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At heart a brewer, she's made mixers her business

Friday, December 29, 2017   (0 Comments)
Journal Sentinel

Kristine M. Kierzek



Mary Pellettieri spent years helping brewers launch new products, which eventually gave her the confidence to launch her own company. After working with Goose Island and Miller Coors, she thought the focus of her business would be beer. Yet when she started playing around with herbal syrups for flavor, she found herself hooked. 

She started Top Note Tonic with co-founder Noah Swanson in 2014, focusing on flavored herbal syrups. While continuing to cultivate cocktail customers, in 2016 they shifted gears to soft drinks and mixers. They currently have three standard flavors: Indian tonic, bitter lemon and ginger beer. More are in the works.

Top Note Tonic operates out of Lincoln Warehouse, 2018 S. 1st St., which also houses Twisted Path Distillery. The distillery is home to a newly expanded tasting room on the first floor, the first in the city to offer Top Note Tonic on tap. Drinks made with Top Note Tonic are just $4 during happy hour, 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday. 

About the name

Top Note Tonic was inspired by the art of flavor and sensory science. I’m a beer industry professional all my life. When you talk about smell, you talk about the top notes. 

Beverage beginnings

I started as a quality manager for Goose Island, and I did a lot of new product development. Then I came to Miller Coors. I was the quality manager at the brewery, but they saw my need for new product development. I enjoyed it, but new product launches, that’s really fun. I can do that. I got over my fear of doing my own business. 

Starting simple

I started playing with syrups. We thought we were going to do an herbal beer. I actually liked the syrups mixed with soda water. (So I thought) I’ll just start making that. 

Building a business

We had to get into carbonated soft drinks. We were making the flavor and expecting the customer to put the sparkling water on top. Now we’re putting the flavor and sparkling water in the bottle as a carbonated soft drink. 

We have three flavors: a classic tonic water called Indian tonic water, a bitter lemon skirts more into the soft drink role, then the ginger beer, which goes both ways, as it mixes well with alcohol and really does nicely on its own. People call it a ginger tonic, but it is a true ginger beer, like a root beer.

Beyond basic beverages

A tonic is going to have some bitter to it, there might even be some savory within that. In the beverage category, that savory, bitter, sour world is starting to grow. It is not just tonic, it is kombucha, shrubs and a lot of sour. 

Favorite flavor

I like our bitter lemon quite a bit. It is lower in sugar, and I do like a slightly more bitter beverage. I drink black coffee. I drink IPAs. I find bitter lemon refreshing. 

Best seller

It is neck and neck between Indian tonic and ginger beer. We were shocked. Ginger beer has become more mainstream. 

Her perfect pairing

I was drinking the bitter lemon and a really malty vodka the other day, with a twist of lemon. Really good. I love the Indian Tonic Water over really nice juniper-forward gin, like a London Dry with a squeeze of lime. I like simple drinks. 

Our Indian tonic really appeals to people, and people know it is different. They’re still looking for that classic tonic, so we’ll probably develop a classic tonic in the next year. We’re looking at a grapefruit in the future, probably as a seasonal. 

Lesson learned

We had two flavors in our syrups that people liked, but in terms of mainstream appeal, we don’t see it out there. The gentian lime was good, but probably almost too unique. 

Doing the math

If you’re going to take the time to mix a $40 bottle of gin with tonic, take the time to explore the category. The tonic is three-fourths of your drink. 

Milwaukee must

Best Place (at the Historic Pabst Brewery, At heart I’m still a brewer. That’s a mecca for anyone in the brewing industry, like a pilgrimage. It is a classic space, there is so much history. I used to go to that location for meetings, when Pabst was still a working brewery. 

Like-minded neighbors

We’ve got Twisted Path (Distillery) downstairs, and they just opened a large tasting room. Enlightened Brewing also has a tasting room. We’ve got Eagle Park Brewing, a little tiny tasting room, and they want to grow. Then you’ve got Melt, a chocolate company that just opened, and a bakery (Mor) will be opening.

If you’ve been to San Francisco and their old warehouse districts, that is how this feels to me. Lincoln Warehouse is kind of a hub. 

Tapping expertise

Greg Stroh, formerly of Stroh Brewing and founder of Izze Soda, is on my advisory team. He’s really helpful, because he’s done this three times, with Izze and two other companies. It helps to have the "phone a friend.”

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