For the tenth interview in our new series, Matthew Bell meets the founder of Fever-Tree…
Tim Warrillow is the man who put the fizz back into your gin and tonic. In 2005, he founded Fever-Tree with fellow entrepreneur Charles Rolls, with the aim of resurrecting quality tonic water. Now, as of January this year, sales have overtaken Schweppes. It’s an extraordinary tale of David taking on Goliath – a small English start-up daring to focus on quality, and in doing so knocking Coca-Cola (who own Schweppes) off the top spot.
A Tale of Resurrection
‘Do you remember what a gin and tonic used to be?’ he asks me. ‘If you ordered one in a pub it came in a mean slim-line glass with a slice of lemon and a melting ice cube.’ These days you’ll be offered a choice of gins, possibly a slice of cucumber or lime, and it will come in a huge balloon glass packed with ice. And crucially, the tonic will be bitter, not saccharine sweet. Strangely, the idea to resurrect quality tonic water came to Warrillow and Rolls at the same time. Rolls, 61, had had some success re-launching Plymouth Gin, and realised the mixers market looked neglected. Warrillow, then in his late 20s, was an entrepreneur looking for a project. They started looking into the history of tonic, to see where it had come from and why it was so neglected.
Their research took them to the British Library, where they learned that quinine, the essential ingredient, comes from the bark of the fever tree. ‘The reason tonic water was invented was as a way of getting a dose of quinine into British troops stationed in colonies all round the world, in 1820,’ Tim explains. ‘It was the only way of curing you from malaria.’ It was in fact a group of Jesuit priests in Peru who first discovered quinine’s antimalarial properties. ‘They used to make tea with the bark of the fever tree. People noticed they were dying off less than everyone else.’
In Search of the Fever Tree
‘In search of the best quinine in the world, Warrillow discovered an old plantation on the border of Rwanda with eastern Congo, one of the most dangerous parts of Africa.’
In its purest form, quinine is incredibly bitter. ‘So the army would add sugar, water and whatever local herbs they could find, to literally help the medicine go down. The troops always had a ration of gin, so they added gin to their tonic, which they would have first thing in the morning.’ In search of the best quinine in the world, Warrillow discovered an old plantation on the border of Rwanda with eastern Congo, one of the most dangerous parts of Africa.
Undeterred, he set off and, after two plane journeys and a nine-hour drive, he arrived at the Congolese border. ‘Rwanda is beautiful and now relatively stable. But getting to the eastern Congo, all hell breaks loose. Everyone is armed and you don’t know who’s official and who’s not. It made Rwanda look like the South of France. It’s incredibly sad, given that it’s just about the most fertile place in the world. Someone said you could put a pencil in the ground there and it would grow.’
All that survives in Bukavu, the local town, is the brewery (because even warlords like a drink) and the quinine factory, which makes pharmaceutical-grade quinine to sell to drugs companies. Tim immediately placed a large order, and continues to buy his quinine there, the only drinks company in the world to do so.
David and Goliath
The launch of Fever-Tree was cleverly timed to coincide with the growing appetite for high-quality spirits. Another piece of good fortune was its championing by El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià. That happened quite by chance: a journalist was interviewing the late pop artist Sir Richard Hamilton at his house in Spain; Hamilton had discovered Fever-Tree during a shopping trip to Waitrose. On finding the journalist was going on to see Adrià, he gave him a bottle to give to him, knowing he was a keen G&T drinker. The first that Tim knew of all this was a call from Adrià’s sommelier one evening, asking for a meeting. ‘He said, “At last, someone is taking an interest in this product. Not only is it good enough to drink, but it’s good enough to use as an ingredient.” So he made a tonic water granita at El Bulli.’
‘The Fever-Tree story will be studied in business schools for years to come. Reading the figures makes you wish you had thought of it yourself.’
The Fever-Tree story will be studied in business schools for years to come. Reading the figures makes you wish you had thought of it yourself. Since floating on the stock market in 2014, they have posted 12 consecutive profit upgrades, valuing the company at £3.1bn. In March, Rolls sold a stake for £82.5m, having sold shares worth £73m last year, and now takes a lesser role. Warrillow, 43, has sold shares worth £29m and is overseeing the expansion of the company into 60 countries, and developing other mixers.
The Kitchen Sink
Warrillow could just sit back drinking G&Ts, but he enjoys the work. Especially now that the Schweppes Goliath has finally woken up to the threat. In the last two years they have spent a fortune on repackaging and rebranding, including sponsoring the Jonathan Ross show. ‘What’s exciting for us is that just two years ago, we had under 10 per cent of market share, while they had over 50 per cent. Now, despite them throwing the kitchen sink at it, we are now nudging 40 per cent, and they’re close to 30 per cent.’
The Fever-Tree offices are in a converted school in Hammersmith, and at the weekends, Warrillow escapes to his farmhouse in the New Forest with his wife and young children. His advice to any entrepreneur is to do your research, but also listen to your instinct. ‘There were so many nay-sayers in the early days,’ he recalls. ‘It’s fortunate we did our best not to listen to them.’
Quick Fire Round
Town or Country?
Born and bred a townie but starting to appreciate the joys of the countryside.
Pub lunch or Michelin stars?
A good long pub lunch is very hard to beat.
Cosy knits or sharp suits?
I am afraid no sharp suits to speak of, my wardrobe is and has always been in desperate need of help.
Glass of wine or cup of green tea?
Gin and tonic.
Dog or cat?
Neither. Four young children create enough chaos of their own.
Seaside or rolling hills?
Seaside, and more specifically, Lymington.