How three friends, an entrepreneur, an artist and an award-winning gin expert, founded tonic brand, Artisan Drinks

Given that Artisan Drinks Company is based in the UK, I was surprised to find their master flavour developer, Mikey Enright, in Australia, but it turns out that was where the three founders came up with the idea. The two others, Steve and Alan, later left Australia. Steve returned to the UK to set up Artisan Drinks. It was, therefore, 8 o’clock in the morning when I caught up with Mikey to talk all things gins and tonics.

SD: How did you come to set up Artisan Drinks Company with Steve and Alan?

ME: It was mainly Steve but we were all living in Australia at the time. I was very good friends with Alan, who is the artist for our tonic labels. Steve and Alan have known each other for a long time and worked together before. At the time they were working together on a campaign for Neverfail, an Australian spring water brand. I met Steve through Alan at the Scotch Egg Club that I set up in Sydney and we got talking about the premium tonic market. Steve, being Steve, suggested we actually do something together; that we create our own premium tonic.

I started experimenting with flavours. I would do a competitive set with different distillates, macerations, infusions, cordials and syrups to compare the flavours. To make the distillates we were using a rotavap. The way this works is that you add fresh rosemary (blitzed) to vodka and boil it at a low temperature in a vacuum, which then pushes the evaporated flavour through a condenser so that you end up with a clear liquid that tastes of rosemary. It was important for us not only to get the right flavour, but also to get the right colour. Our colours are quite subtle as all our products are 100% natural so we wanted to reflect that. 

SD: What was it about the premium tonic market that you wanted to do differently?

ME: We wanted to be more innovative with the flavours. We didn’t want to just follow and improve on existing flavours, we wanted to create our own. We’re constantly working on new flavours and have a few new ones we’re expecting to launch soon, but for now they’re still under wraps. I don’t think anyone has done them before, so I’m excited to see them come out.

SD: How do you manage to run the business across multiple continents?

ME: When Alan moved to Monaco, that was fine because he can do everything remotely quite easily. It was more difficult when Steve moved back to the UK, but it just meant that I would join them online for flavour discussions and the monthly sales meeting in my late evening. So far it seems to have been running pretty smoothly.

SD: How do you develop the flavours and ensure they are accurately replicated in Birmingham?

ME: It’s pretty much the same process as when we first started out. Steve and I will have an idea and then I will play with it in the bar. It’s a bit faster now, though, because we can use our skinny tonic as the base for adding more flavours. I’ll then send specific recipes to the lab in the UK to give them an idea of proportions and flavours and they work with that to produce the final tonics. They will send me samples back before we finalise the recipe, which does mean there is a bit of a delay in launching new tonics, but it’s better we get the recipe right.

SD: How important is the artwork for your brand and do they fit the flavours?

ME: The artwork really helps the tonics stand out behind the bar and give the tonics a sense of style and character. We don’t want to be just another tonic in the line-up. I don’t typically get involved in discussions around the artwork. That’s mainly between Steve and Alan, but more often than not he nails it on the first go. I might send him photos of some of the fruits included in the tonic that he might not be familiar with to help him get a feel for the colours, but other than that, it’s pretty much just what Alan thinks would work well. He has a very distinct style. You can see more of his art on Instagram @walsh.gallery.monaco – it’s riviera, fashion and motorsport themed.

SD: I hear you not only create tonics, but also run an award-winning gin bar. Tell me about that.

ME: We’ve got a couple of bars in Sydney. The Duke of Clarence is an English-style pub. We wanted it to be authentic so we hired a stylist from the UK and she fitted it out 70% with décor from the UK, everything from wallpaper to wooden floorboards and tiles. The Barber Shop is the second one. It’s a real barbers shop at the front, but it has a gin bar at the back. We’ve won a whole series of awards, but the biggest one so far was this year when we won Bar of the Year in February at the global Icons of Gin Awards. The ceremony was in London and unfortunately I couldn’t make it, so Steve went to collect our award for me.

SD: That’s impressive. What is it, do you think, about the bar that has won it so many awards?

ME: Behind the bar we have around 700 different gins, but it’s probably down in large part to the masterclasses we organise. I have a lot of connections from my time in the bar industry so I’ve been able to get people like Philp Duff of Old Duff Genova, and Simon Ford of Fords Gin to come and do masterclasses here. We also integrate it into the shop itself by creating a gin-scented grooming range including gin-scented soap named Enright’s.

SD: Do you have a favourite gin?

ME: That’s a very difficult question. I still love Fords gin, but locally Adelaide Hills is very good and Never Never – Southern Strength is an excellent Navy Strength gin. We’re actually building our own distillery with Barrelhouse Group partner, Julian Train. We’ve already ordered the equipment and have started making our own gin off-site, which we hope to launch March/April 2021. Tim Stones is the distiller and has nearly finished our first four different styles: London Dry, Australian Dry, similar to London Dry but more contemporary with more creative use of other botanicals, contempory style of gin, and a Navy Strength, a stronger, barrel-aged gin.

SD: What do you think tonic adds to gin?

ME: It depends on the botanical makeup of the gin. They can be used to balance and complement the flavour profiles of different gins. The increased variety in gins, means that you need a greater variety of tonics to best complement them. Some gins are naturally sweet so you have to be careful how you pair them up. I would go for our skinny tonic for a sweeter style gin because it will cut through the sweetness. For a London Dry, I’d go for a dry tonic. Our Artisan Pink Citrus Tonic would go well with a citrus gin or something a bit floral, but our Agave Lemon Tonic might be a bit strong for an already citrus gin. If you’re up for the kick of a bitter lemon tonic, I’d probably pair the Agave Lemon Tonic with a London Dry gin. Our Artisan Classic London Tonic mixes well with a medium-spiced gin because it has quite a full flavour and contains natural cassia bark in it. To help people choose we’ve put all our mixer flavours and pairing suggestions on our website.

Steve Cooper, founder Artisan Drinks Company
Steve Cooper, co-founder Artisan Drinks Company with their core range of tonics

SD: How come you started with the tonic rather than the gin?

ME: Actually we started with gin, but it takes longer to bring a gin to market than a tonic. The distillery proposal has been a conversation for four years already. If you’re going to build your own distillery, it’s a big project so you need to bring investors on board. There’s a romantic notion behind a distillery with copper stills and barrel aging that you don’t get with a tonic bottling factory. I don’t know any tonic water brand that own’s their own bottling facility, but owning your own distillery gives you complete control over the gin making process and spiritual home, which is more of an art than a replicable recipe as it is for tonic water. We’re also planning to make whisky at some point too and, due to the aging process, that’s a 20 year project. I’ve made a few collaborative gins for resorts in the past and it just made sense that I had a share in a tonic water brand as well. 

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