Tash McGill interviewed Anthony Burt, CEO and founder of East Imperial – a premium beverages company based in Auckland, NZ but selling in 25 countries around the world. Their success has been built on a backbone of absolute commitment to authenticity and the process of creating premium products from the best possible ingredients. We wanted to understand the philosophy behind this powerhouse brand.
Anthony: Our philosophy from the outset, when I started looking at the category around 2010 – I really noticed that, um, what was happening in the market there wasn’t a lot of people really talk talking about the rich history of these drinks. You know, gin and tonic is the world’s most famous cocktail, but you pick up a bottle of tonic water and arguably no one’s telling you that story. So that was really the opportunity. So that’s still kind of at the centre of what East Imperial is all about. It’s about telling the rich history and also talking about the authenticity of the products. Like the original plantations where these ingredients were sourced from over a hundred years ago – telling those stories about those plantations, telling the stories about the original people that made these drinks, where they made them, why and how they made them as well. And it’s kind of been a common thread that runs through the brand to this day.
Tash: It would be probably quite easy for people to perhaps consider that some of that storytelling is part of a brand and marketing exercise. Can you walk us through and unpack some of the history and some of what makes the relationship between East Imperial, the brand and the product so authentic and so connected?
Anthony: Yeah, first and foremost, the very first product we released in 2013 was an Old World Tonic. It’s the purple label one and that’s really the foundation for all our products. That was actually based on our original 1903 recipe from East Africa. We found a recipe for authentic tonic water from long before it became commercialised and was full of lots of sugar and citric acid and artificial flavors and what have you. So we set out to just create a truly authentic tonic water from over a hundred years ago. And this recipe was actually trying to source the ingredients from the original plantations and locations as well.
So even now, you know, we source our sugar from Thailand, other ingredients from the original Dutch plantations and Java in Indonesia. We went through and ticked all the boxes to make sure that what we’re actually bringing to market was authentic. So if you look at our contemporary style tonic, the base of that is actually the old world tonic. It’s just got a slightly different top notes on it and it’s consistent with all of our tonic waters, really. That thread of authenticity, just running through the whole range, as well as how we present ourselves – we like to think that we look and behave a lot differently.
One of the things that we noticed very early on was that for some reason, all tonic water has yellow labels. Like it’s a written rule somewhere. Should we just does it all our other competitors do it? Um, I just don’t know why tonic water is yellow, but so we just went completely different because branding at the end of the day is all about finding your own space. And so there was a massive opportunity we thought in the whole market really just to stand out and to do things a lot differently. And that’s why we do what we do.
Tash: So you’ve got Mikey Ball, champion of flavour, but also champion of authenticity with you as well. Mikey, perhaps you can explain from your perspective, why authenticity, including the source of the ingredients that you’re using today — why does that matter to you as producers, but also why should it matter to consumers?
Mikey: I think probably first and foremost comes down to the quality, and definitely the understanding of where the ingredients come from speaks millions. There’s nothing worse than working with products that you don’t necessarily know where they come from. So that whole idea of traceability is massive for us. But also we understand the level of the flavor profile that it can create. I think probably one of the major markets that we focus on is, is that discerning drinker. And there are people who do want to deep dive and they want to understand a little bit more about what they’re drinking as they drink it. Gone are the days where it’s just throwing gin and tonic into a glass. I think similar with what we’ve just seen through COVID-19 as well, people are more understanding. People want to know more and they’re looking for knowledge. That’s the really cool piece we’ve got with our process and our format. It means that we’ve thought about everything as we’ve gone through and the story is actually the marketing, but it also stands up, which is great.
Tash: So how, from a process perspective, how do you actually take an old world authentic recipe and then commercialise it in a world where commercial beverage production does rely on preservatives, acids, sugars, and sweeteners to create the bang and profile?
Mikey: It’s pretty massive. I mean, the whole idea is embedded in East Imperial on a commercial level, but also means kind of sticking to our guns. And we’re probably quite hard to work with from the other side too, because we’re very, very strong about what we want to do and we want to make sure everything’s natural. We want to make sure we’re using the right ingredients. And everything tastes as spectacular as it does because there’s no point in just creating a tonic or a soda. We want to create the best, I guess. So it is really hard. We were lucky enough to work with a few different flavour houses – some local ones which work and do custom things for us, which is really cool. There’s a lot of reality versus the dream – I’ve come from a background where you can basically create whatever you want for one drink whereas now it’s actually, well, what’s realistic and how can we actually put that together? So that’s been a really fun learning curve for myself.
