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In The Mix

Karen Knowles of Bon Accord Drinks.

Published: 17th May 2020

It’s described as gin’s best friend. It’s a partnership that’s famous the world over and for good reason. In this series, we discover gin’s favourite friends – tonics and mixers! We meet the people behind the brands. The drinks creators. The tonic innovators. The mixer mavericks.

Next in the series, we speak with Karen Knowles, Co-Founder of Bon Accord Soft Drinks. One of a new wave of unique mixers and tonics, we recently caught up with Karen to learn more about what inspired her to establish the business, some insight into the product range and more.

Tell us a bit about your background?

My background is in the food and drink industry and growing up, I was always surrounded by excellent food and drink. My great, great grandfather set up Bon Accord in 1903 at my parents farm in Angus so in many ways having a career in the food and drink industry was a natural step for me. Before I set up Bon Accord, I was an account manager for the UK’s largest seafood company and it was here that I met my business partner Nathan.

What spurred you on to create your own mixer and brand?

When I was pregnant with my first baby back in 2013, I was fed up of going out as a non-drinker and having a terrible choice of soft drinks, which were all loaded with sugar or artificial sweeteners. Because my great, great grandfather had set up Bon Accord Soft Drinks in 1903, at the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to run my own business and with my growing interest in healthier carbonated soft drinks, I decided to develop new soft drink and mixer recipes and relaunch the Bon Accord brand. I also love the flexibility that having my own business gives me; I have 2 young girls aged 4 and 6, so having a job which fits around them is great.

Can you tell us a bit more about your mixer?

We love our history and heritage and don’t want to be confined by it, we will continue to be inspired by Bon Accord’s technicolour back catalogue but we will always give it a modern and innovative twist. Our soft drinks are all 100% naturally sweetened with honey, coconut nectar and fruit juice. They taste great, we don’t compromise on flavour and they provide a great way of enjoying a soft drink, or can be used as mixers in your favourite cocktail.

Our Tonic Water is lightly sparkling, with a clean crisp flavour, with just a hint of citrus and vanilla. It is lower in quinine than other tonic waters so it tastes a little less bitter. We designed our tonic water to enhance the spirit, it lets the gin shine through, helping consumers taste the subtle differences between gins, rather than masking these subtleties. During Covid-19, we’ve seen a spike in tonic water sales, people are definitely enjoying a few more of their favourite G&T’s being locked up at home during these challenging times!

Can you tell us a bit about your production methods?

Our soft drinks and mixers are all small batch produced. In our regular tonic water and our light tonic water, we use 100% natural quinine and use no added preservatives, artificial sweeteners or flavourings. We develop our recipes in house, Nathan my business partner is a trained chef and has a great palate for flavour, so we get to have lots of fun coming up with new ideas and developing new flavours, when it comes to manufacturing, we outsource our production, this has meant we have excellent product consistency and quality.

How important is provenance to your business and brand?

The history and provenance of Bon Accord is central to our story. The company was founded in 1903 and it has always been a family business with strong Scottish roots. With factories in Aberdeen and Arbroath, depots in Inverness and the Central Belt, and a fleet of iconic lorries, Bon Accord delivered soft drinks and cordials to communities all over Scotland. Our famous glass bottles, which were collected and recycled by our lorries, were a familiar sight in homes and on street doorsteps for generations. For over 100 years Bon Accord found a place in the hearts of the nation before we closed our operations in 2000. Relaunching the brand in 2016, we are still a family business, but times have changed and the new generation champions healthier, naturally sweetened soft drinks and mixers.

Why do you think consumers are now more aware of what mixers and tonics they’re drinking in their G&T?

People are becoming more considerate about their drinking habits, with more mindful drinking and a trend towards premiumisation. People are drinking less but drinking better, they are taking time to choose what artisan gin they will buy and they are also taking time to consider what premium mixer to use that will compliment the gin, rather than adding a mixer which clashes and doesn’t enhance the flavour. The Low and No trend is definitely here to stay!

Why do you think gin is so popular?

Gin has seen a massive boom in popularity over the past few years. The craft movement, which is mirrored in the artisan coffee and craft beer sectors, has a real focus on quality, artisanal ingredients and processes, people really value authentically and locally produced products, where they can see and get to know the individuals making these products. This, coupled with huge choice in flavour from the different botanicals used, means there really is something for everyone. The G&T is also such a classic drink, it will never go out of fashion!

What do you think makes your mixer special?

What makes the Bon Accord range so special, is that we put flavour at the centre of what we do. Our soft drinks are big punchy flavours that are great on their own, and can also be mixed with spirits. We specifically created our mixers to compliment the spirits they are paired with – a great example of this is collaboration with Lucky Liquor, the guys behind Bramble cocktail bar in Edinburgh. It was great to do a joint venture with another Edinburgh based business, we developed a salted pink grapefruit soda to pair with their Sea Wolf Rum, it is a great pairing but the salted grapefruit is so versatile, it also works well with Gin, Escubac, Whisky, Vodka, Campari. We’re open to more ideas from fans of the mixer too!

Do you have a favourite gin?

As we come into summer, I am loving coastal-inspired gins such as Edinburgh Gin Seaside, it pairs really well with tonic water and the seaside tones means it pairs really well with the Bon Accord salted pink grapefruit soda too. I’ve also got a bottle of Seven Crofts Gin from Ullapool in my drinks cabinet at the moment, which is delicious with Bon Accord tonic and a slice of orange.

Where can people buy your mixer?

We launched our webshop www.bonaccordsoftdrinks.com in March, just before the lockdown, which was great timing and the full range is available on the site and we ship across the UK. Due to Covid-19, we’ve had to think creatively about other routes to market and we have teamed up with local partners such as Keep Edinburgh Thriving (gift boxes and corporate gifting ideas that help small businesses in Edinburgh struggling as a result of Covid-19), Root to Market (delivery service from the team behind Fhior Restaurant) and Good Brothers Wine Bar (A neighbourhood wine bar, bottle shop and kitchen who champion small and interesting producers and are now offering a delivery service). As a business, we will be buying local as it is a great way of showing our support to our friends and neighbours, with the ultimate aim of helping to keep each other’s businesses open.

In normal times, we are stocked in independent restaurants, craft bars, coffee shops, artisan deli’s and independent bottle shops across Scotland. We are hoping our hospitality customers across Scotland are able to open again soon.

What’s next for Bon Accord Soft Drinks?

2020 is going to be remembered as a very challenging year for the hospitality industry and companies supplying the industry. We have a few new products in the development pipeline that we have pushed back to later in the year. We are a small and nimble business so we’re doing our best to navigate through the Covid-19 crisis and hopefully come out the other end in relatively good shape.

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