Out of Beer and Into Tonic

Milwaukee-based startup Top Note Tonic was recently honored by the Specialty Food Association with its sofi (Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation) award in the category of Cold Beverage – Drink and Cocktail Mixer. Top Note was co-founded by Mary Pellettieri, a 20-year veteran of the brewing industry who previously worked at Goose Island and Miller Coors, in its Blue Moon and Tenth and Blake divisions.

Top Note’s portfolio includes two flavors available as syrups – Bitter Orange and Gentian Lime – as well as three available as RTDs, syrups or Bag-in-Box packaging – Indian Tonic, Bitter Lemon and Ginger Beer.

I recently spoke to Pellettieri about her history in craft beer, how she came up with the idea for Top Note, and where the brand is headed three years after its launch.

Beverage Wholesaler: How did you get into the beverage alcohol industry?

Mary Pellettieri: I’ve been in the industry for more than 20 years. I was with Goose Island when they got started, then went to Miller Coors about eight years later. Most of my career has been in quality control and operations, as well as research and development. I helped Goose Island launch several series of barrel-aged and Belgian-style beers. I also worked with the quality team at Miller’s Milwaukee brewery and worked with the Blue Moon and Tenth and Blake teams at corporate.

A lot of great ideas come from brewers, I just helped to execute them. It was great to see how the supply chain worked around an innovative idea. Coming out of my work at Miller Coors, I always had an entrepreneurial spirit that I couldn’t shake. I wanted to combine the worlds I’d worked in with a company of my own, and I had to give it a shot.

BW: Where did the idea for Top Note Tonic come from?

MP: I was always playing around with home brewing and I wanted to create an herb beer. I started making Old World herbal concoctions in my kitchen, thinking I would combine them with a beer or ferment them. But as I started tasting them, I really liked them on their own. A lot of what I was doing was similar to the tonics or bitter sodas found in Europe, which are closer to that beverage’s origin. I figured it was time we had a line of European tonics in the U.S., so we launched the syrups in 2014 and this year came out with the ready-to-drinks.

BW: Are you targeting on-premise, off-premise or an equal mix of both?

MP: It’s about a 50/50 split in terms of revenue. On-premise always takes more time, but we’re now distributing a Bag-in-Box version of the mixers, which not a lot of companies are doing. Wisconsin is one of our markets and it’s an open state, which means Coke and Pepsi can install tap lines but can’t tell the owner what to dispense. In other states, you still have something like the old “tied houses.” I got away from that in the beverage alcohol business, but I’m running into it again in soft drinks. Ultimately, the more opportunity there is for innovative products with Bag-in-Box, the more we’ll see availability on the soda guns.

BW: Do you have plans to release any new products or flavors in the coming year?

MP: It’s a little early to say – we’re getting shelf placement and being introduced to retail, so we don’t want to overwhelm anyone with too many SKUs. I’d like to come out with a fourth flavor next year, and grapefruit has been on my mind for a long time. We’ll look at where the consumer desire is, and where there’s a need for a carbonated component to cocktails. There’s so much innovation in the spirits world, and you need mixers to be at least as diverse and innovative. We look at ourselves as innovators who are going back in time to what soft drinks used to be, and designing them to be mixers.

BW: Where does this product do best in retail?

MP: I see it playing best in specialty grocery stores with a liquor section. Those smaller stores are serving a clientele that’s mixing drinks at home. Big box stores are a great opportunity that we’re looking at, but it’s better if they already have premium mixers on the shelf. If we’re the only one in the set priced above 89 cents per liter, it’s harder to sell to consumers. Fortunately we’re not the first premium mixer to market, which benefits us and the entire category. More diversity and availability leads to more sales for everyone.

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