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Tasty tonics

Photos by Matt Haas

July 2015

Mary Pellettieri and her husband, Noah Swanson, founded Top Note Tonic.

Mary Pellettieri always thought she’d someday open a craft brewery. Having worked for both Goose Island in Chicago and Miller-Coors in Milwaukee, Pellettieri enjoyed home brewing as a hobby for 20 years.

When she began to get more serious about becoming an entrepreneur, she began experimenting with making herbal-laced ales, thinking that might be the way she would differentiate her brews from others on the market. But in the making of those ales, she realized something — she liked making the tonic syrups for her brews better than making the beers themselves.

"You walk down the aisle of any grocery store, and they don’t have an upscale version of tonic water," she says.

So she decided that she’d make one. From that initial aha moment, it took her a year to plan to leave her well-paying job to start her own venture, and then it took another six months to get her business started with her husband, Noah Swanson.

But since its debut at Outpost Natural Foods last June, her Top Note Tonic has been steadily growing and more and more people are enjoying her handcrafted tonics. "The name comes from the sensory analysis of flavors — people will talk about the top notes of a beverage," she says. The top notes are often the most fragrant, enjoyable notes of spirits, wine and beer.

Her first year, Pellettieri started with three basic tonic syrups — gentian tonic, bitter orange and bitter lemon. She’s already expanded her line this year to include a ginger beer (which is nonalcoholic), and she’s doing an Indian tonic with quassia bark and kefir lime leaf. At Ale Asylum’s Riverhouse, she’s doing a grapefruit soda designed to mix with beer for a drink called a rattler. "It’s kind of like a shandy because it’s sparkling," she says. She’s also going to be selling her tonics by the glass at several farmers markets, including the NEWaukee Night Market.

She’s moved into expanded digs in the Lincoln Warehouse, the same building that headquarters Twisted Path Distillery and Bittercube Bitters, and in her new kitchen she’s able to blend and make custom tonics and beverage concentrates for individual clients. Eventually, she has plans to bottle individual servings of her tonic syrups with sparkling water. Her ultimate goal is to have a ready to drink with no mixing required.

Though she’s expanding, Pellettieri admits a big part of her job is educating people about tonics. "Tonics used to be a whole category of beverages you would get from a pharmacy for health benefits," she says of their historical origin. "In America, they’re only known as mixers, but they are really so much more."

But most people, when they think of tonic water, they think of gin and tonics, with the tonic water containing quinine. Most of the large scale-made tonic water gets its quinine chemically, but not one of her tonics contains quinine. "I wanted to stick to raw, natural ingredients," explains Pellettieri. Her bitter orange, bitter lemon and Indian tonics get the quinine naturally from cinchona bark, and her gentian tonic doesn’t contain any quinine at all.

"One of the things I want to show people is that there are different tonics out there," she says, adding that many times she’s had people say they don’t like tonic, but then they taste hers and change their minds. "With the gentian tonic, I wanted to show that it provides aperitivo qualities without any quinine."

Top Note Tonics taste great with a little seltzer or soda water added, but they also work quite well in craft cocktails and nonalcoholic cocktails. For recipes, visit


This story ran in the July 2015 issue of: