The cordial market is unrecognisable from a decade ago in its vast array of new and innovative flavours. Hugh Westbrook assesses the sector and investigates the growth drivers behind the phenomenon.

A quiet revolution has been taking place in the drinks market. At one time, the majority of fruit-based concentrates available covered standard flavours such as orange and lemon, and the recipes that created them contained little actual fruit. Now that has all changed, primarily across the UK, as cordials ranging from elderflower, rosehip, nettle and ginger jostle for shelf space with the more established players. So what has driven the growth of this market?


The main impetus has been a realisation that there is an untapped adult market for concentrated fruit drinks. The traditional squash market has typically targeted children, and the flavours and recipes have reflected that. The new breed of cordials has created a new niche, with adults squarely the target market.

The main players in the market are Thorncroft, Belvoir and Bottle Green, while the organic company Rocks produces some cordials alongside its organic versions of more traditional flavours. For all the companies, elderflower is the leading product, and was at the forefront of the market's development.

Though products are now making appearances on supermarket shelves, they have typically appeared in the past in the health food shops, reflecting the healthy properties of the ingredients used. Many of these are old-fashioned and carry with them a sense of traditional English history and a number of the current recipes have been inspired by older recipes, for example Thorncroft's nettle and blackcurrant cordial, which was derived initially from an old recipe for nettle beer.

Nevertheless despite the image, those involved in the creation of the products have said that taste is the principal driver behind purchasing.

Guy Woodall, the co-founder of Thorncroft, told that his company had created the market. "We use all fresh ingredients and it's a different market to the flavoured syrups market," he said. "It's an age thing. The others are aimed at children, while these are aimed at adults and people interested in their health."

Woodall explained that the initial take-up for the products was slow, as health food shops could not be persuaded to stock the product. Instead they were exhibited at craft shows and popular demand from those who sampled the products there forced health food shops to reconsider.

Delia Smith, a popular UK TV chef, then helped to seal the company's success when she used elderflower cordial as an ingredient in one of her programmes, ensuring that supermarkets began stocking it. This also opened up another channel with sales potential, as it demonstrated that the cordials could be used as ingredients in a wide variety of other drinks and foods.

Woodall confirmed that taste was the major driver behind purchasing, but added: "The health benefits also have some influence but there is less and less emphasis on health messages from our point of view. We're not selling medicines, though old traditions should be carried on."

He mentioned that while the quality cordial market is primarily a UK phenomenon, Thorncroft did generate some sales in the US, Japan, South Africa, Belgium and Holland, though he commented: "Americans don't understand the concept of cordials, while in France there is a big market for low quality fruit-based syrups for kids, which is totally different."

"Growth will have to be achieved by creating new types of product, such as ready-to-drink packs for leisure markets"
Bill Wells

Bill Wells, the sales director for rival Belvoir, believes that the market has already matured. He told that it was unlikely that many new people would come into the brands and that growth would have to be achieved by creating new types of product, such as ready-to-drink packs for leisure markets.

In addition, he said that supermarket own-labels would start to present a challenge, but was not worried about losing market share. "Our core values are high fruit content, taste and refinement, while the brand name itself carries weight. These things will help against supermarket own-label," he said, adding that the quality of the private label brands could be expected to be superior to the supermarket own brands.

So while the adult cordial market is very much its own niche, how do the big squash manufacturers feel? Lizzie Pursey, the brand controller for Robinson's, welcomes their arrival. She told that while the cordials represent a tiny percentage of the overall squash market, the products are high value and act to bring new people into the sector.

"We're also taking advantage of the targeting of adults which we think is a good thing," she said. "We are also chasing a similar target market, but we do it differently by going for it in a more everyday and affordable way." While the long-established Robinson's Barley water is aimed at adults, the company launched High Juice four years ago, targeted squarely at adults. As well as its flavours, such as grape & melon or tropical, Pursey added that the overall design of the packaging was also meant to appeal to an adult audience.

"We hope it will become a bigger market," she added. "We want adults coming into squash."

Small producers have led the way in creating a new drinks niche, which is very popular among adults. Adult-oriented cordials now challenges fruit juice, while ready-prepared flavoured waters are also growing. The challenge ahead is for the pioneers to ensure they remain at the forefront of the market as bigger players try to challenge them, while trying to innovate with new flavours and ways of selling their products.