusive it wouldn't be drunk by lots of people," he says. "We are deliberately aiming to make it accessible and premium."
Fever-Tree is negotiating listings with another multiple and is also expanding outside the UK. It is sold in Whole Foods Market and Wegmans in the US and also in eight other countries. Sales in the US are so strong that Rolls is scouting for a producer there to avoid the high shipping costs.
New mixers will be added to broaden the brand's appeal, as well as more standalone drinks such as lemonade. Ginger beer is likely to be next, hints Rolls, but the company will not stray too far from mixers. "Lemonade is part mixer, part long drink, but we don't want to move too far into this area and compete against the big boys," he says. "We are a mixer company and we see no reason to change that."
More of a concern is getting the brand into as many outlets as possible, including all the major multiples. If Rolls succeeds, he admits Fever-Tree may struggle to secure sufficient supply of the special ingredients to meet demand. But it's a situation he relishes. "It's a problem I dream of having to face," he says. "Bring it on." n
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