Mixers sparked an entirely new category of posh tonics for premium gin, moved into more exciting flavours and then turned their attention to dark spirits. But where can the category go next, asks Lucy Britner
The headline ‘just the tonic’ has been used so much over the past five years, it should be banned from all newsrooms. Historically, it has summed up the category pretty well, and while there are now plenty of other things to shout about when it comes to mixers, tonics are still big business.
Here, we talk to the mixer makers to find out what wider trends are influencing the category and what we can expect over the next 12 months.
Tonic is still at the centre of the mixers world and its growth continues alongside gin.
‘The gin category continues to thrive in the on-trade and is expected to overtake vodka to become the most lucrative spirits category in the UK by the end of 2020,’ says Britvic’s The London Essence Company co-founder Ounal Bailey, citing CGA and OnTrade Preview figures. ‘This goes hand-in-hand with the growing demand for premium mixers, including tonic, as 88% is predominantly paired with gin.’
Relative newcomer Lixir Drinks was launched in 2018 by bartenders Matt Mahatme and Jordan Palmer. Palmer describes tonics as a ‘core and fundamental part’ of their plans for the portfolio.
Our frustrated desire to travel could express itself in demand for more exotic ingredients
‘A G&T is always going to be a classic and we expect our consumers to stay loyal to this choice, so offering a range of good-quality, versatile tonic waters will be important next year,’ Palmer tells us. ‘That said, consumers are also becoming more comfortable with tonics more broadly, and we predict that over the course of 2021, we’ll see consumers being a lot more adventurous with what they pair their tonics with.’
Bailey agrees, citing the explosive growth of rum. ‘Tonic has become a popular mixer to enhance the likes of rum as its botanicals are a flavour match for the layered richness of aged expressions, cementing its position as the go-to mixer in the category, ’ she adds.
Beyond the usual suspects
Though tonic is of course HUGE, there are many innovations in mixers, with some companies setting out to introduce more unusual flavours from the off. The Two Keys range, for example, includes Green Tea, Black Tea, Pink Grapefruit and Lemon.
‘Despite the spirits category being so diverse, consumers are always given the same choice of mixers – gin with tonic, vodka with soda, rum with Coke,’ say co-founders James Simpson and Jack Herlihy. ‘We wanted to create something disruptive and exciting at the forefront of drinking trends, introduce consumers to a new way of drinking and change their mindset, offering a desired alternative to traditional tonics.’
The pair also highlight a heightened demand for consistent, high-quality cocktails that can be created at high speed and in high-volume scenarios, following the impact of Covid-19 on the on-trade. ‘Bartenders now want to ensure they can produce delicious serves using minimal ingredients and limiting touch points,’ they add.
Elsewhere, Fever-Tree’s head of innovation, Rose Cottingham, predicts a more exotic future as she talks of a trend for escapism. She suggests our frustrated desire to travel could express itself in demand for more exotic ingredients, as the trend for affordable luxury and indulgence evolves.
The folks at Fentimans also cite ‘new takes on tropical’ as a flavour trend for the future, in the recently released Fentimans Premium Soft Drinks & Mixers Report 2020 . ‘With new generations identifying themselves as ‘global citizens’ and the world shrinking due to global travel, geographical boundaries that have defined traditional flavour pairings are falling away,’ the report says. ‘Tropical flavours are also changing as a result of their increasing availability and falling costs, and venues are thinking more creatively about their use in drinks. As a result, tropical flavours are becoming more integrated into western drinking traditions, products and ingredients, particularly at the premium end of the market.’ Take the continued rise of the Pornstar Martini as a case in point.
Innovation is also arriving in the form of RTDs – not only are companies such as Fever-Tree launching their own RTDs, bars are using them as mixers. Anna Sebastian, bar manager at Artesian, says she uses Served Raspberry hard seltzer as a mixer in a twist on a Vodka Red Bull, as part of the bar’s Disco menu.
‘The raspberry is a very natural, great flavour, but not too overpowering, and gives a really nice length, complementing the cocktail,’ she says.
Meanwhile, the ever-fashionable CBD has entered the fray and start-up CBD brand Doña Sofía, launched its first CBD-infused non-alcoholic soft drinks in October. The range includes a cola and a tonic as well as a lemon & lime seltzer. In the marketing material, the brand is described as being ‘inspired by the therapeutic effects of CBD that are being hailed by health organisations around the world’.
It’s no surprise that pretty much every producer we spoke to mentioned health and wellness – and Covid-19 has drawn even greater focus on the trend for many consumers. According to The London Essence Company’s Bailey, drinking habits are changing as people pursue a balance of wellness and enjoyment within their lifestyle. She says this is reflected with an increase in demand for non-alcoholic and light options.
