A self-proclaimed lover of entertaining guests, New York native Joanna Mouming thoroughly enjoys hosting dinner parties for family and friends. Following one such night, her friend’s son noted, “She has a way with ingredients.”
Over a decade later, this offhand comment would become the tagline for an up-and-coming business with a singular goal: reinventing the British classic, gin and tonic.
The former social worker’s career in the food industry began when she discovered Kalona Organic (now Kalona SuperNatural) dairy products at New Pioneer Co-op. Amazed by the products’ superior taste, she learned as much as she could about organic foods.
“I’d be telling strangers, ‘You know, you should really be buying this milk because it’s much better, not to mention it’s local,’’ she said. “So when I wrote my cover letter to work for the company, I said, ‘I’m already selling your product to strangers.’”
After working with Kalona SuperNatural for a number of years, Mouming shifted to Frontier Natural Products, where she became aware that she had a “nearly perfect palate.” This asset, paired with her love of cooking, disposed her towards improving flavors of existing foods and drinks.
The inspiration to create a tonic syrup first struck as Mouming reflected on her distaste for traditional tonic waters, finding them overly sweet and flavorless.
“I am a fan of gin, but I think that commercial tonic water is pretty blah and kind of garbage,” Mouming said. “People buy quality gin and then mix it with this really not-so-great ingredient. Because I was working with spices, it was very natural for me to think, ‘How could I play and make something that’s kind of better than the commercial stuff?’”
While tonic water is cheaper due to its natural flavor and lack of juices, tonic syrups are made by steeping and heating citrus juices, spices and cinchona bark. Mouming’s tonic syrups include fresh juices sourced from Florida, making the syrup’s flavor “brighter.”
Pleased with the end product, she began sharing her tonic syrup with family and friends. After receiving positive feedback, Mouming took the syrups to the Iowa City Farmers Market in May 2018. This was not her first time retailing products locally, as she had sold fermented pizza doughs at the Iowa City Farmers Market years before bringing her tonic syrups to market.
“What I like to do is give people high-quality ingredients to make their own things,” she said. “If you have better pizza dough, you’re going to make a better pizza, and if you have a better tonic syrup, you’re going to make a lot better cocktail than with tonic water. I like to give people that kind of success and ingenuity in the kitchen.”
Finding success at the Iowa City market, Mouming developed plans to sell at the Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Davenport farmers markets as well. She initially paid hourly rent to use a restaurant kitchen while they were closed; to service requests, she used the largest pot that could fit on the stove, fondly called “Big Betty.” However, in order to accommodate greater demand, she opened a commercial kitchen and purchased a warehouse facility, and has even added a second pot dubbed “Large Marge.”
Mouming officially launched her brand Joanna’s Premium Tonic Syrups in April ahead of the 2019 farmers market season. She takes particular pride in her brand’s design, which depicts a silhouette of a woman resembling herself, as she strove to incorporate more femininity into alcohol branding.
“Something that kind of gets to me in the bar culture is that everything looks so masculine, but women are taking part in it just as much as men,” Mouming said. “I really wanted it to look like it came from a woman, and I wanted it to look like it tastes good on the label. I really do think we achieved that quite well.”
Joanna’s Premium Tonic Syrups now offers two tonic syrup flavors, the original and orange fennel. Aside from gin, the syrups can be paired with other liquors, such as rum, tequila and vodka, as well as sparkling water for mocktails.
Mouming believes the product’s versatility only adds to its marketability, saying, “People want to be mixologists, but buying the ingredients to do that can be kind of expensive and daunting. This gives people one ingredient to actually make a lot of different types of cocktails.”
Aside from farmers markets, Mouming’s tonic syrups now appear in numerous restaurants throughout Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, such as Pullman Bar and Diner, Trumpet Blossom Cafe, Bread Garden Market and Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery. She’s also received orders nationwide in areas ranging from upstate New York to Minnesota to California.
“I’ll ask, ‘How did you learn about this?’ when I get the order, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I was driving through Iowa City and I had dinner at Pullman or I went to a wedding at the Kirkwood Hotel and I had it at the bar,’” Mouming said. “People don’t know [the brand] because it’s a young company, but they really like to share it with friends when they’re entertaining or give it as gifts because it’s unexpected.”
As business continues to boom, Mouming intends to keep her focus on producing tonic syrups for the time being, noting that they’re less commonly sold in the Midwest, so competition is minimal. But she’s dreamt up expansions, ranging from increasing the number of restaurants carrying her brand to opening up a restaurant herself.
Above all else, however, Mouming plans to continue getting high-quality items into the hands of as many consumers as possible.
“It was very fun when I would sell a hundred bottles at my first Des Moines farmers market, to think that a hundred households were trying my tonic syrup that weekend,” Mouming said. “Once you start drinking this, you may never want commercial tonic water again.”