By layering flavours and extracts to work in harmony with a next-generation stevia ingredient, Synergy Flavours has developed a range of great-tasting, sugar-free tonics that have been scientifically paired with the key aroma compounds in gin
Having examined the perils of lockdown working and lessons learned from the project in Part I, I ask Jill and Vicky about pairing up the Skinny Tonics with alcohol-free gins.
“We actually did quite a lot of research in that area,” says Vicky: “One particular brand we looked at clearly states that their distilled non-alcoholic spirit is both calorie- and sugar-free, so to pair it up with a sugar free mixer would make a lot of sense.”
During the pandemic, we’ve read reports about more junk food being eaten, more alcohol being consumed and, at the same time, the rise of non-alcoholic gins. But, from a taste perspective, are they comparable and are they just a flash in the pan?
“If you look at the generations of people who are currently drinking these products, there may well be some challenges!” suggests Vicky. “But, with younger adult consumers who are not as accustomed to consuming spirits, they’re more accepting and appreciate the alcohol-free options. A lot will depend on the marketing and the target audience.”
“Having said that, these products are getting better and better, incorporating complex blends of different botanicals, for example, and have come a long way in the past few years."
"Plus, even mainstream brands are launching alcohol-free gins or acquiring companies in this space, so the market’s improving, there’s a new, younger generation of consumers out there with different palettes and different motivations, leading to a lot of opportunity.”
“There’s always been this elusive concept of a mass-appeal adult soft drink,” adds Jill. “With new launches and, for example, the Skinny Tonics, it’s a lot easier these days to mix, blend and garnish a low- or no-alcohol cocktail."
"They can be customised and personalised to improve the drinking experience. Previously, it was a little bit boring but, with these recent developments, it’s a more satisfying alternative for people who can’t drink alcohol or want to moderate their intake.”
Returning to the topic of provenance, there has been a lot of sector-agnostic debate during the last 18 months about shortening supply chains, local sourcing and the like. I ask Vicky how Synergy has reacted and responded to those calls for change.
“Keeping a balance is critical,” she says: “We actually acquired a site in Italy in 2018 and they have a really strong pedigree of responsibly sourcing raw materials from regions such as Sicily and Calabria. Plus, we have key capabilities in Madagascar where we source vanilla. Provenance is really important; but, taste will always be paramount.”
“Consumers simply won’t compromise on flavour. Getting the balance right in terms of provenance, taste and a sustainable supply chain is incredibly important — for the farmers, for the company and, of course, for the consumer."
"In a crowded market it’s important to help products stand out, whether that be through provenance materials – like Sicilian lemon and Italian blood orange – or delivering a signature note through a natural flavour which can augment certain notes to create a unique profile.”
On that note, if you’ll excuse the pun, I ask Jill how this project differed from, say, developing a sports nutrition product wherein efficacy is often considered to be more important than taste.
“Having worked on beverage for all kinds of applications, these products are always about the best taste,” she says. “Drinking them has to be pleasurable, so there’s absolutely no compromise on flavour. Even as we delve deeper into active and clinical nutrition, it’s the same story."
"Taste is paramount. We spend a lot of time masking, modulating pairing flavours, which enables us to disguise off-notes and/or complement the more positive ones.”
“It’s becoming more and more important for these products to be acceptable. We’ve done a lot of work on plant-based nutrition, which can be challenging; but, with help from our Dairy by Nature team, we can now offer vegan dairy solutions that allow us to optimise products for this burgeoning market. Whether it’s for a sports nutrition application or to meet specific dietary requirements, there can be no compromise on taste.”
Research suggests, I add, that people will actually pay more for a premium product that tastes really good, which is becoming increasingly important considering the fickle nature of millennial and Gen Z consumers. Brand commitment is harder to come by these days.
“Absolutely,” says Vicky: “In fact, it was interesting working with the Skinny Drinks Group because they wanted the very best product. It was aspirational, there was absolutely no compromise on taste and the end result had to be the best tonic on the market regardless of it being low calorie and no sugar. It was a big target to hit, but made for a really interesting project.”
Which brings us right back to stevia. Was it always the shoe-in ingredient or were other sugar replacement ingredients considered?
“It always had to be natural,” says Jill: “That was a prerequisite and somewhat limited our options. But, at the same time, it encouraged us to look at other trends in the market and the evolution of categories such as low-calorie hard seltzers, flavoured sparkling waters and so on."
"In the future, I think we’ll start to see some of the flavours that we’ve recently been working with migrate over into those sectors, and our experience with stevia will certainly give us a better understanding of how we can achieve that.”
“For example, flavours such as black cherry, which are popular in hard seltzers, will no doubt inspire new product releases in the tonics and mixers market. There’s a lot of cross-pollination to come in the beverage sector and, from what we've seen, hard seltzers may well be an interesting source of innovation for a number of different categories."
"Overall, the collaboration with PureCircle and the Skinny Drinks Group was incredibly successful. Not only did we find new ways of working because of the pandemic, which actually made our lives easier, it’s also given us a lot to think about for future projects. We look forward to continuing to work with them.”