When Fever-Tree launched in the United Kingdom in 2005, the idea that consumers were craving a better beverage experience was just taking hold. Craft beer was in the first stages of its remarkable decade-long run of growth, the high-end bourbon boom was still a few years off, and consumers were just hearing about mixologists. Yet, two men, Tim Warrilow and Charles Rolls had a hunch. One that would help transform the drinking landscape.
Their idea was as revolutionary as it was simple. If the most significant part of most cocktails was the mixer, why not create a premium line of them? Using only the finest natural ingredients, Fever-Tree would carve out an entirely new category and challenge the bland products used in bars and restaurants. Ones poured from soda guns and plastic bottles filled with neon-colored liquids.
Its first product was Premium Tonic Water, still Fever-Tree’s flagship. It blazed the trail that led to the company becoming the world’s leading supplier of premium mixers for alcoholic spirits. These days Fever-Tree is sold in over eighty countries and has a portfolio of fifteen mixers, including tonic waters, ginger beer, ginger ales, sodas, cola, and lemonades.
We reached out to Warrilow to learn more about their story, and how they became the brand they are today. His answers have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
So, what was the genesis of the idea behind Fever-Tree?
I had been looking very hard at the world of drinks and the premiumization that was starting to happen. That was opening up many entrepreneurial opportunities. One area that I was looking very hard at was gin. I was introduced to my co-founder Charles Roll who had just breathed life back into this wonderful old brand Plymouth Gin. We quickly realized that we both had been thinking about how stuck the mixer category was in the past, and we realized what a huge opportunity there was.
You had all these great spirits hitting the market that fed into the burgeoning world of mixology, all these fabulous drinks that were being made with the same old mixers. The mixer category was a very stagnate area that a few giant multi-national conglomerates controlled. It was an area that wasn’t growing and was begging for someone step in and do something, so we decided to do just that.
How hard was it to open people’s eyes to the idea of buying premium mixers, something unheard of when you launched?
When we came up with the idea of creating a superior tonic water, we thought people would be quite excited, but it was the opposite. People were like, really, you know no one cares about the mixer, why bother? So, we knew it was going to be a hard sell. We had to work hard to open people’s eyes to the possibilities. I spent untold hours doing tastings with staff in restaurants and bars. Luckily, some brilliant early adopters in the bar and chef communities helped us get the word out. The idea of premium mixers took a while to catch on, but when it finally took root, it took off.
From day one, we have been committed to only using the best quality ingredients we could source. We knew that that was how we would differentiate ourselves. We refused to use artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and flavors. I spent lots of time in the library researching the history of drinks and their ingredients. Then we went off around the world to find them. It was that commitment to sourcing the finest ingredients that appealed to chefs and mixologists.
Not long after we launched, we got a call from the most famous chef in Spain, Ferran Adriá. His restaurant El Bulli was consistently ranked as one of the best in the world. He loved gin and tonics, and someone had brought him a bottle of our tonic from the UK. He was impressed with it and the lengths we went to find the best ingredients. He told us it was the same focus he brought to his dishes and was impressed. He ended up putting it on his world-famous tasting menu. Course fourteen was our tonic water. That garnered attention and helped launch us into the Spanish market.
When you decided to expand your product line, how did you choose what would be next?
After a while, we knew we were ready to launch a new product. For that, we focused on resurrecting one we knew would fit our portfolio perfectly but had been ruined by terrible offerings, lemon tonic. We made ours with natural Sicilian lemon juice, and it was great. Our customers asked for more, so we went in a different direction and rolled out ginger ale. We felt that the ginger category had systematically decreased over the years due to lousy soda versions on the market. But we were excited and saw endless possibilities if we could get consumers used to what it should taste like when real ginger is used, not artificial flavoring. It’s perfect with whiskey. We launched that in 2008 when we entered the United States market. It was a great way to introduce ourselves, and it worked. The consumers were ready, as the explosion of Moscow Mules showed. Today we are the market leader in ginger beer in the US.
How did the pandemic alter your business model?
The pandemic ushered in a broad shift in our business plan. Before it hit, we were primarily known for the on-premise but also had our products in the off-premise. It was amazing how quickly consumer preferences shifted. People started buying our products to take home to make drinks with, and our market share in the US grew. These days we do 75% of our sales in the off-premise compared to 50% before the pandemic. But we are seeing solid numbers in the on-premise trade these days too. We think that is fueled by people seeking out our products in bars and restaurants after trying them at home.
As someone who seems to be on the forefront of the cocktail movement, what do you see becoming the next big trends?
These days I still spend a fair share of my time on the road sourcing ingredients. Our commitment to making the best is still strong. With each new launch, we undergo an exhaustive search to ensure that the mixers we make have the finest natural flavors on the market. The premium beverage market is on fire, and our products are designed to be used in them. I find myself talking to spirits companies. Everywhere you look across the fortified wine and spirits world, they want to promote their brands with great mixed drinks. They turn to us for advice and opportunities.
Well, ginger is still red hot. We launched our blood orange ginger beer last year in collaboration with Makers Mark to focus on bourbon. We are seeing a lot of interest in Europe in Italian Aperitifs. Plus, the drink that started it all for us, gin, might be taking off. We are hearing buzz about gin and tonics catching on in the US. The tonic water was so bad for so long across America that the growth is unlimited there once people discover what a proper G&T actually tastes like.