You can’t walk down a London street these days without tripping over a flourishing market, street feast or pop-up bar. The stoics have lost; epicures, connoisseurs and bons vivants have won. We’re all hedonists now.
This never-ending quest for the best was something Tim Warrillow and Charles Rolls identified when they started Fever-Tree in 2005. Tim had started a business at university and had a background in advertising and marketing, while Charles had established a formidable reputation for turning around the fortunes of Plymouth Gin. Though Tim set up a meeting with Charles to talk about gin, “very quickly the conversation turned towards mixers and tonic water; we had both been looking at it from separate angles, but had really arrived at the same conclusion.” The rising tide of premium spirits, craft distilling and cocktail culture hadn’t lifted all ships: the mixer category remained stagnant.
Once Tim and Charles had decided on a premiumisation strategy, the hard work really began. “It has taken us – and still takes us – to all sorts of weird and wonderful places. The one that I pulled the short straw for was quinine. Quinine is the very essence of tonic water, the whole reason that tonic water came about as a product was that it was a way of giving a dose of quinine.”
Quinine was first isolated in 1820 from the bark of the cinchona tree (otherwise known as the fever tree – hence the firm’s name). “It’s incredibly bitter; particularly when given in large quantities as it was then. So people mix it with water, fruit, herbs, just to give it a bit of flavour; to make it more palatable; ‘to help the medicine go down’, which is the expression coined as a result. When British troops were given a ration of gin they found that it helped the medicine go down even quicker.”
Unfortunately for Tim, quinine is found in the most eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo – “the most lawless place on the planet. Just the two miles to get to the plantation involved about four roadblocks. Everyone’s armed… It’s the most extraordinary place.”
As well as the drink, Tim and Charles invested in the packaging. “We wanted to put it in glass, as it remains the best way of keeping a liquid fresh. And we wanted to put it in small bottles, as the thing that kills the gin or vodka and tonic quicker than anything is lack of carbonation.”
They then set about getting the global elite of hospitality on their side – most notably Ferran Adrià of elBulli. “A journalist took a bottle of our tonic water to see him in Spain. As a result, he made the Sopa de Fever-Tree Tonic dish out of it in his world famous restaurant just as we were looking at launching in Spain.”
Fever-Tree is now in 58 markets, delivered first-half growth of 69 per cent and a share price that values the company at over $1bn. But Tim believes the company still has a lot of growth left in it. That’s why he went public. They had a perfectly good experience with private equity, “but we just had a bigger long-term vision for the brand”. That’s why Fever-Tree is a Leap 100 company, and with Tim’s affable manner mixed with his singular business vision, I don’t doubt he and Charles will further shake up this previously stagnant industry.
This article originally appeared in City A.M.