*This feature was originally published in the April 2019 edition of The Spirits Business magazine.
“Whatever happens with Brexit, at least we can relax in the knowledge that the future of the quintessentially British gin and tonic is secured!” quipped Gavin Partington, director general at the British Soft Drinks Association (BDSA), in March. His comment followed the EU’s decision to allow tonic water to continue trading under its traditional name, following a four-year investigation into whether use of the word ‘tonic’ fell foul of EU rules designed to prevent food and drink products from suggesting they have health benefits.
Thankfully, common sense prevailed and tonic water can continue its lucrative endeavours without a category-wide rebrand. But where Schweppes was once the go-to tonic for every G&T serve, a new wave of premium mixers now dominates the scene.
Fever-Tree’s arrival was arguably the greatest shake-up of the tonic and mixer category in history. The brand has spearheaded the growth of the premium part of the market – and superseded Schweppes’ monopoly. In March, Fever-Tree confirmed its full-year revenue for 2018 grew 40% to £237.4 million (US$311.8m), boosted by the UK.
“Fever-Tree is built on innovation, and we’re constantly developing new mixers and flavours to pair with the myriad of premium spirits out there,” says Fergus Franks, UK brand manager, Fever-Tree. “Offering a choice of high-quality mixers to pair with premium spirits is key, and this choice is something that Fever-Tree brought to the previously forgotten mixer category.”
Gareth Jones, UK spirit brand engagement ambassador for Schweppes, Coca Cola, concedes the category was once overlooked – but Schweppes has since made bold moves to retain its place in the increasingly crowded arena. “Having noticed that there was a gap in the Schweppes tonic range for a premium option, in November 2017 we launched Schweppes 1783, a range of naturally flavoured premium mixers that work perfectly to create a range of serves that aim to elevate spirits,” explains Jones. “To some extent, tonic has been the underdog to the gin itself. However, with the increase in flavours and premium offerings in spirits, tonic has become increasingly important to offer consumers choice.”
As the popularity of high-quality tonic waters and mixers grows, new producers are eager to break into the market. Even celebrity businessman Lord Alan Sugar is aware of its profitable potential, after investing in startup tonic water producer Buzbee’s Beverages this year. But while tonic’s favourite partner, gin, has managed to thrive in an oversaturated market, is the mixer category capable of following a similar trajectory?
“The growth of the category has been fantastic,” enthuses Joyce De Haas, cofounder of London’s Double Dutch. “So far, the quality has been outstanding. We are seeing a number of wonderful products entering the market, giving the leaders a run for their money. But there is a fine line between choice and over-saturating the market. As consumers are still learning and experimenting, it’s important to offer a balance between adventurous combinations and classic styles with a unique twist.”
With more competitors in the mixer category than before, consumers are spoilt for choice. Every brand has its own range of unusual flavour combinations – an unimaginable prospect five years ago. The London Essence Company is seemingly unfazed by the growing number of products on the market, fixing its focus on consumer trends to “stay ahead of the game”.
“We’re always on the lookout for the next big flavour trend, working closely with world-leading bartenders to see how we can excite people’s palates,” says Ounal Bailey, cofounder of Wisehead Productions, parent firm of The London Essence Company. “It’s always good to offer consumers choice, and the introduction of new premium brands has opened up product variety while offering existing brands healthy competition to spur them on.”
Focus on health
While the category’s success correlates to the ongoing gin boom, Fever-Tree’s Franks believes the rise of the low- and no-alcohol trend has also played its part in boosting tonics and mixers. Health has never been so important for consumers, particularly the younger generations who are looking for ways to enjoy alcohol in a mindful way.
“We are seeing consumers turning away from drinking spirits neat, or on ice – this is no longer compatible with modern lifestyles or health and wellbeing,” explains Franks. “There’s a move towards simple, long mixed drinks with high-quality components – a premium spirit, a premium mixer, a fresh garnish and lots of ice.”
It’s a trend that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Franklin & Sons, either. The brand’s Flavour Collection has been designed to complement lower-abv spirits and give consumers the “opportunity to experiment further with tonic combinations”. Franklin & Sons’ new dual-flavoured tonic range aims to capitalise on this further, with flavour combinations such as Elderflower and Cucumber Tonic, and Rosemary and Black Olive Tonic.
“With a growing number of participants, the level of competition has increased as brands fight to become the best,” says Jen Draper, marketing director at UK-based firm Global Brands, owner of Franklin & Sons. “To be successful, it is important to listen to consumer trends and innovate with trend-leading flavours that are unique.” She also notes that not everyone likes tonic water. “There is still a segment of the market that doesn’t enjoy tonic, and it is important to not forget about these consumers because they are looking for alternative mixers. This is why the Franklin & Sons Flavour Collection has been developed with multi-use in mind.”
Interest has also recently shifted to dark spirits, a category that mixer producers had previously paid little attention to. Leading the way in this field, again, is Fever-Tree, which last month released a range of ginger ales designed to pair with dark spirits. The range comprises Smoky Ginger Ale, made for rum; Spiced Orange Ginger Ale, recommended mixed with aged spirits, most notably Cognac and rum; and a low-calorie version of its Premium Ginger Ale.
“G&T consumption is still in strong long- term global growth, but the spirits category is not just about gin, and the mixer category is not just about tonic,” notes Franks. “The same trends are emerging in dark spirits that led to the rise of premium gin consumption. We are the first company to develop a full range of mixers specifically designed to address this opportunity.”
As consumers become more open to experimenting with spirits and mixers, there is huge scope for further innovation in the category. This will undoubtedly bring with it a host of new players, eager to claim their stake in the burgeoning market. However, as numbers grow, individuality and quality will also become increasingly important to the industry’s success.
Point of difference
“The category is still defining itself, and more focus on it is a good thing,” insists De Haas. “The sector is still in its educational phase; consumers are still being introduced to the importance of the mixer when choosing their drinks.
“There will be a point soon when we are seeing too many brands in the market, and companies will need to ensure they have got a clear point of difference so they don’t over-complicate things for the consumer. As it stands today we are very happy with the amount of competition in the market.”
As the saying goes, a little healthy competition never hurt anyone – and when it comes to tonics and mixers, there are many winners to be found.
A spirit brand’s perspective
With the tonic and mixer category booming, the potential to innovate and expand is vast. One brand keen to highlight its versatility and mixability further is Patrón.
The Tequila collaborated with Fever-Tree in 2018 to create a tonic water specifically to complement Patrón’s signature tonic water and Tequila serve – the Patrónic. The FeverTree Citrus Tonic Water was designed to balance the “sweet citrus and peppery tasting notes of Patrón, thanks to its beautifully balanced blend of specially sourced citrus, including Mexican limes, tangerines and orange bitters”.
But throughout the category, is there enough innovation and diversity to keep consumers excited and willing to experiment with mixing tonic waters with nontraditional spirits, such as Tequila?
“Compared with a few years ago, today bartenders and consumers have many options, from a variety of bespoke mixers for white and dark spirits to those with new and unusual flavours, such as rhubarb and yuzu,” says Matthew Sykes, director of international marketing for Patrón Spirits International. “Even with all this variety, up until last year there wasn’t a mixer designed specifically for Tequila. With the superpremium Tequila category burgeoning and the extensive range of unique flavour profiles that the Patrón Tequila portfolio offers, there are still possibilities to be unlocked within the mixer category to continue exciting drinkers and showcase the versatility of our product in both the world’s best bars and at home every day.”