Developing a gin-and-tonic without alcohol

Whether it’s for health reasons or a lifestyle choice, quitting alcohol has become a mindful movement.

The Dry January initiative, by charity Alcohol Change, has had four million participants.

But despite the rise of non-alcoholic beverages, Andrew Oates and Tracy Cassidy struggled to find a substitute for their favourite tipple, gin and tonic, when they gave up alcohol.

Mr Oates previously worked for Guinness, and Ms Cassidy in marketing and business development with startups and SMEs.

They had no knowledge of distilling, but had “lots of experience sampling the end product”.

Having spotted a gap in the market, they bought a small copper still and started to develop their own recipe. They experimented with various herbs and botanicals, sourcing ingredients from the food markets close to where they live in Dublin’s north inner city.

Andrew Oates and Tracy Cassidy of Silk Tree Botanics.
Andrew Oates and Tracy Cassidy of Silk Tree Botanics.

Conversations with distillers and organic farmers in the west of Ireland gave them insight into flavours and combinations.

The result was Silk Tree, a distillation of five botanicals: Cinnamon, coriander seeds, orange peel, juniper berries, and lemon verbena.

The name of the firm came out of sampling sessions, when a taster commented that the drink was “really smooth and silky”.

Having launched Silk Tree at a gin festival in the summer of 2018, customer feedback has exceeded the couple’s expectations.

A massive boost for the business was being voted ‘best-tasting botanical drink in the UK market’ by BBC Good Food.

Their target demographic is the “moderate millennial”, who chooses quality over quantity. “They don’t drink as our generation did, but they appreciate craft products and demand superior taste and sophistication,” Ms Cassidy says.

“People want a nice-looking cocktail, with all of the accoutrements that go into it. A gin and tonic doesn’t come with just a wedge of lemon anymore. It’s beautifully decorated and presented,” she says.

The couple has also recognised a “wave” of over-40s wanting to cut back on alcohol, but still looking to enjoy the conviviality that accompanies drinking.

They derive great satisfaction at seeing the seasoned gin-and-tonic drinker being won over by Silk Tree.

Ms Cassidy says Ireland is the ideal market for her product, as we love to socialise and meet in pubs and restaurants.

Currently stocked in over 30 SuperValu stores, and in 20 independent shops around the country, the company has two new distributors, including a recent partnership with Classic Drinks.

The company has deals with three online distributors in the UK. Its first sale was through specialist vendor, Wise Bartender.

Alcohol giants recognise where the market is heading, Ms Cassidy says.

And Silk Tree is competing with the big guns: Seedlip, the world’s first non-alcoholic spirit to market, is now part-owned by Diageo, and the makers of “alt-gin” product Ceder’s signed a distribution deal with Pernod Ricard UK last year.

Having run a mindful drinking event in Dublin, the couple is planning further events in Cork and Galway.

She says rural publicans are expressing interest and she believes that bars can survive stricter drink-driving laws.

The product, which retails at €35 for a 70cl bottle, is gluten-free and vegan-friendly.

Ms Cassidy says its unique selling point is that it has no sugar or preservatives. Its taste comes from the “natural sweetness of cinnamon” and coriander seeds, balanced with the bitterness of orange peel.

Silk Tree Botanics has received some funding, including a feasibility grant from their Local Enterprise Office to test and develop the brand.

Mr Oates also took part in the New Frontiers programme, which comes with a stipend of €15,000. They have also tapped help from the SuperValu Food Academy, a voucher from Enterprise Ireland to commercialise their recipe in Loughry College, in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, and from Bord Bia, and Teagasc.

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