Like so many other game-changing ideas, the genesis of Gentian Tonic came about over a good lunch. In the bucolic Cape Winelands, investment fund manager Ken Kinsey-Quick sat opposite Rowan Smith, a former managing director of Shanduka Resources.
With gin and tonic in hand, the pair pondered why, despite the massive global growth in artisanal gin brands, premium tonics had failed to follow suit. While there were niche brands, only a handful of global brands competed in the premium space. Surely here was an opportunity for the taking?
With the seeds of a new business taking root, the pair realised they needed marketing savvy, too. Good fortune then that Reg Lascaris, a legend of the global advertising industry, called the Franschhoek Valley home. With the formal papers lodged at Companies House in London, a handshake and celebratory G&Ts, Gentian Tonic was born.
While the market was ripe for competition, creating yet another run-of-the-mill tonic wouldn’t do. The trio puzzled over how to make the new tonic water stand out from the mid-market mixers flooding the shelves and thus claim a slice of the premium market.
The answer lay in a herb whose roots stretch back thousands of years.
“Tonic water is a fairly simple product, consisting largely of carbonated water, sugar and a bittering agent, most often quinine,” explains Ken. “But when we started doing our research, we discovered gentian root and we knew that it was just the right ingredient to set Gentian apart from the competition.”
Found in alpine environs across Asia, Europe and the Americas, gentian root has been used as a medicinal herb for millennia, but is today also a key ingredient in drinks such as Aperol, Underberg and Angostura bitters.
The next step was finding an expert to create a premium tonic water using gentian, so the trio turned to one of the legends of the global drinks business, Irishman Oisin Davis.
As the founder of Great Irish Beverages and Poacher’s Premium Irish Mixers, Oisin was well placed to create the flavour profile Kinsey-Quick and co. had in mind. Working with a flavour-house in London, he crafted a handful of test batches and shipped them to South Africa.
“We blind-tasted each of them and luckily all three of us were unanimous which one was best,” chuckles Ken, who adds that although Gentian Tonic is low-sugar, it easily holds its own against regular tonic. “People want low-sugar but they don’t want to compromise on flavour, and Gentian definitely delivers.”
While the flavour and ingredients are unique, the label dreamt up by Rohan Etsebeth, owner and creative director at Archival Studio, is equally eye-catching. The core of the logo is a profile of the Swiss Alps, with the visage of waterfalls and mountain peaks (look carefully for the outline of the iconic Matterhorn) a subtle visual cue to the ancestral home of gentian root.
It’s also suitable international branding, for while Gentian Tonic may have been created in the Cape Winelands, its ambitions are global.
“What we’re really trying to do with this brand is to take it international. We’re experimenting here in South Africa with the formula, production and marketing, and when we get it right we will start scaling this up internationally. This is not a boutique garagiste product that we’ll grow slowly; we’re aiming big,” explains Ken, who in 2019 launched Banhoek Chilli Oil, a brand that has fast grown a fervent fan base across the country.
With the South African summer in full swing, it’s the perfect time for an ice-cold gin and tonic, but this year with a twist.
“Gentian Tonic tastes great on its own over ice but it’s also the perfect mixer to enjoy with the wonderful craft gins we have here in the Cape,” says Ken. “This summer, we suggest you ask for a gin and Gentian. Or, as we like to call it, a ‘G&G’!”
Gentian Tonic is available at premium
liquor merchants and selected bars
and restaurants. For more information,