Charles Rolls: How I reinvented the gin and tonic

After saving the historic Plymouth Gin brand, Charles Rolls saw there was a gap in the market for a top-quality tonic water. So, he invented Fever-Tree - now enjoyed by gin & tonic connoisseurs the world over.

In 1992, after three years of trying, Charles Rolls was forced to admit his business was a failure. Rolls had left a job as a management consultant to develop a hybrid rowing/bicycle fitness machine. He worked with the inventor and attracted investors, but that year "it all fell apart when the shareholders began arguing with each other". Ruing the "opportunity cost" of the wasted years, Rolls, now 61, returned to consulting. "I had just married and needed to earn some more money."

Yet by 1996, Rolls was desperate to be out on his own again. "I felt if I didn't do it soon I never would." The chance came when he heard about Plymouth Gin, a struggling gin-maker. Investors in the company had bought it from a large brewer, but were having problems selling the product. "It sounded like an opportunity." Rolls met the investors and eventually persuaded them to take him on as managing director. He also demanded a "useful chunk" of equity.

He took the helm of a company that was selling just 4,000 cases of gin a month and losing a monthly average of £24,000 in the process and, with the investors "almost ready to give up", more cash to invest wasn't forthcoming. So Rolls sold some spare stock made by his predecessors to Asda in a one-off deal that raised "some much-needed funds". He invested the windfall in a new recipe. "The head distiller told me that the best way to improve the taste would be to up the alcohol content, as that would release the flavours of the juniper." Doing so would increase costs and subject the drink to higher taxes, but Rolls thought it was worth a gamble. He also decided to focus on the brand's heritage and reuse an older bottle design from the company's past. "It was a fallen brand with a great history." The new gin went down well with customers and sales began to pick up.

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But he needed sales partners. He targeted drinks companies that didn't have a gin and signed deals with Rmy Cointreau, Seagram and Absolut Vodka. With more cash coming in, Rolls began to look abroad. Convinced that the firm's history would sell well in other countries, he lined up a deal with US distributor Todd Hunter. By early 2000, Plymouth Gin was shifting 80,000 cases a year and generating almost £3m in sales. With the company growing quickly, Absolut Vodka stepped in with a bid. "Bacardi had recently bought one of our big rivals for a large sum. That helped us bargain." In the end, it sold for more than £25m.

Rolls celebrated by buying a boat and a plane and "enjoying myself". However, after a year, he was on the look out again. "One of the things that had annoyed me at Plymouth was that, no matter how hard we tried to make a good gin, when it was mixed with a cheap tonic, it would all taste the same." Once again, Rolls saw a chance to "create a more expensive, better-tasting product", and by 2005, his new firm, Fever-Tree, was ready to start selling tonic. The plan had been to sell directly to upmarket restaurants and bars, but within a month of launching he was contacted by Waitrose. "It took us by surprise, but it was great for sales." Buoyed by the supermarket deal they developed a range of other mixers, such as soda water and ginger ale. Last year Fever-Tree generated annual sales of £6.4m and is now sold in more than 30 countries.

James McKeigue

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a certificate in journalism from the NCTJ. James has worked as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries.He also had a spell at ITV, as welll as wring for Television Business International and covering the European equity markets for the London bureau. James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.