Lawrence Mallinson: Putting the Bloody Mary and beetroot juice on the map
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
Take a step outside, and you’ll notice how crisp and autumnal the air is.
The annual apple harvest is in full swing, and no one here in Suffolk loves this time of year more than Lawrence Mallinson.
Owner of Ashbocking-based beverage company James White Drinks, Lawrence and his team have been at the forefront of fruit and veg innovation since the late 1980s – and show no signs of stopping anytime soon.
But how did a small apple orchard here in Suffolk blossom into one of the country’s top drinks makers – supplying not just every major supermarket, but also the royals and some of the world’s greatest athletes?
Here to explain all is Lawrence himself.
“I took over the assets of a defunct cider business in Brandeston – but not because I was interested in making cider. They actually also made individual varieties of apple juice which I really loved, so I thought I could do something with that.”
Lawrence spotted a gap in the market, and was concerned at the lack of apple juice varieties readily available for consumers.
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“If you go to the wine aisle of a supermarket, you’ll find an unbelievably different array of wines – and you’d be surprised if you were presented with just ‘red’ and ‘white’.
“However, if you go to the apple juice section, you’re just given ‘apple juice’. But different varieties of apples produce different styles and flavours of juice, much like grapes do with wine, and we don’t really see that.”
Inspired to get people talking about and enjoying apples, Lawrence soon focussed all of his efforts on developing juices made from three distinct varieties - Bramley, Cox and Russet.
Created using filtration techniques borrowed from the wine world, Lawrence originally developed his clear, pressed juices as an alcohol-free alternative for anyone looking to sip on something that would leave them with a clear head the next morning.
“De-alcoholised wines were making their appearance on the market, and I didn’t believe they would work. Instead, I thought juice would be the answer for anyone who didn’t want to drink.”
And while Lawrence would be the first to admit he wasn’t entirely correct with his assumption, his juices were still a roaring success nonetheless, and eventually paved the way for an expansion in 1992.
Lawrence and co soon moved down the road to Whites Fruit Farm in Ashbocking, taking over the site from local businessman Peter White.
“Peter had been running a transport business out of the farm and eventually moved on to other ventures, so he had the space available. And it’s been a blessing – it's incredibly well-suited to us. It’s that little bit closer to Ipswich, and it’s accessible for both my staff who live nearby and for the lorries too.”
With a new site paved the way for new ventures – and Lawrence soon got underway working his magic once again. This time, revolutionising how we enjoy a certain time-honoured cocktail.
“I’m a big fan of Bloody Marys – but they’re quite easy to get wrong. You have to know what you’re doing in order to make it well, and most publicans don’t have the time or knowledge. I tend to find that people will order a Bloody Mary, and after having one or two poorly-made ones, think they don’t like them so won’t order one again.
“So my thinking was I’ll make it easy for the publican by concocting a tomato juice that helps create the perfect Bloody Mary time and time again.”
And in 1997, that’s exactly what he did.
While apple juice put James White Drinks on the map, it could be argued that Big Tom is Lawrence’s magnum opus.
Made from Portuguese tomatoes and more than 20 herbs and spices and other ingredients, Big Tom has become the leading choice in the spicy tomato juice market - and can proudly be found stocked behind the bar of pubs, clubs, restaurants and hotels up and down the country.
“Publicans don’t have to think too much about it – they can get the drink right and keep customers happy with a consistently-made, quality drink.”
And it wasn’t just pub-goers who quickly developed a taste for the spicy tipple, as the royal family soon got their hands on the stuff – and couldn’t get enough of it.
“Very early on, Big Tom got picked up by members of the Royal family, and we knew they were buying it because we got orders directly from Buckingham Palace. And I knew if you supplied them for five years, you could apply for a Royal Warrant, so after a while that’s exactly what I did.”
A Royal Warrant is a mark of recognition granted to companies that regularly supply goods and services to either the Queen, the Prince of Wales or their households. It is a decision by members of the Royal family, and in 2002, the Queen herself bestowed James White Drinks with a Royal Warrant for Big Tom.
“It’s entirely at the Royal family’s discretion, and it was an absolutely amazing when we finally received ours. It was great to get that recognition after so many years.”
