Give us a little background about yourself? Any food and beverage experience?
No – nothing besides liking to eat, drink, and cook. Before starting Q-Drinks, my prior job was helping rebuild the area surrounding the World Trade Center after 9/11. Before that, I worked with a technology start-up in San Francisco and before that I did economic development for the County of Sonoma, California. While out west I made my own wine, which definitely gave me the idea that I could make something with my own hands that tasted great.
What’s the story behind Q-Drinks? Where did the idea come from?
It started on a warm summer night in Brooklyn. A couple of good friends were in my backyard for gin & tonics. A couple of drinks in, my teeth felt strangely sticky. While Jon was talking, I picked up the bottle of tonic water and looked at the ingredients. 25 grams of high fructose corn syrup! Natural and artificial flavors. And artificial preservatives. Sara had a stomach ache that night and was drinking a Sprite. I asked to see the can. It had 26 grams of high fructose corn syrup, natural and artificial flavors, and artificial preservatives. “Do you know that tonic water is virtually the same thing as Sprite?” “Really?” “I thought it was like club soda.”
And as soon as that we were on to something else. And then something else. Maybe it was the gin, but the idea lingered. Justin brought this great (and expensive) bottle of Tanqueray over. And we were mixing it drink after drink with something lousy. Right then I looked up. The moon was shining down on the table. The light caught the Tanqueray and it looked like a glowing orb of green gin goodness.
Next to it, the plastic tonic water bottle looked particularly decrepit. In a flash I realized I could make a superior tonic water. One made from authentic ingredients and good enough to mix with my favorite gins, vodkas and rums. The next morning I figured out why the tonic water had been so lousy. The big soda companies had replaced the real quinine with synthetic quinine in the 1950’s and the real sugar with high fructose corn syrup in the 1960’s.
So I ordered a bag of cinchona bark (a tree native to Peru that contains the real quinine tonic water) and started mixing up homemade gin and tonics in my kitchen with a quinine and gin syrup topped with seltzer. I soon came up with a recipe that tasted fantastic and I would bring the bag of bark with me to dinner parties to serve homemade g&ts to all my pals.
They were a huge hit, but the lack of carbonation in my homemade soda soon drove me nuts. So I found a small soda plant that would make 200 cases of my tonic water for me with as much carbonation as I wanted. When I got back from the plant I posted on foodblog and quickly got emails from Jim Meehan, then the lead bartender at Gramercy Tavern, and the owner of Milk & Honey, the famous cocktail lounge, saying they wanted to try the tonic water. I brought some over. They both loved it and put in an order, that I delivered myself in my car. A couple of weeks later, we were written up in the New York Times. The next day we were contacted by hundreds of the world’s best bars, restaurants, liquor stores, and gourmet groceries. And soon I was being asked for other sodas as tasty and high quality as Q Tonic. At first, I said no, I had my hands full bringing Q Tonic to the world – I needed to figure out how to make enough of it and then how to set up ways to get it to everyone who wanted it. But my best friend then quit his job to run our operations and he got us to the point where we could make as much as we could pay for. So I started experimenting with new flavors. First came Q Ginger, then Q Club and Q Kola. For each new Q drink I agonized like I did with Q Tonic. I source the absolute best ingredients and then tinker with the recipe until I come up with something I love. I then work with our great designer to give each one packaging as beautiful and sophisticated as the liquid it holds.
How did you go to market with Q-Drinks to reach restaurants, cocktail lounges and gourmet groceries?
With a backpack full of soda bottles. I started by going door to door to the top restaurants and cocktail bars in New York City, asking bartenders to try my tonic water. A bunch loved it, and we were off and running.
Who are some of your upscale restaurant clients in NYC currently using Q-Drinks on their signature cocktail menu?
Blue Hill, PDT, Silver Lining, Locanda Verde, the Plaza Hotel, The Ritz…
Are Q-Drinks solely made for cocktails or are they perfect on their own to enjoy?
Because we use real ingredients and just a little organic agave, Q Drinks make a great match for top shelf spirits and stand proudly on their own.
What does the “Q” stand for in Q-Drinks?
The Q originally stood for quinine. I came up with the name when I was mixing up my first batches in my Brooklyn kitchen. One day, as my roommate was complaining that we were going to get busted for running a meth lab, I looked up from my skillet of boiling bark at the plastic Schweppes tonic water bottle and realized that the big difference between what they do and what I was doing was that they used fake stuff made in laboratories and I was using real quinine. Thus the “Q.” We’ve expanded out from tonic water, but the point remains the same – we use real stuff so our sodas taste better and are better for you.
Your bottle design is very unique, how was the bottle design created? Did you work with a bottle designer? Why glass for the bottle and not plastic?
We use a custom thick glass bottle because it allows us to use more carbonation in our sodas than plastic, cans, or even a normal glass soda/beer bottle. When I made the initial recipe for Q Tonic and then the recipes for the newer flavors I agonized over not only what ingredients to use, but also the level of carbonation. Carbonation makes soda refreshing and gives it its zing. – not enough and your drink (especially if it’s a cocktail mixed with warm, uncarbonated booze) becomes syrupy and not at all refreshing. Far too often, soda companies – both large and small – cheap out and figure that you won’t care or won’t pay more for a properly carbonated soda. But that’s not how we look at it. So we invest in a thicker glass bottle – it costs us more, but we think it’s worth it because it allows us to make our sodas taste better than any others out there.
Do any of your beverages contain caffeine? Do you offer a non-caffeinated product?
Q Kola contains caffeine – cola is by its very nature a “pick-me-up.” The rest of the flavors – Q Ginger, Q Tonic, and Q Club don’t.
How many varieties of Q-Drinks are there? Any new flavors in the works?
Right now we have the four sodas a high-end bar would want: Q Tonic, Q Ginger, Q Kola, and Q Club. And yes, we have a couple of more flavors we’re working on – we get people every day asking us to make their favorite flavor with the same quality and sophistication as Q Tonic, Q Ginger, Q Kola, and Q Club so I do a lot of experimenting in my kitchen. And we’re getting close on a couple of new ones.
Is Q-Drinks offered in one size? Offered through a fountain dispenser?
All flavors of Q drinks come in 8oz. and 750ml glass bottles. They aren’t available through a fountain dispenser because we can’t ensure that it’d be a truly superior soda through the “gun” – it can’t produce nearly enough carbonation and way too often it’s not maintained correctly and is the dirtiest thing in a restaurant.
Do you consider Q-Drinks a specialty niche beverage?
No, I consider it the beginning of the craft soda movement. Over the last 20 years we’ve seen craft beers and spirits become more and more popular. I think the same thing is starting to happen with soda – right now in most bars and restaurants the sodas are by far and away the crappiest thing served to customers.
Where is Q-Drinks manufactured and bottled? Do you oversee the bottling on a daily basis?
In order to shrink our carbon footprint and lower our shipping costs, we produce our sodas in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California. Either I, or Ben, our COO goes on site for each and every production run.
We heard you sent Mayor Bloomberg a case of Q-Drinks? What was that all about?
Mayor Bloomberg has been demonizing soda. And it’s understandable – most sodas are crap and treated as such by both the companies selling them and the customers buying them. I sent the Mayor a case of Q sodas so he could see that soda could be truly special and not any worse for you than an orange juice if it’s taken really seriously by a small company that cares.
Looking into your crystal ball, where do you see Q-Drinks in five years?
It’s already starting, but in five years better bars and restaurants will be embarrassed to serve factory sodas, especially out of the gun. They’ll want to take the sodas they serve as seriously as what beers they serve or what fish they serve.