How Joanna’s Began: Handcrafting a Perfectly Balanced Tonic Syrup
As a foodie with both New York and Iowa roots, I’ve always savored the intense flavors and vibrant colors of fresh, simple ingredients. In fact, my husband and I grow some of our own food on our lifestyle farm (known as Yum Yum Farm) that features 50 acres of restored prairie. With the help of a Seattle architecture firm, DeForest Architects, we built our beautiful dream home together in the hills of rural Iowa.
Cooking and entertaining are my favorite pastimes, and I’ve been fortunate to focus my career around my passion for food. For more than a decade, I worked in the organic food industry—taking on both product development and marketing roles—before launching my own brand of premium tonic syrups called Joanna’s.
My Background in the Organic Food Industry
Understanding how to build and refine unique flavor combinations and bring new products to market was part of my day-to-day job description while working in the organic food industry. When I was tasked with creating spice blends for products distributed in the U.S. and Canada, my employer at the time, Frontier Herbs, tested my sense of taste and dubbed it a “perfect palette.”
While this was great feedback to receive, I truly enjoyed combining simple ingredients and turning them into something extraordinary. To me, balancing different flavors is a form of artistry, one that draws on creativity, intuition, and a sense of imagination. Even when I wasn’t working, I kept experimenting in my kitchen at home, too, brightening and deepening flavors to achieve a seamless sense of harmony.
Why I Created a Small Batch Tonic Syrup
There’s something deeply satisfying about reinventing and modernizing beloved classic recipes, and I decided to make a gin and tonic from scratch. A lot of cocktails, including the gin and tonic, are overly sweetened, so I started researching how to make a tonic recipe that was nothing like the mass-produced products (Schweppes or Canada Dry, for example). These products are often made with ingredients like carbonated water, processed quinine, and high-fructose corn syrup, which diminish the flavor of the drink.
I created a small batch tonic syrup that combines fresh, quality ingredients, including raw citrus juices and spices, as well as real cinchona bark, the natural source of quinine. These ingredients gave the tonic a beautiful blush amber color and a refreshing, one-of-a-kind taste that was sophisticated, complex, and pleasantly bitter.
Realizing the Potential of This Artisanal Blend
My tonic syrup was an instant hit. I realized it could fill a real gap in the market and had wide appeal beyond my own friends and family. Handcrafted in small batches, the tonic syrup is made with real, wholesome ingredients, is non-GMO, and has no artificial colors or chemicals. It’s perfect not only for mindful consumers who want to avoid processed food and “eat clean,” but also for cocktail lovers looking for premium, local artisanal products that make it easy to entertain and impress their guests.
The magic of Joanna’s Original Tonic Syrup is that you only need a few simple ingredients on hand to make a special, unique alcoholic beverage or mocktail—one unlike any other well drink you’d find in a bar or on a standard cocktail menu—with notes of grapefruit, orange, lemon, and lime mingled with botanicals and spices like angelica root and allspice. The cocktail syrup allows you to control the level of sweetness in a drink and bypass the unnecessary artificial ingredients that bring down the quality of your beverage.
The process for mixing the Original Gin and Joanna’s is delightfully simple—you just mix one ounce of tonic syrup with two ounces of gin. Top it off with three ounces of club soda, seltzer, or sparkling water, and then add ice. If you want to make a mocktail version, simply leave out the gin and mix five ounces of sparkling water, coconut water, ginger ale, club soda, or seltzer with one ounce of tonic syrup.
Whether you are serving the Original Gin and Joanna’s in a bar or restaurant, or making it at home, the cocktail syrup stays fresh and can be refrigerated for months after you open it. When you want to treat yourself or others to a special drink, there’s no need to run to the store to buy fruit, herbs, spices, or bitters—it’s all prepared for you in one beautifully packaged bottle. Joanna’s provides true versatility because it can be used with many different alcoholic drinks, such as sparkling wine, tequila, sherry, rum, vermouth, and vodka.
Embracing My Identity as a Female Entrepreneur
In the past, I’ve never hesitated to roll up my sleeves and create my own business. I’ve previously run a pet sitting business and sold pizza dough at the Iowa City Farmers Market. But I knew my tonic syrup was something unique that could have an even wider reach.
When I was preparing to launch my own brand, few companies were experimenting with tonic syrups in the Midwest. There were some other companies in the country rolling out tonic syrup brands, but they didn’t always meet FDA guidelines for quinine. I knew my product could stand out in terms of quality and taste.
I began by offering my hand-bottled cocktail syrup at farmers markets and Iowa bars and restaurants. I also made an effort to partner with other women-owned businesses, including Trumpet Blossom Cafe, one of my favorite restaurants in Iowa City. Chef Katy Meyer serves up organic, seasonal, plant-based cuisine with a focus on sustainability.
The women who work in the kitchen and behind the bar at Trumpet Blossom are some of the friendliest people. Our company values aligned beautifully, and it wasn’t lost on me that the liquor industry (and the few craft tonic syrups on the market ) tend to be dominated by men, even though women are often the ones making cocktails at home and leading the way with the latest beverage trends. To shake up the status quo, I wanted to develop a brand that felt feminine—one that spoke to women and men and showed that women can also do great things in this industry.
Since then, we’ve expanded into a variety of venues. You can find Joanna’s Tonic Syrup in Iowa City at the Bread Garden Market, Pullman Bar and Diner, Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery, Goosetown, and other respected establishments. You can also find it in Des Moines at Proof Restaurant and Kitchen Collage, and in Cedar Rapids at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center. In addition to the Original Tonic Syrup, we also released an Orange Fennel Tonic Syrup, which has notes of orange balanced with warm herbal spices like fennel and cardamom.
I still pinch myself when I think about how far we’ve come and what we have planned for the future. But as Joanna’s continues to expand and grow, I’ll stay focused on what inspired our products: artisanal craftsmanship, bright and nuanced flavors, and a personalized, farm-to-table approach.