High on the success of his regal seal of approval and not one to rest on his laurels, Lawrence continued adding to his repertoire of drinks, including a range of hedgerow-inspired cordials, and a vegetable range that features carrot and beetroot juice.
But it was what he did with beetroot that catapulted the Suffolk drinks maker into the international spotlight.
That’s right, beetroot.
“This is where things go unexpectedly,” explains Lawrence.
“You don’t always know where your business is going to end up, and what happened next ended up being quite extraordinary. In about 2007, we were approached by a group of British and Swedish scientists who started off by saying that when they publish their findings, our beetroot sales would go mad. I said to them ‘what are you talking about?’, but little did I know how right they would be.”
The scientists came up with the hypothesis that if you consume nitrate – which occurs naturally in beetroot – it boosts the levels of nitric oxide in the blood.
Nitric oxide is a vasodilator, meaning it opens the blood vessels and increases blood flow. In 1998, its discovery actually won the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.
Just some of the benefits of improved blood flow include blood pressure reduction, and increased oxygen supply to the muscle extremities – the latter of which has been proven to boost the body’s energy when pushing it to its limits, which has created great interest from the elite sporting world.
And it has been Lawrence’s concentrated Beet It beetroot juice produced right here in Suffolk that's been used worldwide for almost all of the serious research with beetroot juice ever conducted.
“The scientists originally contacted me because they needed juice that was consistently high in nitrate – and the actual nitrate content of beetroot is very unpredictable and highly variable. We solved this problem by producing shots of concentrated beetroot juice with a consistent natural nitrate content of 400mg.
“Initially, I reacted with incredulity, as I came from a generation sceptical of superfoods and these sorts of claims – but the proof is there and it does indeed work.”
For the past 12 years, Beet It concentrated shots have been used in hundreds of medical and sports performance research projects across the globe – with new findings published every three to four weeks.
In 2012, Beet It shots were used by many athletes in the London Summer Olympics - most notably by David Weir, the wheelchair champion who admitted to Boris Johnson that he had been saved by having a shot halfway through his Marathon win
The shots are now widely used across a wide variety of sports and disciplines, including football, rugby, tennis, athletics, cycling, boxing, gymnastics, and athletics.
More recent triumphs include Eliud Kipchoge’s under two-hour marathon in 2019, Geraint Thomas winning the Tour de France, Emma Raducanu for her US Open triumph, and numerous Rugby International Grand Slams and Premiership Football wins.
The proof is certainly in the pudding - and while beetroot isn’t particularly revered for its taste, Lawrence is intent on spreading the power of this superfood far and wide.
“One of the challenges we’ve faced is that beetroot juice isn’t for everybody, and we find that most people who are drinking it are doing so primarily for the health benefits of blood pressure reduction and endurance stamina rather than the taste.
“So to make beetroot more palatable, one of the things we’re developing at the moment is beetroot crystals.”
By drying out the concentrate and turning it into crystals, Lawrence has discovered they taste similar to sugar – making them more enjoyable for the consumer.
“Because the benefits of the shots are substantial and well-demonstrated, it’s not just relevant to people in sports, but everybody. By increasing the oxygen supply in your brain for instance, it should make you a bit sharper, so it’s certainly got a lot of potential. Just sprinkle them over smoothies or muesli.”
Who’d have known that just a few short decades ago, an apple orchard here in Suffolk would be the springboard for one of the most revolutionary and interesting drinks companies in the country?
But with the likes of Brexit and Covid throwing a spanner in the works, how worried is Lawrence for the future of not just his business, but British fruit and veg as a whole?
“I started this business thanks to three varieties of English apples, and while we’ve grown so much over the years since, local fruit is still very much at our core. Seventy per cent of our beetroot is grown locally specifically for us in Nacton, and Soham in Cambridgeshire.
“I still remain optimistic despite Brexit and Covid – and I think we’ve weathered the worst of the storm. East Anglian produce is an incredibly important part of my business, and I certainly want British growers to thrive and be successful.”
The future certain looks fruitful for Lawrence and co – we can’t wait to see what blossoms next.
To find out more about James White Drinks, visit jameswhite.co.uk