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A Canterbury marketer goes back to the farm to brew cordial from the weedy nuisance of elderflowers
Magazine layout

A Canterbury marketer goes back to the farm to brew cordial from the weedy nuisance of elderflowers

Magazine layout

Most people set up in business after leaving home, but Mark Dillon did it the other way around.

He headed back to the family farm to launch his Aroha range of elderflower drinks because the Lake Ellesmere, Canterbury, area provides a prolific supply of elder trees, long regarded by farmers as a weed.

Dillon, aided by his mum Sue’s 30-year-old recipe for elderflower cordial, has turned the blossoms from this ‘weed’ into a drink for adults wanting a sophisticated non-alcoholic alternative to kiddy beverages like cola or lemonade.

It was a carefully conceived branding exercise executed by the 27-year-old who has several years’ experience as a brand manager for grocery and liquor lines. On his OE Dillon had sampled elderflower drinks in Scandinavia and considered importing elderflower cider before deciding to produce his own range. A trial 600-litre batch of cordial drew favourable reviews.

Dillon makes the base syrup in a commercial kitchen on the farm with flower heads hand picked in spring. He added carbonated elderflower drinks in original (lemon), feijoa, rhubarb and vanilla flavours, blended and bottled at Harrington’s Brewery in Christchurch.

He targets cafes and bars wanting to offer patrons a point of difference in their non-alcoholic drinks. “That’s where I see the gap in the market. Where I’m heading is where Phoenix began.”

Working for consumer chemicals distributor Andrews Brands and independent liquor marketers Federal Geo gave him a good grasp of big distribution channels. Compared to supermarket chains, dealing with owner-operated cafes is much more straightforward, he says. “If you want to talk to the decision-maker, you can do that. For any of the others it’s much more convoluted.”

Aroha Elderflower Cordial, sold in delis and fine food stores, comes in a container reminiscent of an old glass milk bottle. Dillon chose the shape for its vintage look and says it fits in with the healing qualities of elders, traditionally used as a treatment for everything from toothache to measles.

Jane Ahern at Fingerprint Design tweaked his initial label design, coming up with a typeface that continues the distinctive traditional styling Dillon was aiming for. “It’s a really original look which makes you do a double take. People buy with their eyes.”

The name was carefully chosen too. “Aroha is the Maori word for compassion and respect for people and the land. I wanted quite an earthy feel to the brand.”

Aroha is also easy for Japanese to pronounce, an advantage if Dillon achieves his aim of export marketing to Japan. He says the lemon-lychee taste of elderflower appeals to the Asian palate, and a flower based-drink is likely to go down well in a country where cherry blossoms are a big part of the culture.

As for the future supply of elderflowers, that’s under control too: Dillon has planted his own commercial elder patch, much to the bemusement of neighbouring farmers more accustomed to spraying the nuisance plants.