Tony: I guess we just don’t compromise really. I mean, it’s just hardwired into the way we work. You know, it has been challenging at times. It’s challenging now with supply chain issues that we have when you’re trying to source certain ingredients and get them in on time, but we kind of stick to the way we work and we find ways to get it done. I think most of the flavour houses now and people that we work with understand that that’s just the way it is. It’s worth it, because it’s such an important part of what we do and such an important part of how we present ourselves. So we can’t really afford shortcuts.
Tash: Talking about that importance, what is the relevance for the consumer?
Tony: I think there’s probably a bunch of consumers that started out not caring, but since engaging and having a relationship with the brand are starting to care because we find that people get introduced to the brand through one product and then they start branching out and start exploring and educating themselves. So we see one of the key roles of the East Imperial brand, as educators as well. If you look at our packaging there are always stories about where this comes from, how to use it, why it’s important.
Mikey: On our website, there’s a very large library now of certain suggestions for products as well, lots of stories about the product. So it’s constantly educating people and giving them more and making them feel empowered that they make their own decisions. I guess it’s exciting when you create new products as well. You’re sourcing ingredients, for example, our Kima Kola, and you’re looking for sources of kola nut. Then you find a place in Kenya, which has got a real rich history in its own right, where these things come from. So you can start telling these really great stories and where these ingredients come from.
We have these stories to back it up as we’ve said before, but the reality is obviously the liquid has to taste delicious as well. So it’s such a massive focus of those all combining around a product.
Tash: I’m interested, Tony, in your experience having come from ad land, where often the client relationship can so often alter the purity of the idea as it gets delivered. So is there a little bit of a freedom and a little bit of joy in being able to stay true to the process all the way through?
Tony: Yeah, I think that’s correct. You know, we sometimes describe ourselves as the agency and client rolled into one! But we’re also able to focus just on one client, as it were – us. And to do it the way maybe you always wanted to do it. Being able to have that freedom, we just don’t take it for granted, I think it’s a huge advantage to what we do. And we’re still working on new flavor profiles and still creating.
Tash: So let’s dive into the fun stuff, uh, and talk about some of the, the fun concoctions and, uh, and crazy flavors that are coming out of, uh, the house of east Imperial. Yeah. I’ll
Tony: One of the upsides of COVID has been, particularly last year during that first lockdown, there wasn’t really a whole lot we could actually do because there was nothing going on. We kind of had to go back to what we love doing and that’s creating new products. I’ll hand over to Mikey though – because it was usually me mentioning to Mikey on a phone call or an email, “Hey I’ve got an idea here,” and him saying “Yeah, sure, bro, we can do that.”
Mikey: Yeah. I mean, we’ve got some pretty cool pieces – a recent launch in December which was kind of hotlined through COVID. A little COVID baby that we developed which is the Kima Kola. In a very East Imperial style. So I think actually probably COVID for us, took us back to the roots of what East Imperial was and made us understand that we had to kind of develop products again from there.
Tash: I’d love to dive into the rationale for Kima Kola. So you’re on the phone, you have an idea, you shoot it to Mikey, but can you unpack any more of that creative process or are these just light bulbs that drop on you in the middle of the night?
Tony: I mean, cola was always on the list to create and so was lemonade and now they are the last two to kind of complete the range. We had a good range of tonic waters, we had a ginger beer, the grapefruit soda and the soda water. And the one that frustratingly, on a commercial perspective, is you would go into a bar, whether it be here in New Zealand or North America, and you could see all of our range of products being served but the one that wasn’t being used would be cola or lemonade. So I kind of felt that we were leaving an opportunity on the table for our competitors to take that space. And so that’s where the kind of light bulb moment happened, that convinced us we needed to fill that gap.
