TCT: What were you doing before you started Split Tree?
Steve: Before cocktails, there was beer; before beer, there was 3D Modeling and Simulation. I used to work in Hi-Tech creating 3D Visual Terrain Databases for flight simulators. I was laid off and started doing sales for a local micro-brewery.
TCT: How did Split Tree get started?
Steve: I got a pretty good handle on the local bar and restaurant scene and felt like there was something missing in Ottawa. I was also bound and determined to never go back to the florescent light bulbs of the computer lab. I got the great idea of opening my own distillery but quickly found that my pockets weren’t deep enough to overcome the onerous regulatory framework surrounding spirit production in Ontario. But during that investigation, I stumbled upon a recipe for tonic. I didn’t even know you could make tonic! I have always loved cooking, so I immediately made six different tonic syrups (I had been going through a DIY bitters phase, so I had cinchona on hand). I had a cocktail party and numbered all my tonics and listened to the feedback. Tonic No.3 was the hands down winner. After that, I started making other mixes and testing them on friends and neighbors. Someone mentioned I should try selling this stuff at a local craft fair. So I signed up and promptly sold out of everything I brought! That was when I knew I might be onto something.
TCT: We love Split Tree’s unique name; is there a story behind it?
Steve: I used to deliver kegs to a restaurant in the country. I always drove by this tree that was split right down the middle, right to the ground. It was winter and I thought it must be dead, but by spring, it was covered in green leaves. It was such a cool tree and really symbolic of perseverance and overcoming that I knew no matter what I did I would find a way to use that tree. When I came up with the cocktail mix idea, it was a natural fit as the vast majority of my ingredients come from trees and all come from nature. I usually pair two flavors, so the split was another way of picking from both sides of the tree.
TCT: How did you make the first batch? How do you produce your products now?
Steve: Like most people, I started in my kitchen. Once things started taking off, I knew I needed a bigger space. My wife was ready to kill me because everything was always sticky! I had a friend with a registered kitchen who let me use it when he wasn’t. Things kept growing, and despite the urge to buy all new shiny equipment, I wasn’t ready to invest in a full kitchen of my own. A friend in the restaurant business told me about a co-packer just outside the city that might be able to help me. I had spoken with a ton of co-packers, but none of them were interested in working with me. Primarily because everything was done by hand and used whole ingredients, and they didn’t want to deal with how labor intensive it was. Greg, from Pepperfire Foods, was the first person to say, ‘Yeah we can do that.’ He makes all my mixes now using the same basic methods and ingredients, but being in a licensed and inspected kitchen now allows me to sell to the mass Canadian market and to focus on the business.
TCT: Where do you get your inspiration for your creations?
Steve: I get inspiration from everywhere. I am always looking for new flavors, but to me the most important thing is simplicity. I fell into the obscure and bizarre ingredient trap for a little while, but what works best is pairing flavors that have worked for centuries. I think if you go to a bar, you should expect a complex and intricate cocktail with an obscure ingredient or two. But — if you are at home, you want something simple to make, and of course, something that tastes delicious. I have made a lot of really awful combinations that in my head sounded delicious (pineapple and sweet pepper, tarragon and lemon — not so great). I have learned to trust my initial instinct, and I usually know right away if something is going to be good. I am working on some new flavors now and am really excited about testing them and seeing if we can produce them on a larger scale.
TCT: What types of flavors do you use? How do you sweeten your syrups?
Steve: Everything starts with a whole ingredient as its base. My mantra is no artificial flavors, colors or sweeteners. I only use the real fruit and herbs. If I can get the herbs fresh then that is what I use. I sweeten most of my mixes with white sugar or cane sugar. I am playing with tapioca a little bit. I have tried Stevia, agave and honey, but I find most flavors are too sensitive to the flavor of the sweetener and it overpowers it. I really don’t want anyone to say, ‘Oh I can taste the agave or the honey.’ I would much rather hear how fresh and authentic the lemon, lime, rhubarb or yuzu is!
TCT: How do you know which syrup to pair with each type of spirit?
