'It's a terrible tragedy so many UK businesses sell out so soon' - Charles Rolls & Tim Warrillow, Fever-Tree

How we beat the odds: The founders of premium mixers business Fever-Tree, Charles Rolls and Tim Warrillow, were scoffed at to begin with. Now they sell to 60 countries.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 23 Mar 2015

Everyone thought we were barking mad when we told them we were starting a mixer-drinks business. 'You're going up against Schweppes?' they'd smirk. 'Give me a break. That's a worldwide brand.'

As the boss of Plymouth Gin, I'd become appalled by the quality of mass-market mixers. Add one of those artificial, saccharine-packed tonics to gin and it destroys its flavour and aroma. Tim, who'd worked in luxury-food marketing, shared my disgust. We first met in 2003 and decided then and there to start a rival mixer, made from fresh, natural ingredients.

We never imagined it would take us nearly two years to launch our first product. Dealing with all-natural ingredients has its headaches. We'd develop a drink that we really liked, put it through stability and ageing trials, and then find that the flavour had completely changed and we'd have to start all over again.

Then there was the travel. We trekked to some of the most remote and most dangerous regions in the world to source ingredients. The purest quinine - the main ingredient, and the essential bitterness in tonic water - is to be found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I'd contracted malaria the last time I was there, in 1984, and refused to go back, so Tim got the pleasure of that particular trip: he got held up at the border by a band of local militia brandishing a rocket launcher and AK-47s.

I invested £100,000 in the business and we raised a further £100,000 from angel investors. We shouldn't have bothered with the latter. With my Plymouth Gin track record, I assumed it would be a doddle to raise serious cash early on. It took far longer than we expected. In retrospect, we should have just raided my piggy bank, got going sooner and then approached the financiers - we'd have been in a much stronger position to get funding.

We finally launched Fever-Tree in May 2005. We named the company after the chinchona tree, colloquially known as the fever tree, whose bark produces the quinine in our drinks.

Five weeks later, we got a call from a buyer at Waitrose: 'I've been waiting for a product like yours,' she said. That was a real coup, and took us straight into the premium retail market.

We knew we had to crack the US and Spain straight away - the two biggest premium-spirits-consuming markets. Food by Britain (now part of UKTI) put us in touch with an agent in San Francisco and Tim moved out there for four months. I went to Barcelona for a short time. Exporting takes a hell of a lot of effort and commitment.

Now our range is sold in 50 countries. Last year, we produced around 60 million bottles and turned over £23m. A 25% stake was sold last year but we're in it for the long haul. It's a terrible tragedy that so many UK businesses sell out so soon. And we've still got a long way to go.

- Read more about how Fever-Tree took on the mammoths of the mixer world

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