If you work in the drinks industry there is a fair chance you would have got a book related to wine or spirits somewhere in your Christmas stocking. It’s hardly a novel present. But when Mike Robinson was given a book on gins and home-made tonic recipes one Christmas it was to change his life. For up to then he had been quite happy working in supply chain and logistics for Heinz. Now he is looking to make his way into the drinks industry with his own range of Jeffrey’s handcrafted cordials and tonic syrups.
It’s hard breaking into the drinks industry as it is, never mind with a new product that no-one really understands what it is. But with his range of Jeffrey’s tonics and syrups, Mike Robinson wants to open up a new premium soft drinks category.
Back in the mid 2000s I had the chance to sit down with the co-founders of a new tonics business that claimed they had a product that would finally give any premium gin a matching tonic that allowed the true characteristics of that gin to stand out. Their names were Charles Rolls and Tim Warrillow and their new brand, which was still then trying to get distribution in premium bars, was Fever Tree – and we all know what followed next.
Now if Mike and Maureen Robinson and the team behind Jeffrey’s can get just a small amount of the success that Fever Tree has had then they will be very happy. But there are many similarities in what they are trying to do and the original concept of Fever Tree.
“So much effort has been put into gin botanicals, we felt there was a need for a craft tonic for your craft gin. That is what our Classic Premium Indian Tonic Syrup looks to deliver,” explains Mike Robinson. “We want to bring your gin to life”.
Essentially what they have looked to do with their Jeffrey’s range of premium soft drinks is to create a selection of handcrafted cordials and tonic syrups that are made from infusions of natural herbs and spices. It immediately reminds me of Leonard Rossiter waxing lyrical about Cinzano being “suffused with herbs and spices from four continents” in those classic TV adverts.
But here the focus is on creating a premium soft drink that can be enjoyed both with and without alcohol. In fact the most refreshing serves are simply mixing the Jeffrey’s range with sparking water and ice. They are also designed to work as mixers for spirits and making cocktails.
For their Classic Premium Indian Tonic Syrup, for example, Robinson and his team “simply” use Cinchona bark and organic Sicilian lemon juice. It is, though, the “special process” by which they bring them together which he is less keen to divulge that turns it into what is a very classy tonic.
“It is designed to make the absolute best of your gin, and complex gins open up beautifully with it,” he says.
It started with a book…
(Here Mike Robinson explains the story behind the brand in a video taken at the BBC Good Food show)
Robinson admits he sometimes finds it hard to believe he has ended up doing what he is doing, and whether he would ever have thought of creating these drinks if it was not for receiving the book at Christmas – by US cocktail guru Jeffrey Morgenthaler – on how to make your tonics at home. Hence the name Jeffrey’s Tonics.
“After my last job for Heinz in Australia I thought I was going to retire and go holidaying with my wife,” he says. “That was then I got the book on gin and tonic recipes for Christmas and was intrigued by them.”
But by giving them a go, and adapting the recipes with some ideas of his own, “it gave him the germ of an idea”. He was soon able to try out in his own recipes on friends and family who encouraged him and Maureen, his wife, to experiment more and see where it might take them.
“The recipes weren’t perfect, but they worked well enough for friends and family who inspired us to make more. We didn’t quite understand, though, how much work would be needed to take them into production.”
He says they started out working with up to 50 ingredients doing tests and trials of all sorts of combinations to see what would work. “It was chaos for months,” he says. The key was when he started to look at the ingredients as infusions rather than being part of an alcohol extraction.
The basic principles, though, have not changed and that it is to “find the best, completely natural combinations of herbs and spices for yummy, interesting drinks,” says Robinson.
By doing everything themselves meant they could taste what they wanted and come up with genuinely new recipes that no other major producer would have tried. Like its use, and now understanding of cinchona as a key ingredient in producing its tonic syrup.
“It is very easy to make tonic water. You just add tiny amounts of alcohol-extracted ingredients. But what we are doing is different. We are making an infusion of dried ingredients, plus organic Sicilian lemon or lime juice. It’s the authenticity of those ingredients that is important. It’s been a huge learning curve for us.”
The original recipe they came up with was Sicilian Lemon & Warm spices, which really conjures up memories of walking the streets of South East Asia. Which is where their inspiration came from having spent so much of his career with Heinz working around the world, with his last position heading up the supply chain for Heinz in Australia.
Here the combination is all about bringing together cassia, clove and allspice and again can be used as a mixer or with just ice, soda or sparkling water
The beauty of it being a syrup means you can control the strength of your mixer and just how much flavour and texture you want to add to your overall drink.
If you could get away with serving a soft drink between games on Wimbledon’s Centre Court then the Jeffrey’s Oriental Lime would be ideal, as it combines organic lime juice with galangal and citrus.
The other drink in the range is the Yarrow, Rosehip & Elderflower which is not the first three ingredients you might think of for a cordial, but they again work well to create floral notes which will suit some gins – particularly pink ones.
The production of Jeffrey’s tonics and cordials is now done in a unit within Chester University, but is still very much at the hand crafted stage, down to labelling and packing up the boxes for delivery.
Now he is more than happy with the range and the quality of the drinks he has produced, the biggest challenge for Robinson and Jeffrey’s is getting across to the trade and potential buyers just exactly what it is they have to sell.
“Cordials make amazing mixers, but it’s hard to get that message across. Unless you can go face to face at events, and food and drinks fairs. It’s hard to get people to pick them up as they don’t know what they have to look at,” he explains.
It means 2020 has been particularly difficult with the outbreak of Covid-19 and not being able to go out and do all the face to face tastings and events that they had planned to do.
Helping the Robinsons and the Jeffrey’s team is Steve Frehley, a tennis partner of Mike Robinson, who was convinced just by tasting the products to join the business as director
“It has taken a long time to find the right distribution,” he says.
Not that they have not had support and encouragement from the trade. Virtually everyone they have had the chance to sit down and show the product to love its quality and authenticity, says Frehley. The difficulty comes in getting it over the line for a listing as the customer involved is not always sure how to sell it.
Listening and adapting
So they have taken the feedback on board and worked with key players such as Booths to make changes to the presentation, the terminology and placing it the soft drinks category to help them stock it.
They have also worked closely with premium bars in Liverpool and Manchester to see how it performs and what customers want to drink with them. “The feedback from them has been exceptional,” he says.
They have also had some success with restaurants, with London Carriage Works in Liverpool and chef Simon Rimmer taking it on for his Greens restaurant in Didsbury and hope to be bed down soon with a specialist distributor.
“The main focus during Covid has been going to existing customers and generating sales that way. We need to keep that volume going through the business rather than worry about getting a case order here or there,” says Frehley.
He says he is really enjoying the chance to work for himself and build his own business after so many years in the corporate world at Heinz. It’s also a chance for him to work alongside his wife, who herself enjoyed a good career as a home economics teacher.
Although he knows it’s going to be a “long haul” to get to the level of business they want, they have enjoyed each step of the four years they have been building the company up.
“We know hand crafted cordials are quite niche at the moment, but these are very flexible products. We’re well placed with industry trends to reduce waste and innovate and we are massively encouraged by the positive responses we get.”