The centre of a purple world
Foreign students coming to Manchester may be surprised to see a monument to a drink that many of them already know well. For this statue marks the birthplace of Vimto - the centre of a purple world.
Birthplace of Vimto
It was a hundred years ago, in 1908, that a herbalist called Noel Nichols made his very first barrel of Vimto in a terraced house on Granby Row from a unique blend of herbs, spices and fruit essences.
There is no blue plaque on the site, now part of the University of Manchester’s science campus. In truth, it would have to be purple anyway.
Yet this historic place in Vimto’s history is commemorated in Manchester by an oak sculpture of a giant Vimto bottle.
And though some of its scattered wooden fruits have now disappeared – presumably, treasured mementos for devotees of Manchester’s fruity cordial - it remains a Mecca for fans of Vimto.
Pink and purple
Although still largely a Northern phenomenon in the UK, Vimto is actually a global success selling in 65 countries around the world.
In fact, it could be said that since the very first barrel was opened, a purple stain has spread across the planet, plotting the widespread appeal of this unique product.
“I guess a lot of that is do due to my grandfather’s foresight of taking Vimto to mainly Commonwealth countries,” said John Nichols, grandson of Noel Nichols, and the current head of the Vimto empire.
”We often joked that if it was pink on the map, Vimto was available.”
From the Middle East where it’s a huge hit during Ramadan, to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific where it even outsells Coca-Cola, Vimto has a curious yet wide-ranging popularity that somehow mirrors the old British Empire.
1928: Vimto factory on Ayres Rd, Old Trafford
Even countries like India and Burma that rejected British influence following independence retained their fondness for Vimto where it still sells.
So what was it that inspired his grandfather?
“It was very much in the days of Temperance bars and non-alcohol being a very important feature. He was a herbalist, a manufacturing chemist really, but a herbalist by trade and was interested in creating things. And then he decided he wanted to do something different with some red fruits.”
Vimto started life as a health tonic (‘Drink Vimto, keep fit’ was an early slogan), it was even registered as a medicine and marketed as a way of keeping people fit and a drink to to give them ‘vim’ and vigour.
Temperance: Vimto shop in 1921
Yet how it’s made is a closely guarded secret. What is known is that Vimto includes a mix of three fruit juices – grape, blackcurrant and raspberry plus a mysterious combination of herbs and spices.
Whether it’s this unique flavour, or its quirky Northern quality, but there is something about Vimto that seems to inspire devotion from its followers.
As a child, Bolton comic Peter Kay wrote to Jim’ll Fix It asking for a swimming pool full of Vimto. Alas, Jim did not fix it for Peter. And the family in Timperley who had Vimto on tap in their kitchen, thanks to a huge container sunk in their garden provided by Vimto.
For almost a century, the Nichols family made and bottled Vimto in various locations: from humble beginnings on Chapel Street in Salford; to Ayres Road in Old Trafford; factories in Wythenshawe and Golborne, near Haydock before finally handing over the manufacturing side to an outside company.
Unique: chairman John Nichols
Yet Nichols plc have retained close control over its secret recipe.
“It’s certainly unique – there’s nothing that tastes like Vimto,” said Mr Nichols. “The formula is written down and locked away. Now, because we outsource the product we provide a concentrate to the people who bottle it and can it.
“But we do still have a secret bucketful that goes into the concentrate itself that only two or three people know the contents of.”
So what’s it like to sit at the centre of a purple empire that’s worth £200 million worldwide?
“I suppose it’s something I’ve lived with for so long that I’ve just got used to,” said Mr Nichols. “I feel more like a custodian of the brand, if you like. My father before me ran the business for 40 years and I’ve now done 37 myself. It still feels to me like a family business – it doesn’t feel like a huge empire at all.”
“Will we be around for another hundred years? It would be great to think so wouldn’t it?”
last updated: 15/08/2008 at 18:47