‘We believe this trend will be even more prevalent next year both in bars and restaurants as they begin to cater for the new “health-conscious” consumer, or risk losing customers to at-home entertainment, where they can control their intake more carefully,’ she says.
Bailey explains that during lockdown, people discovered that through both necessity and increased time, they could improve their in-home experiences, ‘with a little more attention to the finer details, and honed drinks serves themselves, in lieu of a superior experience in a bar or restaurant’.
Maintaining that sense of premium will be even more important in the future, according to the Fentimans Premium Soft Drinks & Mixers Report 2020. ‘Consumers don’t want to compromise their out-of-home drinking experiences,’ the report says of consumers who are abstaining from drinking either partly or completely. ‘For pubs, bars and restaurants, it is more important than ever to provide a compelling non-alcoholic range.’
Every producer we spoke to mentioned health and wellness – and Covid-19 has drawn even greater focus on the trend for many consumers
Lixir’s Palmer says the health & wellness trend has also sparked a growing demand for mixer pairings in the low- and no- alcohol category, whether that be with non-alcoholic spirits, vermouths, white ports or a multitude of liqueurs and aperitifs.
Fever-Tree’s Cottingham agrees, pinpointing the spritz as well as moves to enjoy ‘sophisticated non-alcoholic options’. In answer to the long drinks and spritzes trend, Fever-Tree rolled out a range of soda waters earlier this year. The four-strong range includes Mexican Lime Soda, Italian Blood Orange Soda, Raspberry & Rose Soda and White Grape & Apricot Soda. The low-calorie sodas are made using fruit sugar.
In the mixer
And in terms of ingredients, low-calorie and low-sugar options appear to be firm consumer priorities. ‘All-natural ingredients will remain important over the next year,’ says Lixir’s Palmer. ‘From the outset, we developed our range with this in mind and all our products have been naturally low in calories and sugar from launch.’
Cottingham also says ingredients associated with health & wellness will be popular. She points to an increase in searches for ginger cocktails during lockdown as well as other ingredients, such as turmeric, with its perceived health benefits.
Hand-in-hand with more interest in ingredients comes more interest in how products are made and where these ingredients come from.
‘Amongst consumers, there's a continued demand for better-quality ingredients crafted to elevate experiences,’ Cottingham explains. She says lockdown forced people to appreciate local shops and their local area. ‘As a result, they'll definitely be more focused on using local ingredients. And, with that, I think consumers are becoming more savvy about seasonal ingredients,’ she says, also drawing attention to the juxtaposition between the ‘escapism’ trend and the ‘local, mindful’ trend.
She points to Fever-Tree’s recently launched Rhubarb & Raspberry Tonic, which uses ingredients from the UK.
Fentimans also touts a bright future for British flavours, adding ‘nostalgia’ to the mix: ‘With geopolitics being ever more unstable and the coronavirus crisis creating widespread alarm, more and more people are seeking refuge and reassurance,’ the 2020 report says. ‘The desire to reaffirm national identity and self-dependence will lead to renewed appeal for nostalgic British flavours, driven both by pride and recognised comfort.’ The company highlights rhubarb, dandelion & burdock, shandy, British apple varieties, sarsaparilla and marshmallow as key flavour trends.
More mindful drinking has brought with it a more mindful approach to the planet and ‘sustainability’ comes up a lot in conversations.
Lixir’s Palmer says brand owners will need to prioritise environmental concerns over the next 12 months. ‘Customers are increasingly demanding sustainable production methods and green packaging options,’ he says. ‘For Lixir Drinks, this means manufacturing our mixers in the UK and choosing sustainable suppliers, materials and ingredients wherever possible.’
Brand owners will need to prioritise environmental concerns over the next 12 months
And though the mixers revolution initially sparked a move away from ‘gun tonic’, a more sophisticated approach to the delivery mechanism also ticks some sustainability boxes.
Late last year, London Essence Company launched London Essence Fresh Serve – a tonic fount that ‘meets the growing demand for improved sustainability with its innovative bag-in-a-box system that reduces packaging by 96%; effectively decreasing the space and time required to restock chillers with bottles’, says Bailey. The fount makes it easy for bartenders to deliver a serve freshly infused with distilled botanicals at the point of dispense, and do that at speed. Nifty.
New launches, meanwhile, are coming to market with a built-in sustainability play. Take Coast, the new mixers range from bartender and Grey Goose brand ambassador Joe McCanta – the brand supports the Marine Conservation Society and carries the tagline ‘buy a Coast, help a coast’.
Overall, the future of the category will see more mindful moves in terms of ingredients, sustainability and serves. And while there will be innovations in flavours and styles, don’t expect tonic to go anywhere soon.
‘Affordable luxury and indulgence, coupled with our desire to travel, could give way to more exotic ingredients’
This article was first published in the 2020 autumn issue of Imbibe.