Tom Richter wasn't looking for a big idea. He didn't stay up late (or later) after service searching for one profitable product to save him from the agony of slinging drinks. He likes being a bartender—he's good at it. But his Tomr's Tonic does seem to be thriving on the national drinks market, and was even nominated in the "Best New Products" category at this year's Tales of the Cocktail (the 2008 winner was Fever Tree). So even if Richter doesn't indulge yacht wishes and Champagne dreams just yet, we're wondering if he shouldn't at least start browsing for a pair of top-siders?
Not that he's driven by dollar signs. "I don't make a salary yet," Richter shrugs—and he's been at this for five years. When you meet him, and talk tonic, it's clear he actually really just cares about the product, in this case a complex, balanced, brown still liquid that tends to make gin sing—and, like so many good things in New York, is actually from Jersey. "I was working at this really great restaurant in New Jersey at the time—David Drake's," says Richter (a former—dormant?—thespian turned ultra-colorful mixologist who now works at this really great restaurant in New York, The Beagle). After developing a close working relationship with Chef Drake, Richter was tapped to develop the bar program for another restaurant, Daryl. And it was there, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, home to Rutgers University and the Stress Factory comedy club, that the idea for Tomr's Tonic was born.
Like tonic innovators before him (whom he duly acknowledges, without necessarily adulating), Richter was driven to rethink tonic by the increasing complexity of gins on the market. "In my experience, Gin and Tonic is the most ordered cocktail," he explains. (Richter doesn't consider Vodka Tonic a cocktail, mostly due to a deep-seated disdain for vodka: "It's a colorless, flavorless liquid.") As he made one Gin and Tonic after the next, Richter noticed "there was no tonic to stand up to these really great gins. I wanted something better, and I made it for myself."
You might think another artisan tonic would be redundant (to be fair, when Richter started in 2007, there was only one craft tonic on the market). But he tasted a lot of the competition in his search to find something worthy among the paler iterations of modern tonic and nothing stood the test. "There's a lot of crap out there."
The core complaint—or inspiration—at the heart of Tomr's Tonic is the dilution of cinchona's natural complexity. Some insta-history: quinine, the marquee "bitter" flavor of tonic, comes from the bark of a Peruvian tree made famous by its ability to cure malaria in a rich Spanish woman, and, it turned out, everyone else. It was ultimately renamed, exported worldwide—e.g. Fever Tree uses Rwandan cinchona—and then synthesized in laboratories in 1944. The Gin and Tonic that so disappointed Richter is actually the great grandbaby of what some savvy English military officers did to make quinine extract more palatable.
Looking to reconnect with that older, robust flavor, Richter ordered cinchona bark (not extract) from all over the world. "Indian cinchona was beautiful, a lot of spices, aromatics; South African [cinchona] was really bitter, heavier on the quinine content." Richter ultimately settled on the original Peruvian stuff. "The bark of the tree has all the colors and botanicals I can't recreate with herbs and spices." A combination of that bark with "sugar, water, citrus, and a couple herbs and spices I just use to bump things up," Richter's tonic is closer to a tea, an aggressive extraction of cinchona and terroir.
It was that richness—as opposed to the self-professed "clean and crisp" taste of a Q Tonic—that Richter had been missing. "For my palate, it's got all of the qualities you want. There's earth, spice, sweetness, bitterness, and acidity." The first thing a customer is bound to notice, of course, is the color. "People get freaked out by the brown color," says Richter. "It's the strongest and weakest selling point at the same time." But get past the color and you get the flavor, which the bartender in Richter loves to frame in, you guessed it, a Gin and Tonic (or Tonic and Gin, as he calls it, in honor of Mr. Billy Joel).
An unrepentant juniper lover, Richter designed Tomr's for flavorful gins (though he actually insists "you don't need a premium gin to make a really good gin and tonic" with Tomr's—and that's the magic). But pairing Tomr's with the subtle honey and botanicals of something like Perry's Tot Navy Strength gin from New York Distilling Company, you begin to wonder whether you ever understood what a Gin and Tonic could really taste like (here's a hint: something). It also works "great with rum, really great with tequila, and really great with mezcal," a harmony we tasted in The Smog Cutter, where the tonic's delicate earthiness leans into the soft smoke of Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, its acidity brightened by lime, ginger, and Negra Modelo.
Finding the right flavor profile is one challenge. Getting it off your kitchen stove and into professional hands is another. "Going from making it in your kitchen to the next step is a gigantic leap, because there is no middle production," Richter explains. "You're either making what you're making at home, or you're making 4,000 cases at a time." But success was happening to Richter whether he was ready or not. And supplying to places like Freemen's, which he first delivered to in April 2009, was key. "Freemans bartenders go off to really great jobs," says Richter. "It's why I'm at Maison Premiere—Max [Britten] used to be at Freemans." Add an aggressive business partner to that Freemans diaspora and Richter suddenly faced the choice of every successful small business: increase production or surrender control.
Richter first reached out to Cricket Hill Brewing Co. in Fairfield. "I asked them if I could lease a space and start making it there." After sending a sample, Richter heard back: "'We love you're stuff, but we're not what you need. You need a tea producer.'" So he kept searching until he found a tea production facility (which he keeps quietly under the radar) in New Jersey. "We worked together for about a year to get the flavor profile right," he remembers. "It was quite labor intensive, because they wouldn't let me into the labs." Instead, the tea people sent someone to Richter's place. "'Bring all the ingredients,'" he told them, "'and I will taste and aroma-test it all and tell you what's off in the balance.' I did, and three weeks later we had it." Not only was the flavor spot-on, Richter had trained someone to be as intuitive (and picky) about Tomr's as he was. "Now he does all the production. I totally trust him—he's a flavor snob."
Not that Richter wants to step away from Tomr's. If anything, transferring production has freed him up to investigate other aspects of the business, like sustainability. "I've been talking about getting this set up with communities in South America. It's really at an embryonic stage right now," he says, referring to what he hopes will be a mutually profitable, eco-friendly relationship between Tomr's and the communities supplying his cinchona bark. "They have somebody going through the jungle to go meet with the community," he says. "This is awesome. This is exactly how I want it to be—not only does it give me a constant flavor supply, it gives back, which is what we need to be doing more of anyway."
Giving back and making paper: the conscientious American dream. And Richter's not even done. While Tomr's promises to pay him a salary (sometime this year?), and even synergistically drives new customers into The Beagle, Richter is quietly mulling over new ideas. (During our visit, he rabidly texted yet another business idea to his partner, all the while a big smile on his face.) "People ask me about my next product, and I'm like 'are you serious?'" Still, he admits "I have other things in mind." (His company website does say "Tom's Handcrafted Artisanal Elixirs," after all.) As with Tomr's, "It's got to be something I need that's not out there." One idea? "The next new product could be a little sampler pack of four of five different tonics, using the exact same recipe for different bark. People can see stuff from India tastes different from stuff from Africa." Richter also has amari on his radar.
But for now, he's keeping his eyes on Tomr's, which is currently in 10 states, New York hot spots like Jean Georges, Il Buco, and PDT (where they serve a Tomr's Collins), and, for two weeks and counting, Whole Foods. "We're currently working on a way to set up manufacturing points close to big markets," like Chicago, Portland, and Los Angeles, says Richter, "instead of shipping all over the country and burning carbon." And then of course there's the eco- and just plain friendliest way Richter spreads the Tomr's love. "Every day I walk out of the house with samples of my product." (Try to run into him. And don't mention vodka.)