During his years managing cocktail bars around the world, Joe Slater – now Managing Director of Six Barrel Soda Co – set himself the task of working out how to make high quality drinks using fresh ingredients at a large scale. When he got back to NZ, he opened a bar in Wellington with his mate Mike Stewart, and put his innovation to use.
“It was really about making excellent quality and interesting drinks, simply,” explains Joe. “People were really into our drinks and there was a growing interest in more unusual flavours.”
So in 2012 the pair launched Six Barrel Soda, selling bottled syrups and sodas via their own store in Wellington where customers could try out the drinks. They also started supplying other venues, café and bars, then retail, starting with Moore Wilson’s and Commonsense Organics in Wellington, then supermarkets and retailers all over the country.
“We got into exporting way earlier than we should have – a classic mix of ego and naivety,” laughs Joe. “There was a lot of interest from Australia right from our first year in business, via social media and coverage of our store in Wellington.
“We jumped right in without much experience, and air freighted some really heavy boxes full of glass bottles of syrup! But we learnt some interesting things along the way and now have a more sustainable model.”
Currently exporting to Australia and Hong Kong, Six Barrel is also working on new developments in Dubai, China and Singapore, and developing more of a global brand.
“Earlier versions of us would have said ‘We need to take over Singapore and be the best and biggest!’ But now we’ve proved in NZ that being a medium sized company is a good sustainable position to be in.”
Other exporting lessons, Joe says, include
- Make sure your in-market partner is right – that they have access to the customers you need, at the level you need and the volumes to make it viable. Make sure they have an interest in promoting your brand in a partnership way
- Make sure the market and route to market are right. We’ve had approaches from distributers in countries like Mexico and South Africa, who looked really promising, but the numbers didn’t add up once we looked into retail prices of similar products in the market and what we’d end up with.
While there are several premium craft syrup makers scattered around the world, Joe says most of them are quite regional. “One of the benefits of being in New Zealand is that you have to export if you’re making a reasonably niche product. Whereas if you’re based in California for example, you’re fine.”
The focus is on producing natural and great tasting drinks, using natural and organic ingredients where possible. For example, Six Barrel only uses Fair Trade organic sugar. “People ask why we don’t do sugar-free, but we do a sugar free bottled soda, Cucumber & Mint, and it’s our lowest seller. Raspberry and Lemon is our best seller, we also have a new Classic Tonic flavoured syrup which is going really well, and our Lemon Honey Ginger is very popular.
With interesting flavours such as Rhubarb & Juniper, Pandan & Lime and Celery Tonic, I look forward to seeing what the duo come up with next as they move into more markets.
As the company is still small (only 5 people) there is a limited research budget. With Dubai for example, to test the market, they’re selling direct to a retailer to try out the product in a few stores.
“Our aim is to make wonderful and surprising flavoured drinks,” says Joe. “And to show people they can easily make awesome drinks at home, that taste and look incredible.”