Top Note Tonic
531 S. Water St., Milwaukee
INDUSTRY: Beverage manufacturing
You can’t argue with taste. Milwaukee-based Top Note Tonic has created a line of mixers and soft drinks with an award-winning flavor. Top Note’s Classic Tonic Water has won more awards than any other tonic water currently on the market, according to co-founder Mary Pellettieri.
She left a career of more than 25 years in the craft beer business to start Top Note Tonic in 2015, but not before gaining some experience by helping Chicago-based Goose Island Brewery launch a line of specialty sodas. Then, she tapped into co-founder Noah Swanson’s experience as a home brewer.
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Top Note Tonic co-founders Noah Swanson and Mary Pellettieri.[/caption]
“I was bored on the weekend, so I started making these soda syrups, and over time I thought we should just make these and sell them at farmers markets,” said Pellettieri.
That’s how Top Note got its start. Pellettieri and Swanson worked in a commercial kitchen within the Lincoln Warehouse building in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood to create their soda syrups. The company’s first flavors included bitter orange and lemon, an Indian tonic water and a ginger beer.
They used whole ingredients like grapefruit peel, herbs and lemon juice to create the flavors they desired.
“We went back to that idea that tonic could be kind of an herbal tincture, and we made a lot of herbal-style cocktail syrups,” said Pellettieri. “We take a craft, American approach to a very traditional category.”
The name Top Note references the first aromas and flavors that tickle a drinker’s senses when they have a glass of wine or another beverage.
“We did a blind tasting when we were formulating and it was kind of surprising how little actual flavor is in (competing products),” said Swanson. “There’s often times citric acid in there, a little bit of color and sweetness, and it drops off from there.”
Still in growth mode, Top Note uses local co-packers, including Sprecher Brewery, to make its soft drinks and mixers. The syrups are formulated in-house.
When Pellettieri and Swanson initially began looking for manufacturers to recreate the syrups they were perfecting for use in ready-to-drink products, the pair were unhappy with how the products were turning out. They brought the formulation work back in-house and set about re-tooling them in their own kitchens.
Top Note relies on a handful of different flavor suppliers for its products; those flavors are often mixed on-site by the company’s co-packers. The company produces around 25,000 cases of its mixer and soft drink bottles per year.
“When you do ready-to-drink (products), no one is going to sit there with a kettle of herbs for your batch,” said Swanson. “It’s going to come from companies that make natural extracts.”
When concocting Top Note’s ginger beer formula, there were 30 different test batches at play. Perfecting the stability, flavor and color was key, according to Swanson.
Top Note is now pivoting into the craft soda market and will soon launch its take on a cola as well as a lemon-lime soda.
“One of our goals is to source everything from the USA if possible, and right now the bottles are not coming from the U.S.,” said Swanson, adding that the cost per bottle has doubled since Top Note started.
“I’d like to be a national, even international brand someday, but we’ll start with local and regional and see where we go,” said Pellettieri. “It’s a growth mindset.”
Top Note plans to leverage its growth in 2022 into this year by expanding its selection of packaging into aluminum cans and entering new partnerships with distributors, beverage manufacturers and retailers across the U.S.
“In 2023, we look forward to servicing new opportunities, like retail stores who are focusing on non-alcoholic products and individuals seeking better-for-you soft drinks that happen to taste delicious as well,” said Pellettieri.