Mikey: But it’s incredibly hard making a cola because everyone’s flavour or judgment is based upon the biggest player in the market. What does cola taste like? And as Tony mentioned, generally, what we think of when we think of cola is any one of the big, big brands. So that was actually the hardest part about all this, because you could quite easily create what you think or what should be a legitimate flavour, but how does that work as Cola?
And I think some of our original test pilots were like, well, this is an East Imperial way, but actually, how does it bridge the gap of what cola is versus what East Imperial cola is? There were a lot of pieces that we really had to tie together. Obviously that story was a huge part, but then understanding how we really showcase the spirit it was going to mix with. And I think that’s very much where the flavour profile of the cola specifically went to. One thing that we have throughout our ranges, the idea of showcasing the spirit as the base or the ingredient that we’re using. Whereas other colas on the market will often mask that spirit. So it was something that we really played on with the flavour profile with when it came down to sugar content, when it came down to citrus oils and spices and that kind of thing that we use.
We very much put this focus on how we can accentuate flavour throughout a product to bring it through. So a bourbon and cola tastes like a bourbon and cola, but it tastes like a bad-ass bourbon and cola. I guess that’s kind of the idea, you want to be able to taste both of the things you’re drinking, right? One person did come back to say, ‘yuck, it’s too chemical’, which is kind of like that’s the least chemical product on the market.
Tash: So when it comes to new products, what are the mad and wild things that you guys are experimenting with?
Tony: There’s a thought that coffee fortification is such a massive trend at the moment, and cold brew. You start seeing things sort of spillover into cocktails and mixology, which has things like espresso martinis. Also we kind of found from a brand perspective that Southeast Asian coffee was something that East Imperial can naturally talk about as an ingredient, it’s got good history and tradition from the region. And so if we were going to take that history combined with East Imperial process, where could we go with an actual product? So Mikey has created an absolutely kicking product using coffee and tonic. Cold brew coffee, pomelo and grapefruit tonic together. And rather than CO2, we’re using nitro. So you get this very rich, thick texture, it pours much like a Guinness and it’s absolutely delicious. So that’s been formulated, it’s probably the most popular product here in the office at the moment. [laughter]
Mikey: Yeah that’s probably landing in July. We’ve actually done a couple of tests. We’re pretty confident with it, which is nice. This is a full kind of COVID product, similar to Kima Kola. The whole idea of tonic and cooffee isn’t necessarily a new one. The whole idea of turbo tonic has been around for four or five years. But it was all about kind of executing those in the right way. And I’ve had turbo tonics before they didn’t necessarily kind of go super well. They’re really, really fizzy. So often that fizz level kind of doesn’t do it justice. It’s our first single release, canned product and the nitrogen kind of makes it like a stout, which is really, really cool. So it’s a big new kind of piece of the industry for us to delve into as well.
We don’t quite know exactly how it’s going to go but it’s a pretty delicious beverage. And it does come from a story as well so it’s not just throwing s*** at the wall but the flavour profile it, I mean, it, it made sense. Our grapefruit tonic has that big kind of Ruby red grapefruit top note, which has that natural bitterness, the coffee itself is bright and green, fresh and butter. And then quinine becomes their kind of niche, natural connection. So actually what should be a really, really quite bitter astringent beverage suddenly comes across as this like perfectly clean and velvety textural palate. So it’s really fun working with different coffees and different flavour profiles to actually create something that we feel really proud of.
Tony: We’ve also developed a line of wellness sodas and low-calorie options. So setting aside mixers, as such and taking a cue from Asian spice trade and Asian ingredients that have wellness benefits to create sodas. And we’re quite far along the line, with a series of those which again, will be all presented in cans. And again, it just sits really well underneath the kind of umbrella of East Imperial, the sourcing of the ingredients, the quality of water, the story that was set behind them.
Mikey: Yeah we’re working hard on those as well. They’re delicious. This one’s a really fun one. These are some of the the ingredients that we’ve had actually had to hatch up and create with some of the flavor houses that we work with, which is really quite cool. And again, they built off these stories and the further we deep dive into them, the deeper we understand that the stories and the flavors that could surround them. Again, it’s kind of another jump into quite a different market for us, so it was quite a fun way of putting a big focus, traditional stamp on something that’s quite different.