Graduating from bar owner to soda maker wasn’t the obvious career path for Joe Slater. But when the bartender and co-founder of Wellington bar Monterey saw his house-made syrups were garnering just as much attention as his bar’s booze, he took note.
“I’d been working in cocktail bars for a long time,” says Slater. “So I was trying to make drinks that were a little more unexpected. [The soda syrups] got their own little following. People thought they were really cool and nostalgic.”
Soon, he was setting up a separate soda shop for people to try all his drinks and see the syrups getting made – and Six Barrel was born. Launched by Slater with his childhood mate Mike Stewart in 2012, the company was named after the one-sixth-sized barrels that winemakers and distillers traditionally use to experiment in, capturing the spirit of making small, creative batches sourced from farmers markets and local producers.
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Six Barrel has now created more than 120 flavours using natural sugar and sustainable practices. While there are usually around 20 flavours being made at any one time, the core range is always changing. Some of those early flavours – like classic raspberry lemonade – are still going strong. Meanwhile, their cherry pomegranate syrup grew out of Slater’s house-made grenadine, which used New Zealand cherries and offered a refreshing alternative to the typically overly sweet bar staple.
Six Barrel’s sodas anticipated the current boom in no- and low-alcohol offerings at bars, which was just a blip on the radar back in 2010. “There weren’t a lot of non-alcoholic options [then],” says Slater. “The customers really responded to it. It was really about options.”
Using syrups rather than ready-to-drink sodas means customers can modulate the strength to their personal preference, and use the soda on its own or with a mocktail or cocktail. Recipes for both options abound on Six Barrel’s website, showcasing the syrup’s focus on New Zealand citrus, orange ginger and fairtrade organic cane sugar. With no preservatives or artificial sweeteners, colours and flavours involved, the sugar content is much lower than the average soft drink.
Sustainability is threaded through the business. The syrups come in glass bottles shipped in cardboard packaging, eschewing plastics at every step.
“Soda doesn’t have to be as terrible for sustainability,” says Slater. “Moving to syrup instead of a single-serve drink, your waste is a lot lower. Our bottles make around 15 drinks, so you recycle one bottle instead of up to 15.”
After building a fanbase in Wellington and then New Zealand, Six Barrel has started a direct-to-consumer push in Australia with a separate online storefront and a growing presence in bars and cafes. One of their most New Zealand offerings, feijoa syrup, is especially popular in Australia, due in part to the fact that feijoas are usually only available for about two months of the year.
Other head-turning flavours include the limited edition birthday cake syrup and the celery tonic syrup. Six Barrel has also been involved with some left-field collaborations, including a pickle syrup made in partnership with McClure’s Pickles in the US. There has even been kimchi and dumpling syrups inspired by those respective dishes.
With up to eight employees in a modest Wellington kitchen and cellar door space, Six Barrel has carved out a growing niche for itself in the age of conscientious consumption. Beyond offering a sustainable alternative to soft drinks, there’s simply a whole lot of fun involved in experimenting.
“People finally have more options,” says Slater. “There’s a bit more theatre to it than just cracking open a bottle.”