Steve: The best part of my ‘job’ is testing! Once my accountant told me I could write off alcohol as an expense, I knew I was in the right business! I love trying my products with different spirits — there are so many options and some real quality products out there that it is just a matter of trial and error until you find the right match. I have a pretty good idea when I am making a flavor of what I want to mix it with. After that, I start trying it with other spirits. I am a gin fanatic, so I usually start thinking, this would be good with gin. I really like rye whiskey and bourbon and some of the less mainstream spirits like Aperol, Campari, Pimms and Sloe Gin, so I am always looking for something to mix with those spirits. Rum and tequila are also a lot of fun to work with! HA! I think I just really like liquor in all its variations.
TCT: Have you had any usual requests for syrup flavors?
Steve: I actually haven’t had too many bizarre requests. A lot of suggestions of things to try mixing — rooibos tea, cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, (and) wintergreen. I love getting suggestions; it’s a lot of fun trying out new combinations. For the most part, people have a cocktail they really like and just want a good mix to go with it so they can make it more often! I get asked for lemon syrup and simple syrup quite a bit.
TCT: What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the business?
Steve: Don’t do it, nothing to see here! ☺ Just enjoy the creative aspect of it as much as you can and make something that you like and are happy to stand behind. Pretty soon your hobby turns into a job, so you better like what you are doing. Also, don’t be afraid to make mistakes; don’t think you need any special training or background. If you are passionate and stick to your vision, you can make it work. Oh and don’t run before you can walk! When things started picking up for me, it would have been very easy to run to the bank and mortgage my house to buy a big facility and go into massive debt before I had the sales to support that kind of move. You can market test your product without going broke. Grow organically within your means. If the tipping point comes where you need to invest more capital, you will know it and be in a good position to get what you need. Be prepared to shamelessly self promote yourself. Take advantage of all the connections you have and make as many new ones as you can. You never know whom you are going to run into and what they might be able to do to help. If you can’t talk to a stranger about why you love what you are doing, then you aren’t going to be able to sell anything.
TCT: Any future plans or dreams for Split Tree?
Steve: World domination! I have tons of ideas and plans. I think right now my focus is on landing that big retail fish! I want to get on the shelves of a national retailer and show that I can handle it! From there, the sky is the limit!
TCT: What is your favorite syrup?
Steve: Hands down the tonic — it is such a nice balance of sweet, bitter and sour. No matter what happens, I will never drink a canned tonic again.
TCT: If you could make a drink for anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
I think if you had asked me a month ago, my answer would have been different, but today, I would love to sit down with Justin Trudeau and have a drink.
TCT: What would you make Mr. Trudeau, and why?
Steve: I would make him my version of the Negroni because a) it uses all Canadian gins, b) it’s strong and delicious and c) he would be just relaxed enough for me to convince him to relax the liquor production laws in Ontario and the rest of Canada.
TCT: What are your favorite spots or hidden gems in Toronto?
Steve: Well since I am from Ottawa, I am going to have to give you a list of my favorite spots here: The Black Tomato, Seed to Sausage General Store, Union 613, Absinthe, Frasier’s Café, Back Lane Café, North of 7 Distillery, and any place that can make a good Old Fashioned with their own twist on it. (Although Steve’s base is in Ottawa, his products can be found in Toronto at: All The Best Fine Foods, Drake General Store, and BYOB Cocktail Emporium.)
TCT: What’s the most memorable moment from your career, thus far?
Steve: Being on the Dragons’ Den was probably the most memorable moment so far. It was such a great opportunity to get in front of intelligent, well-established investors and to pitch my ideas across Canada. The response has been so positive! I think the thing I have taken away the most from this whole experience is how welcoming and helpful the makers community is. Small business entrepreneurs are so quick to offer help, encouragement and advice. It is truly an incredible community and really inspiring.
TCT: How would you describe Split Tree for all the Twitter followers out there?
Steve: Making delicious, authentic cocktail mixes so you can stop putting crappy mix in your drinks!
TCT: Gin or vodka?
TCT: Sweet or sour?
Steve: AH, not fair! Both! Sweet & Sour!