The bitter truth

sinkonah resizedSix Australian startups share their story with Inside FMCG, and while all are at different stages of their journey, they share one thing in common: they all mean business. This is the second story in the series. 

Local-food advocate Sarah Robins, the author of Seasonal Regional, is reviving an old-school syrup with a recipe that dates back to the 1820s.

Infused with cinchona bark, Sin-ko-nah Tonic Syrup is a bittersweet mixer with a third less sugar than most mainstream tonics, and in the words of food writer Hilary McNevin “makes one helluva gin and tonic”.

Sin-ko-nah Tonic Syrup is produced in a commercial kitchen in Melbourne. Robins and her team hand-zest and juice fruits, grind the bark and cook the syrup at a range of temperatures to make sure each batch is just right.

It was Robins’ love of artisan products and distaste for over-sugared commercial tonic water that drove her to recreate the recipe that was once used for easing fever and staving off malaria.

“A lot of people don’t realise that because of the bitterness masking them, many mainstream tonic waters contain so much sugar. By using the natural version of the cinchona bark, we can use less sugar.

“You can dilute the syrup to whatever strength you like. If you like a slightly sweeter drink, you put a little bit more in; if you like a slightly dryer drink, you put in less. The type of sparkling water you use will have an effect as well,” she says, explaining that bubbles hide sugar.

Learning curve

While perfecting the recipe was a timely exercise, the jump from creating to getting the product on shelves was probably the steepest learning curve in her start-up journey.  

“What I am really good at is information, but not sales,” she says. “I’ve learnt that the hard way.

“One of the hardest parts about starting a small business is that you inevitably have to be a jack of all trades at the beginning, even though you are not good at all of them.”

Sin-ko-nah is currently sold in 200ml and 500ml varieties, both online and in a range of stockists throughout Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT, Victoria and Western Australia as well as in New Zealand. The larger bottle is also sold through Qantas EpiQure, a boutique collection of curated products for the airline’s frequent flyer club members.

As a strong proponent of local produce, Robins has collaborated with a range of companies and product offerings, most commonly distilleries. However, her most recent partnership was with a soap company to make a gin-and-tonic soap bar from the botanicals left after making the tonic.

Niche product

And while continued growth is always front of mind, maintaining an authentic artisan product remains central to the brand.

“Sin-ko-nah is always going to be a niche product. I am not interested in producing things that appeal the masses,” says Robins. “I didn’t get into it to make money or to become a household name… I got into it because I love what it is about. So it is really important for me to keep the integrity of those things.

“We have been told by several stores that they have trouble with it being a single product, that they want a range,” she says. But while in the development phase of other products, she will not be expanding the tonic-water range.

“We are also still distributing directly, so to have a distributor would make a massive difference. But obviously in order to have a distributor, you are moving from a percentage for you and a percentage to the retailer to roughly a 30/30/30 split. This means you need to bring down your production costs considerably, and I haven’t yet figured out a way to scale up that allows that to happen… yet.”

This story was first featured in the July edition of Inside FMCG. Subscribe now.

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