"A Better Tonic" by M Muckian, Isthmus Madison



Ginger beer is a critical cocktail component, most notably in Moscow mules. Sipped by itself, however, the nonalcoholic beverage can range from unremarkably bland to unbearably sweet.

Top Note Tonic, a Milwaukee firm run by entrepreneurs Mary Pellettieri and Noah Swanson, has changed the nature of cocktail mixers. A sip of its ginger beer tells the tale.

First up is the beverage’s spicy, aromatic nose, which leaps out of the glass before it reaches the lips. The beverage pours with a rocky head, a sizzling effervescence and a slightly darker, caramel color. When it hits the palate, the ginger — in this case a variety called galangal — flares across its surface, underscored by a sweet, dried fruit nuance that’s the byproduct of the date sugar used in the blend.

It’s delightful even as a stand-alone beverage. Such care and creativity is part and parcel of all of Top Note’s five flavors, and central to the company’s ethos.

“We start with cocktail community trends we see and try to do better versions of what’s already out there,” says Pellettieri, who helped launch the line as flavor concentrates in 2015, evolving them into sparkling mixers by 2017.

The flavors currently sell both in four-pack and single 750 ml bottles produced at a Pennsylvania facility, but starting in September 2019, the move to Wisconsin will be realized. 

Top Note’s first mixer was Indian Tonic, which Pellettieri describes as “the IPA of tonics.” The comparison has nothing to do with an India pale ale’s heavy hop presence, but instead references the type of tonic enjoyed by members of the British Raj when it occupied India from 1858 to 1947.

Pellettieri replaced the generic citrus flavors with grapefruit and used gentian root, rather than relying primarily on quinine, to bitter the beverage. Several weeks after its release, the Specialty Food Association honored Indian Tonic with a “Sofi” New Product Award in the cold beverage-mixers category for 2017, and the entrepreneurs knew they were on their way.

The Top Note line also includes Bitter Lemon, Classic Tonic and Sparkling Grapefruit. Once production at Octopi is underway, the company will take on the classic club soda.

“Club soda is not just sparkling water. It has minerals and salts that make it mixable and enhance flavors,” Pellettieri says. “We see a need for innovation in this category and we’re going to put our ‘brewers’ spin’ on the beverage and see what comes up.”

Top Note is sold locally at most grocery and liquor stores.

 Starting next month, Top Note will be producing and, for the first time, canning all of its flavors at Octopi Brewing in Waunakee. (They will also be available in bottles.) Pellettieri and Octopi owner Isaac Showaki are awaiting the arrival of a cold pasteurizer, equipment used in both the soft drink and cider industries but not in brewing, before production can begin.

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