June 2012

The Business Asset

John Curley

“Good humor is a tonic for mind and body. It is a business asset. It attracts and keeps friends. It lightens human burdens. It is the direct route to serenity and contentment.”
—Grenville Kleiser, American author

Scott Beattie, the highly regarded mixologist who literally wrote the book on creating cocktails with high-quality, beautifully sourced ingredients (Artisanal Cocktails), likes to tell how he answers the question of how to make the perfect Gin and Tonic: “People ask, ‘What’s the best gin to use?’ Beattie says, “But the better question is, what’s the best tonic, because there’s a lot more tonic than gin in the drink.”

That was the same conclusion Charles Rolls reached after he turned around the Plymouth Gin company. Rolls had taken charge of Plymouth in 1997. It was an established, well-known brand that had lapsed into mediocrity. A year and a half later, the company was profitable again. After only four years in charge, Rolls had increased sales 14-fold. He had made the company so attractive to investors that he sold it in 2001 for what he quite modestly calls “a substantial sum.”

Mixologist Scott Beattie took time out from establishing the cocktail offerings at Healdsburg, CA’s new Goose & Gander restaurant to talk about the Fever-Tree line of mixers.
But what would come next? Rolls took his time deciding. He spent most of year flying and sailing “and doing the things I really like to do.” He kept a bag packed and waiting at the back door, so that if adventure came calling, he’d be ready to say yes. “My wife said the bag was like the one she had when she was ready to give birth,” Rolls says with a laugh from his London offices.

After all the adventuring, Rolls came to his quite logical conclusion: If you’ve spent years perfecting a really excellent gin, why not tackle the tonic that gets put into it? And thus began the James Bond–like adventure that eventually produced the Fever-Tree line of mixers.

Don’t think that the James Bond reference is mere hyperbole. Picture this: You’ve decided that you are going to produce the finest tonic water in the world, and to do that you are going to need the finest quinine to make it. Quinine comes from the bark of the cinchona tree, and you find the cinchona tree in eastern Africa. So you must go there to procure it.

“I left it to Tim to do that,” Rolls says somewhat ruefully. He’s speaking of Tim Warrillow, the co-founder of Fever-Tree, and the person who offered to go to source Fever-Tree’s quinine. (“Fever tree” is the colloquial term for the cinchona tree.)  Rolls wanted no part of the job: 20 years earlier, when Rolls was still a mining engineer, he had contracted malaria in Congo. And even though quinine has been used as an anti-malarial agent for centuries, he left it to Warrillow to bring home the good stuff. 

Charles Rolls and Tim Warrillow, co-founders of Fever-Tree.
Warrillow takes up the story from there. “I guess ignorance is bliss,” Tim says as he recalls the trip. “I hadn’t quite appreciated what a lawless place it is.” He was speaking of the border region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which, he says, “makes Rwanda look like the south of France.”
“I had my money rolled up in my sock; I had no idea what to expect.”

As he and his taxi driver made their across the countryside, armed combatants would set up roadblocks, looking for payoffs. Sometimes there would only be a string across the road to block their progress, but sometimes there would be nail-studded wooden planks. At one roadblock, “there were guys wearing AK-47s, there was a rocket launcher . . .” His voice trails off as he remembers the menace. “But it was really beautiful.” A terrible beauty, indeed.

Warrillow eventually found the high-quality quinine he was looking for, at a plantation that was still prospering.  “Even the warlords realize the importance of quinine,” he says. In a nation where thousands die of malaria every year, “they use it themselves.”

 The ingredients for Fever-Tree’s other mixers come from less-dangerous places, but no less exotic. The ginger for Fever-Tree’s ginger beer and ginger ale comes from three different places—fresh green ginger from the Ivory Coast, intense and complex ginger from Nigeria and earthy, chocolate-y ginger from Cochin, India. Combined, the various gingers produce aromas and flavor notes that are distinct and original. But how do you even begin to find these sources?

“We’ve had a lot of help, and some of it has been from people that you would call ‘plant hunters,’” Rolls says. “These are guys who have spent their lives and, unfortunately in some cases, given up their families, going around the world looking for the finest ingredients.”

The response has been phenomenal, although Rolls is modest again. “Let’s face it, we’re tiny,” he says. “We’re going to be a $30 million business this year, but I guess in seven years, that’s not too bad.” It’s not too bad to be in 38 countries already, too.

Some bars and restaurants think so highly of the mixers that they serve them separately, in their own glasses, so that customers can make highballs to their own specifications. One of the most prestigious restaurants in the world, Spain’s El Bulli, and its renowned chef, Ferran Adrià, turned the tonic into a course of its own: sopa de Fever-Tree tonica.

“We fundamentally believe that the flavor is so important,” Warrillow says. “We are proud and grateful that the trade community has supported us. The bartenders and mixologists, and the chefs. They understand the importance of creating fantastic ingredients.” Fever-Tree products are notable for what they have, and for what they don’t—there are no added sweeteners, cheap aromatics or preservatives.

For Rolls, success is centered on the cultivation of the brand. “I definitely found my natural home when I got into the world of brands,” Rolls says. And what is this world of brands? “Fundamentally, it comes down to the ingredients—the things you are going to put into the product. Of course there’s the packaging, and everything that goes around it, but I believe that a great brand comes about because of the attributes that the consumers attach to them. I find it so fascinating and so rewarding, and I think that’s what consumers are latching onto.”

Fever-Tree’s line of products currently available in the United States includes Ginger Ale, Bitter Lemon, Mediterranean Tonic, Ginger Beer, Tonic Water, Light Tonic and Club Soda. Fever-Tree is available in some of the finest restaurants, bars and retailers nationwide. See www.fever-tree.com for more information.

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