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Ounal Bailey - The London Essence Company

Written by Gin Foundry

The London Essence Company burst onto the scene at the tail end of 2016, with their Classic Tonic, Grapefruit & Rosemary Tonic and their Bitter Orange & Elderflower Tonic ready and willing to dance strange and dizzying waltzes with the hyper-botanical gins entering the market. Launched by the team at WiseHead Productions (an incubator arm of Britvic), the tonics were all designed with health conscience drinkers in mind, clocking in at under 20 calories per 100ml. We had a natter with co-founder Ounal Bailey to get the low down on the new brand.

Hello, and congratulations on such a beautiful looking range of mixers. You’ve gone old fairly old school on your bottle design – does that reflect the overall approach you’ve taken to the range?

Thank you I’m glad you like the style! Our inspiration for The London Essence Company. has been about marrying the best of its heritage with contemporary thinking. So, whilst our design has taken its cues from the 1920’s, the period when the company was in its heyday, our recipe combinations are very much born of contemporary trends and influenced by our partnership with modern mixologists.

Where did the “London Essence” name and idea come from and how did you come across it? Where was the 1896 version based?

We uncovered the story of The London Essence Company whilst delving into the Britvic archives. The original company was based in Peckham, and they were renowned for creating essences from the finest ingredients, which flowed into London from all over the world. They supplied these essences to a variety of industries, from confectioners to kirsch makers. Inspired by their expertise, we are now seeking to apply their approach to creating skilfully distilled drinks – each containing a signature distilled essence!

You studied economics at University, and ended up here in the glorious world of booze and mixers. What prompted you to go into the drinks industry? As we’ve understood it, it wasn’t a straight path from one to the other..?

After a stint at The Treasury whilst at University, it’s fair to say that I knew I wanted to head into more creative pursuits! I have always been interested in working in industries with real products that people can touch, taste and see for themselves. After working in a few different businesses, covering clothes to washing powder, the drinks industry has been the ultimate expression of those elements coming together.

It’s an area where every single person has a point of view, which certainly makes it a challenge. But ultimately there’s no bigger thrill than when you see someone choose a product you have created – and enjoy drinking it!

You worked at Britvic for five years before moving into doing more innovation and R&D work - what was the mixer market like when you first started?

When I led innovation, I looked after many different brands and drinks categories, developing things like the award-winning Robinsons Squash’d. During that time however, the mixer market started to evolve, going from a market where people seemed to be content with the big brand offers, to one where they began to seek our more premium, crafted offers, which matched their desire for discovery in the spirits world.

It has obviously evolved a lot since then too, with the craft tonic industry in particular trying to meet the demands of the gin world that’s boomed around them. Do you think it’s important to strive to be different in a sea of competition?

Ultimately, I think it’s most important to create drinks which truly deliver the best possible experience for both bartenders and also the general public. But in striving for this, and through our work with Nick Strangeway, we discovered that there was also an opportunity to create something which is truly distinct.

The fact that our whole range is delicately light and low in sugar, means that we are better able to allow the taste of premium spirits to shine through. The range of contemporary flavours that we have, combined with our used of distilled essences, also provide genuine breadth of flavour and allow us to flatter a variety of gins.

With two Britvic-ers to its name, WiseHead undeniably stems from within the company. How does it work as a separate entity and why the separation, as in, why not just be Britvic?

Our goal in creating WiseHead was to try and develop an approach which aims to gets the best from both worlds. The entrepreneurial thinking, and creative freedom of a start-up – but delivered with the quality and reliability that our customers expect.

So, we have established a different way of working to the main business, acting with pace to respond to market trends and trade input. We definitely use our own experience and judgement a great deal! But it’s great to able to seek advice from our colleagues, particularly around some elements such as managing logistics, which definitely sit outside my comfort zone! Still, it’s fair to say that we are still learning and evolving this relationship as we grow.

So, the products are still a part of Britvic in the wider context, but under WiseHead for their incubation. What does this allow you do that you couldn’t otherwise?

Britvic almost acts as a “investor” in this start up business. For example, to respond to the demand that we have seen, we now have a small and dedicated team of WiseHeaders, who hand sell our range into selected outlets. Whilst this is very modest, in the context of the Britvic business, it is something I think we would have struggled to deliver at pace on our own.

Do you feel that non-alcoholic offerings in bars are still miles behind where they should be, given the attention over recent years to reducing the quantity of alcohol that people drink?

Definitely! We are seeing a change in people’s habits, where many are choosing to moderate their alcohol intake whilst they are out. I am seeing people moving towards buying better quality drinks, but they are just choosing to consume fewer of them and are pacing themselves. Based on this, I think that bars are slowly realising that there is an opportunity for them to serve premium drinks to their customers on these occasions – both those with and those without alcohol.

With that in mind… Do you feel a shift towards premium mixers as the first choice in many instances? And are these designed to work as standalone products as well? “Kids” today… they’re a bit more health conscious than we were.

Luckily there are a few options opening-up for people choosing not to drink.

Whilst we designed our mixer range to be consumed with a spirit, we have been pleasantly surprised with the feedback that many people would happily consume them standalone. Our Grapefruit & Rosemary Tonic and Bitter Orange and Elderflower Tonic, in particular, are firm favourites with some of our mixologist friends whilst they are working!

Beyond mixers, we have also created our first “zero proof” drink, Thomas & Evans No. 1. This is a complex and layered non-alcoholic aperitif, based on a botanical blend and green fruit notes – which has been perfectly designed with non-drinkers in mind.

You’ve referred to it earlier, but going in a little further - the range has relatively low sugar quantities. Was this an important fact for you and an intentional part of the development?

Absolutely. Many premium mixers are high in sugar and as a result, they mask the taste of complex spirits. Our goal was to ensure that we could elevate the taste of premium spirits, and reducing the sugar content was one key way of achieving this. The range has had a warm reception as a result, with people commenting on how much better their drinks taste with a London Essence Company mixer.

People might be confused by the idea of distilled mixers as obviously, they are 0% ABV - how does that process work, is it distilled with water or is it done in a different way?

We work with partners who have developed a bespoke distillation process for each one of our essences, to ensure that we are capturing the truest flavour of each ingredient. As they are intense, we just use a small amount of these distillates in our mixers, to add the signature note. As a result, our finished mixers are non-alcoholic.

That intensity comes through - As drinks they are big flavours in their own right so as a mixer with gin what rules of thumb would you give people on how to pair your range?

I am a big fan of the Gin Foundry Gin Wheel, and this was one of the inputs that I used to develop the range. Each mixer has therefore been created to sit in a different flavour camp, and as a result complement a different set of gins.

For example, our Classic London Tonic, with its juniper distillate delivers piney notes with a citrus edge, which complement classic London Dry gins such as Beefeater, Tanqueray or Sipsmith.

Our Grapefruit and Rosemary Tonic balances fruity notes with the herbaceous edge of the rosemary, and complements citrus led gins such and Gin Mare or Tanqueray 10..

The Bitter Orange and Elderflower Tonic combines tangy with subtle floral notes, and works particularly well with more juniper heavy gins including Hepple or ShortCross Gin.

And not forgetting our Delicate Ginger Ale, which is uniquely designed to bring out the best in dark spirits, with its aniseed distillate and lightness.

We look forward to trying the combos and coming up with new ones too - Cheers!