That’s the long and short of The Artisan Drinks Co’s backstory, after British healthy juices entrepreneur Steve Cooper entered Sydney’s The Barbershop with compatriot graphic designer Alan Walsh. There they got chatting to Walsh’s friend, Mikey Enright, a leading bartender and proprietor of Australia’s gin bar of the year.
“They came in the bar, got chatting about the mixer market, where it was currently at. The kind of guy Steve is, he just asked why we don’t make our own mixer, and it started from there,” recalled Enright.
“It began as a pub chat, then we started making some samples. Alan worked on the design to give it a really fresh look and feel to make it stand out.”
Violet, elderflower, barrel-smoked cola...
A year ago Artisan launched in Britain, where it now has four lines: a classic London tonic water with complex natural citrus flavours with subtle botanical notes, a low-calorie version, a vibrant tonic with violet, elderflower and apple blossom and a barrel-smoked cola for bourbon, whisky and rum. Now the brand has also recently begun distributing to the land where it was conceived.
A gin specialist, Enright stocks 700-odd gins in The Barbershop, a grooming parlour-cum-gin bar in Sydney. He also speaks widely about gin at industry events and has worked with artisanal brands to devise new products.
“I’m quite engrossed in this area more than any others,” said the Englishman-turned-Aussie of Australia’s booming gin scene.
“We did a blind tasting recently for the Australian Distillers Association with about 180 local gins. I understand there’s more out there as well, so it’s pretty huge. The biggest category here, in terms of craft distilleries popping up, is whisky. But with gin growing now, it’s really good for the industry.”
Australia and the UK: two different markets
The rise of an artisanal segment often comes with the rise of associated accoutrements, like tonic in the case of gin.
In Australia, though, demand for premium tonics is far behind that of the UK, Enright believes. He says consumers in the Old Country are well used to splashing out on complementing artisanal mixers in bars and cafés, as well as stocking them in the fridge at home.
By contrast, Australians are better used to the cola gun, even in more upmarket settings, for their mixers. Price-conscious establishments are more attuned to keeping the cost of drinks down than offering premium sidekicks to their top-shelf spirits.
But a change has slowly been taking place with tonics, with brands like New Zealand’s East Imperial and Quina Fina, which is available in over 70 markets, leading the market and showing good growth.
But as more premium and artisanal gins become available, consumers are starting to change how they think about mixers as they turn to seek quality over quantity, Enright believes.
“They don’t have much choice in most bars yet, so a bit of work needs to be done in that area. When you look at the taxes on a bottle of Australian gin—a bottle can cost A$90 [US$64]—if they’re going to invest so much money in a product, they’re going to put two and two together and realise that they’re better off finding some good-quality tonic water too.
"It just adds more dimension to your drink. And to introduce a non-gin drinker into the category and offering them flavoured tonic waters—almost as a cocktail—everyone can get involved,” Enright added.
Sprucing up soda water
Artisan’s four lines of mixers are made mainly from British ingredients, but the company is looking at a number of different botanicals from around the world for new tonics, including from Australia, which has an abundance of in-demand native ingredients.
Until then, the current range has been designed to standardise classic styles of mixers, especially tonics. And later this year, Enright and his partners plan to launch a “fiery” ginger ale containing African ginger and chilli, a tonic fused with rose water and elderflower, one with extracts of wild cinchona bark and a soda water to "provide a pallet-pleasing, stylish mixer”.
Asked how the brand is able to spruce up soda water, Enright says marketing will be the key, especially as it is an impressive seller in an increasingly health-conscious Australian market.
“I suppose it’s probably down to people who want to take soda and want nice packaging to at least make it more interesting than its taste.
“Soda water is very big in Australia—actually, more so than low-calorie tonic. Vodka soda has been a sort of national drink here for quite a long time. There’s concern about sugar and whatever else. So I think it will be exciting to get that out in the market. It is what it is, I suppose, and it looks good.”
With artist Alan Walsh on board the management team, funky design is central to Artisan’s strategy to position the brand in a mixer market dominated by traditional-style packaging. The intention is for “people to feel like they are buying a small piece of art, and hopefully that will persuade them this is a bit fresh and different”.
With a year and now two markets under their belt, the partners are now eyeing new markets, with Singapore and Italy the front-runners, though the focus will remain on the UK and Australia for the time being.
“We just want to grow our market and see what we can make of it, just see what we can do,” said Enright. “I’m really excited about bringing out different flavours if we go with mixers for other spirit categories, but we’re just rolling with it. We have some good plans and some good partners behind it, so we’ll see where it goes.”