Top Note: Adult soft drinks for grown up palates

They started by serving delicious drink concoctions to friends and at local farmers’ markets. Now they count celebrity chefs among their biggest fans.

Although their success might be based in bitters, there’s no bitter end in sight for fast-growing Top Note.

“Top Note means the ephemeral of aromas and flavors that come off of a of a beverage,” Mary Pellettieri , co-founder, and president of La Pavia Beverage, the maker of Top Note Tonic explained. “They are the things that make you want to go back to that glass of wine or that cocktail and keep sipping on it and tasting it. And you know that comes with quality ingredients, and that’s what we lead with — our quality.”

Pellettieri, a veteran of the craft beer and beverage industry, has helped build celebrated startups in both the beer and cider industries. The author of the seminal Quality Management: Essential Planning for Breweries (2015), Pellettieri  also served as the Brewers Association’s first quality instructor in 2017. Her knowledge of the industry has made her an in-demand judge in beer tasting competitions around the world.

Pellettieri knows her beverages.         

While researching bitter flavors in beer, Pellettieri became intrigued with the history of bitter health tonics that were once prescribed to increase vigor and vitality in patients. The beverages were the origins of what is now an estimated $416.2 billion global soft drink market.

In 2014, she and her partner, Noah Swanson, began experimenting with aromatic herbs and other botanicals to create a new beverage with age-old roots. The result was a Bitter Orange syrup that mixed well with seltzer and elevated craft cocktails. Family and friends were enthusiastic about the product, so they decided to expand their audience to gauge the demand for the syrup.

They brought their concoction to local farmers’ markets and discovered buyers eager to cut the sweetness from the flavor profile of their drinks. From there, things took off.

Whole Foods, as well as scores of local retailers, already sold the syrup when the company decided to expand its offering into cocktail mixers.

 In 2017, the company introduced Indian Tonic Water, Bitter Lemon Tonic Water and Ginger Beer. The beverages were a hit with craft cocktailers and soon began racking up awards that recognized the unique quality and flavor of Top Note Tonics. The company has won accolades worldwide, including awards from, the Beverage Tasting Institute and the Spirits Business, in the United Kingdom.

Top Note Tonics have become the favorite mixer of a number of Michelin-starred chefs and bartenders like celebrity chefs Alice Waters and Rick Bayless, as well as James Beard award-winner, Jamie Oliver.

Over the years, the company added to its line, releasing Classic Tonic and Sparkling Grapefruit Soda in 2019, and Club No. 1 in 2020.

La Pavia is now focused on moving beyond the mixer section in grocery and liquor stores and finding a second home in the soft drink aisle and inside grab-and-go beverage coolers.

Currently, the company is working to launch a canned soda line which includes the flavors Cascara Cola, Lemon-Limeade Juicy, Ginger Ale and Sparkling Grapefruit Soda. The 12-ounce cans are sweetened with a mixture of sugar and monk fruit and are considered “mid-calorie” beverages at under 100 calories per can. La Pavia is currently exploring instate canning and bottling options and hopes to move production to Wisconsin in the next year.

Those eager to try the new beverages can find them as a fountain option in a growing number of locally owned Milwaukee establishment, including Sugar Maple, Don’s TV & Repair Speakeasy and Interval Coffee.

Milwaukee Startup News recently spoke to Pellettieri about how she approaches the challenges that come with starting a business – and what it will take for them to continue their growth:

MSUN: Knowing what you do about the startup beverage industry, what made you decided to launch La Pavia?

MP: I knew no matter what I did, I was going to put a lot of energy and I was going to put a lot of my heart into it.

And the question came, do I really want to be doing that for someone else, or do I want to bet on myself and go for it, knowing that I’m not going to take home the salary that I’m taking home right now, probably for a very long time?

It’s not for everyone. You go through the personal sacrifice of not being able to just travel when you want or be able to purchase, whatever items that you want. You have to get comfortable in your current state. … It’s still pressure, but it’s different pressure. But it’s also very fulfilling, and I knew that it would be very fulfilling.

It’s not for everyone, though. I’ll just warn everyone out there. Don’t really go for this unless you really have put your thoughts into the personal sacrifice it’ll take. But (go for it) if you’re cool with saying, ‘It’s OK, I don’t need to consume. I’ll just work my ass off to get something better in the market.’ You work for your customers, you’re there for them. And if you feel very compelled with that mission to go forward, it’s an easy decision.

MSUN: What is it like to have a startup beverage business in Milwaukee?

MP: I hope that Milwaukee becomes as vibrant of a community as Madison, and even Minneapolis for startups, because those communities really do wrap their arms around local products and really focus on making those work one way or another. Usually, the challenge for startups is not just winning the local, it’s also having enough legs under them to take that local momentum and go larger, go national.

I know it’s always the desire to go big as quickly as possible because maybe you have investors that are pushing for that fast growth. But I think any good solid brand stayed in the cauldron a lot longer and because they did that, they learned a lot.

And they actually had more sustainability in the market. I’ve known so many products that I’ve seen try to go big, go fast, buy distribution, and get out of the local (market) too fast and they don’t learn enough, and they don’t know enough about who they’re who they’re marketing to and who they’re customer is. That interactive kind of interim period and the time is challenging for startups

MSUN: What should people know about La Pavia and your products?

We are still innovating and still pushing the envelope as to what good is and what excellent should be in the soft drink world. That’s what we want people to think of Top Note, they push the excellence envelope, and they achieve it. Our goal is to be known for the namesake ‘top note.’

To connect with La Pavia Beverage, Inc. or learn more about the Top Note product line, click here.

Anna Lardinois, MKE Startup News

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