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Richard Cooper - Fentimans Tonic

Richard Cooper Fentimans
Written by Gin Foundry

Fentimans probably know more about mixers than any other tonic maker, as they’ve been dabbling in weird and wonderful botanical soft drinks for… well, a very long time. In fact, the Fentimans story began in 1905, when iron puddler Thomas Fentiman took a ginger ale recipe as security against a loan. Needless to say, the loan wasn’t paid back, and now - over a hundred years later - his name is famed in the mixing world. We caught up with the brand’s Events Manager Richard Cooper to find out more about the brand’s experimental nature.

There’s more of an acceptance nowadays to try pairing gins with mixers other than tonics. Rose Lemonade, in particular, has gone down well with us at Gin Foundry HQ. How did the mixer come about? And what do you pair it with?

Rose Lemonade was the brainchild of Fentimans owner Eldon Robson, who is the great grandson of Thomas Fentiman. He was in an Indian restaurant one evening and he was served some sugared rose petals as part of the meal - this became the inspiration for the drink. The idea of candied rose petals has been around for centuries – one recipe was featured in a book published in 1594 called “Delights for Ladies”

We find that Rose Lemonade is a great alternative for those who don’t like the bitter taste of quinine – this versatile liquid pairs well with any London dry style gin. A particularly great combination is Hendrick’s as it has an infusion of rose and cucumber which pairs well with the citrus and rose flavours of the lemonade.

What is the development process like for you guys? Do you start with an idea then work out the flavours, or does it go the other way round?

It really depends – we are lucky to have an in-house flavour team who are constantly developing new ideas and can be quite quick at turning around a new flavour or adjusting an existing one. Sometimes we look at old recipes and work from there with traditional flavours; sometimes we look at the latest flavour trends and go from there. Occasionally we will produce a flavour just for a specific territory if there is sufficient consumer demand. We look at different taste preferences for certain regions, for example some areas prefer bitter or sweet tastes. We try to be at the forefront of innovation, constantly looking at the latest flavour concepts.

What does botanically brewed mean?

Botanical brewing is a time-honoured technique of making superior quality beverages using a combination of infusion, skilful blending and fermentation of natural ingredients. Thomas Fentiman’s time honoured approach hasn’t changed much in over 100 years, with the knowledge and expertise being passed on from generation to generation of the Fentiman family

The original Fentimans recipe took the finest ginger root which was bruised, crushed and milled. The ginger was then placed in copper steam jacketed pans containing spring water and gradually heated to simmering point. This induced the release and extraction of fine ginger sediment and a flavoursome botanical extract. The botanical liquid was then filtered into a wooden vat. The finest herbs, natural flavouring, sugar and brewer’s yeast were added to the botanical extract and the liquid was thoroughly stirred. The liquid was left overnight. The next day a crust of live yeast would appear on the surface before being removed. The live liquid was then left to ferment in the wooden vat. The live ginger beer was then decanted from the wooden vat into the iconic stone jars, known affectionately as “Grey Hens”, where it came up to condition and was ready to drink within a week. We have updated our production methods slightly to meet modern standards but it is this process that produces the depth of flavour, mouthfeel and rich texture which are the hallmark of Fentimans drinks today.

What is the biggest challenge for mixers in today’s busy market?

The biggest challenge in such a busy market is ensuring that consumers understand the time and process that goes into making our mixers. I have explained botanical brewing and it’s this which really sets us apart from the competition. Consumers are becoming more discerning with their choices, for example look at the trend towards gluten free foods and a preference for natural product. That said, there is still a constant need for education to set us apart.

What’s your personal favourite combination / pairing?

At Fearless House (Fentimans HQ) we’re big fans of spiced gins like Ophir or Elephant Gin paired with our Botanical Tonic Water – it has a really unusual flavour and isn’t like anything else out there. There are also many fans of our new Pink Grapefruit Tonic Water in the office too – it has a bitter sweet flavour and is great even just as a stand alone drink.

It’s always exciting when businesses are handed down from generation to generation. Do you look back at ancient recipes in the archives for future inspiration?

Fentimans is very much a family business, with Eldon the great grandson of Thomas Fentiman. He is very proud to use the original botanical brewing process today when making our drinks. We have our original ginger beer recipe that Thomas acquired as part of a business deal but we will often look at Victorian cookbooks such as Mrs Beetons’ book of household management. These can hold some gems of recipes that with a little updating can become modern classics. We do also have a few old family recipes up our sleeve – an example is our fairly new Sparkling Lime and Jasmine drink which was inspired by one of our old archive recipes.

There must have been some odd ones too that were good for their day (for tinctures or medicinal “tonics”) but pretty weird in a modern context - have you come across anything like that?

Mixers have been a fairly new addition to our business over the last ten years but we still use the botanical brewing technique to give a full depth of flavour. A drink like Dandelion & Burdock for example, shares a historical origin with a number of drinks originally made from lightly fermented root extracts, such as root beer and sarsaparilla, supposedly as a health benefit. We find this drink to be the most divisive – people either love it or hate it!

Your dog logo was inspired by Thomas Fentiman’s pet, ‘Fearless.’ Has he served as an emblem? Do you feel that as a brand, you approach things with a a similar nature? 

Fearless certainly was Thomas’ dog – he was awarded top prizes at Crufts for obedience in the 1930’s which is when his image started appearing on the ‘grey hen’ stone jars that we used to deliver our ginger beer in. The world has changed a lot over the 100 years since Thomas Fentiman founded the business and Fentimans has had to adapt to meet the demands of the modern world. Changes in the way people shop mean that we don’t deliver door-to-door anymore and instead we sell our beverages in shops, bars and restaurants. We also use motorised transport to make deliveries, rather than horses and carts and the old stone jars adorned by ‘Fearless’ have been replaced by our iconic glass bottles but he still features on the label. Although it might seem unusual for a drinks company to have a dog as its logo, we like the quirky story behind it and have been known for emails to be signed off with “Stay Fearless!”

Last but not least, what’s the big milestone objective you are working to for the second half of 2017? 

We are very shortly launching a range of cocktail syrups called House of Broughton – Broughton was one of Thomas Fentimans’ son in laws and ran one of the factories in the North East and it’s his name we have used for this new product. We have created five flavours and a simple syrup that are high strength, this essentially means you have to use less syrup and consequently less sugar when creating cocktails. This will be one of our focuses for the next few months, longer term we are aiming to triple the turnover of the business by 2020.