An almost baffling array of tonic water brands have followed the Gin boom wake to shore in the last decade, so it takes a special kind to make us stand up and pay attention. With its Bikan Yuso philosophy and deliciously sparkling, spirit enhancing mixers, Merchant’s Heart has certainly piqued our interest.
The range was created by Japanese beverage innovator Suntory and stays close to the heart of its founder, Shinjiro Torii, who, upon starting the company in 1899, made clear his ethos: “We must never forget our merchant’s heart”. The intention was to create products of great quality, always with the customer in mind.
The Japanese influence is well felt in the Merchant’s Heart range; Bikan Yuso means ‘a sense of beauty and playful imagination’. It’s a sentiment that is reflected in the drinks, which are carbonated to such an extent that each little bottle fizzes and pops with the might of a giant, coating the tongue in flavours strong and complex enough to dry and flood the mouth simultaneously.
The Bikan Yuso philosophy is one that works particularly well in the days of the Gin boom, which has added a great sense of fun and adventure to the category. Gin and Tonics are served up in huge Copa glasses with garnishes that range from the weird to the wonderful and from subtle to garden-in-your glass elaborate.
The idea behind Merchant’s Heart was to develop a mixer that would better suit this more whimsical era of cocktail making. Head of Merchant’s Heart, Jason Sennitt, explains: “We believe it is time to move the conversation away from mixing spirits to enhancing them. The response from consumers, bartenders and spirit brand owners has been fantastic. It feels like a natural evolution of the category, why mix when you can enhance?”
All of the mixers in the range were designed with the help of those at the front line of the drinks industry, including Bobby Hiddleston of Callooh Callay, Ali Burgess of Happiness Forgets and Diego Cabrera of La Cabrera.
Unlike many other mixers, Merchant’s Heart tonics are not made to be sipped their own, rather they’re made to shine a spotlight on spirits and help bring out their core characteristics.
There are six drinks in total, four of which make great accompaniments to gin: Classic Tonic, Pink Peppercorn Tonic, Floral Aromatic Tonic and Hibiscus Tonic. Each are bottled with an excessive amount of carbonation, meaning that by the time they hit your glass they’ve still got enough sass to slap down an ice cube dilution.
So what does the Merchant’s Heart range taste like?
Classic: The classic tonic lives up to its name, delivering a loud, tart and medicinal quinine that feels like it’ll cure you of all ills. It’s sweet initially, though the bitterness of the quinine hits the back of the tongue hard, kicking the salivary gland into overdrive before a tart citrus rushes in. A tonic that treads a path so traditional ought to be paired up with a gin that does the same, as well as ice and a lime garnish. Go for something like Beefeater or Porter’s to create a G&T that even the most discerning nana would be proud of.
Hibiscus: A rich, candied fruit smell greets the nose, leading the tongue to something of a surprise, as it’s the acerbic quinine that greets the palate first of all. Sweetness joins the fray, with a huge, just-ripe apple taste flooding the mouth. Best served with a fruit-led gin, like Sharish or Warner Edwards Rhubarb.
Floral Aromatics: A sweet and gentle smell rushes forward, with hibiscus leading the floral charge. A honeyed, wild meadow taste coats the tongue – it’s delicate but joined by a high dose of quinine. The bitter quinine and sweet flowers revolve around the tongue, though the bitter sensations eventually wear off , giving way to a heavy hibiscus. It’d be irresistible to play with the flowers here – so serve with a flower power gin like BLOOM.
Pink Peppercorn: As with the rest of the range, a bitter sweet flavour duo circles the palate. The pink peppercorns come in at the end, bringing a highly perfumed, aromatic feel and a drying sensation. It’s quite unlike any other tonic out there and would match, step for step, an oily and loud spirit, like (quite by coincidence) Pink Pepper Gin.
One of our main focuses when testing a gin is how well it stands up to tonic, as those of a meeker disposition can so easily get drowned. Though the quinine factor is high across the entire Merchant’s Heart range, the mixers are made in such a way as to elevate a gin and its botanicals, so the chances of drowning are slim, no matter how subtle a gin is. Instead, when paired with their flagship classic tonic in particular, a spirit will stand strong and shout loud. Granted, the flavoured tonics need a little bit of pairing consideration to work well but when used wisely, they can add both depth and act as a secondary flavour to a garnish choice.
Getting trade figures on board at the concept stage was a good step for Merchant’s Heart, as it means that some of the best possible connections already have a vested interest. There are a number of premium venues, such as Holborn Dining Room, serving the range currently, and given the brand’s flavour enhancing stance and eagerness to work with bars (and to provide them with the necessary equipment to create perfect serves), we only see this presence growing.
Our annual Ginfographic showed that for gin fans a Gin and Tonic is still the go-to-drink, with 62.7% of our respondents naming it as their gin cocktail of preference and we’ve been hearing of some interesting plans from the Merchant’s Heart team to capitalise on this in 2017.
It’s easy to be a little bit cynical at the “enhancing instead of mixing” strapline and, if we’re being honest, we’re still uneasy about actually saying this out loud… That said, there is so much about this range that gets us genuinely excited and wanting to see them explode onto the scene.
Namely, the old Schweppes heritage shaped bottle and the same patented carbonation techniques. Moreover – it’s great to see a range from a larger player like Suntory with their real knowhow in nurturing a fresh idea and a new brand. This combination can only be a positive thing for both tonic and gin categories and we look forward to seeing it blossom. The possible link up with Sipsmith now that they are owned by the same parent company also raises some interesting opportunities, although no doubt both will be like two step siblings circling each other for a little while first…
Gin is almost always a well considered purchase, but tonic can fall by the wayside, with many drinkers reaching for convenience over consideration. We’re all guilty of it, but tonic is a world worth exploring – change it up for one of the alternative makers and you’ll be able to tell the difference from a mile off.
Copyright © Gin Foundry