The bittersweet tale of Top Note Tonics
"It's time to stir up the world of soft drinks," says Mary Pellettieri, co-founder and president of Top Note Tonics, a Milwaukee-based company specializing in soda concentrates that have begun to make their way into restaurants and bars across the city.
And her method? Reintroducing traditional bitter sodas to the beverage market as an alternative to overly sweet soda products.
The company currently produces tonic syrups in three flavors – bitter orange, bitter lemon, and gentian – which, when mixed with carbonated water, can be served either as refreshing beverages or as mixers for cocktails. The tonics, which incorporate a balance of bitter, sour and sweet flavors, have half the sugar and calories of standard tonic water. And they make great aperitifs, palate cleansers or digestifs thanks to the presence of gentian, a bitter herb with earthy, woodsy notes.
"Our tonic is handmade and hand bottled," Pellettieri notes. "It's wholesome and tastes better than your average tonic because it doesn't contain chemicals. It's nothing but water, herbs and sugar."
But the goal behind Top Note Tonics wasn't simply to put another beverage option on the market.
Named for the ephemeral herbal, citrus and floral notes typically used to describe the flavor profiles of beverages, Top Note aims to offer modern imbibers the opportunity to experience the flavors of the traditional bottled herbal tonics that became popular in the early 1800's.
The drink, which gained its name from the medicinal effects of bitter flavorings, were produced as early as 1809 when entrepreneur Jacob Schweppe developed a method of bottling what he called "carbonated elixir."
Originally consumed for their supposed health-giving, rejuvenating properties, tonic included mineral water and beverages made with flavorings like sarsaparilla, ginger, spruce tips and birch bark that were often served at pharmacy counters, along with other medicinal salves and prescriptions.
The story goes that in 1825, British officers in the Indian Army took the health trend further by improving their bitter anti-malaria medicine – Peruvian quinine extract – by mixing it with soda water, sugar, and gin.
Often consumed at cocktail hour, the drink became known as a "gin and tonic" and it soon became the quintessential drink of the British Empire.
Fast forward to the days of Prohibition, and tonic (which had evolved into a form that would be more recognizable as modern day soda) became a reliable way of blending out beverages like "bathtub gin" which were otherwise unpalatable.
By the 1950s tonics had begun their evolution into the modern day soda we see today – often cloyingly sweet and devoid of the original natural flavorings present in traditional tonics.
"Botanicals are good for you," says Pellettieri, "And our products use many different spices, citrus peels and bitter herbs to create delicious beverages that pay homage to the traditional herbal tonics.
"The whole craft cocktail movement was really prompted by the fact that you couldn't get the quality from the products out there, so people started creating it themselves," she goes on. "Right now, in restaurants and bars, there's a soda gun. And there are traditionally sweet sodas. But, there are places and people looking for an in between – a less sweet profile, and something that appeals more to the foodie crowd."
The Birth of a Business
Originally from Chicago, Pellettieri spent the last twenty years focusing her energy on reducing risks for the brewing industry.
"I was always interested in fermentation and the science of how we use plants," she says. "My undergraduate degree was in botany and I was really always a lab geek. It's always been a deep driver for me – how we use natural items and plants as medicine."
She started out training brewers at the Siebel Institute of Technology, America's oldest brewing school, and moved on to Silliker Labs, an international provider of food safety, quality and nutrition services. In 2001, Goose Island Beer Company approached her to assist them with quality control and product development.
"It was part of the most rewarding experiences of my career," she recalls. "We were making beer that no one knew how to make – I was part of the team that created Mathilde, and we also did Sophie while I was there -- and the guys who worked with me… I was more of the facilitator of their talents. It was a matter of being smart about design – doing things in a way that would allow us to grow."
After eight years, with Goose Island, she moved on to take a position with brewing giant, MillerCoors, where she started out in quality control, but eventually moved on to work in business operations with 10th and Blake Brewing.
It was there that she began thinking about ways to put her creativity to use.
"I wanted to make an herb beer without hops," she said. "I really love the flavors of Fernet and Compari. And I thought – maybe there should be a bitter beer, based in this old world approach."
She began by making syrups which could be added to beer to create distinctly hoppy flavors, but soon discovered that the flavors were something far more versatile.
"I realized that I liked drinking them 'as is'," she says. "I was also aware of the Italian bitter sodas that had evolved to being something way sweet. And it occurred to me that I'd probably happened upon a marketable product."
That product turned out to be Top Note Tonics.
Pellettieri says the business is aiming for organic growth. The first step will be to graduate from their current incubator kitchen in Watertown, to a larger facility where they can increase their capacity.
"We'll be doing tonic brewing in soup kettles and that will get us through our first couple of years," she says. "But then we'll want to move to commercializing our flavors with a flavor company, while staying true to the concept of the extract and our values. At that point we'll build out a larger footprint and we'd like to get to the point where we can bottle the product as a soft drink."
Top Note Tonics are currently available at a number of area restaurants and bars, including Bavette La Boucherie, Palm Tavern, Sugar Maple, Roman's Pub and Palomino. Top Note will also be on the shelves at Outpost Natural Foods later this month.
Pellettieri says the company will stick with the Midwest market for the time being, but hopes to eventually grow to a point where they'll have national distribution.
"We've been talking with John Freyer, a former colleague of mine at Goose Island, who now runs a sales and marketing company," says Pellettieri, "So we're hoping he'll get us some meetings in Chicago, as well."
In the meantime, Top Note Tonics is working on building awareness and excitement for their product. This summer, they will be offering tastings of their products at a variety of venues, including Chill on the Hill as well as Gallery Night in the Third Ward.
"We're also hoping to get web sales up and running before Aug. 1," says Pellettieri. "But, for now we'd like to create some buzz and interest and hopefully get people to ask for it."
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