Vimto: A Saudi love story in a bottle

Courtesy photo.
Updated 08 March 2018
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Vimto: A Saudi love story in a bottle

LONDON: There would not appear to be much to link the rainy northwest of Britain and the searing heat of the vast desert expanses of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf — and even less likely that the link might come in a bottle.
Eighty years ago, an Indian employee of a family firm named Abdulla Aujan & Brothers introduced his bosses to a cordial drink from Britain which, he explained, had become very popular in India, which was then still a British colony.
The drink was a hit with the bosses too, and so began one of the most enduring love affairs between the Gulf region and Britain.
The drink was Vimto, a sugary blend of fruits, berries and secret herbs that was initially sold as a medicinal tonic but is now the beverage of choice in the Middle East, especially during Ramadan. Indeed no self-respecting host would consider not having a jug of thirst-quenching iced Vimto on hand ready for Iftar and suhoor.
Eating dates may be the traditional way to break the fast, and coincidentally dates are a key factor in Vimto’s popularity. When the drink took off in the Middle East the recipe was tweaked to include the fruit which is dear to all Arab hearts.
“The recipe for Vimto produced in the Middle East contains date paste. That commonality of date flavouring really cemented Vimto as the drink of choice,” said Eddie Stableford, who worked on Vimeo branding in the late 1990s and is now innovation director with Wonderstruck Branding Design.
“Many other drinks have come along over the years and there are cheaper colas out there, but Vimto is the product that delivers.
“It’s a sign of quality. It’s been around a long time so it’s familiar and reassuring. And because it’s got a long history there’s a nostalgia factor. It has fond associations for people.”
A cursory search on social media reveals just how deep the Arab attachment to Vimto has become since that first taste in 1928.
“Is it really Ramadan without Vimto?” asked one fan on Twitter, while another posted misty-eyed reminiscences about watching his mother pour Vimto cordial into a jug full of ice in preparation for the end of prayers signalling that Iftar could begin.
While Vimto is popular year-round, sales really go through the roof at Ramadan. In fact almost three quarters of Vimto’s Middle East sales occur during the month of fasting and it has at times proved necessary to restrict customers to two bottles apiece to ensure supplies do not run out.
It is easy to see why. At the end of a long and tiring day without sustenance, the sugar boost in Vimto provides an instant pick-me-up.
Vimto arrived in the Middle East in 1928 but it was invented 20 years earlier by John Noel Nichols, a wholesaler trader of herbs, spices and medicines in Manchester, the northwestern English city that was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution.
He launched his new concoction as Vimtonic, a herbal tonic to give “vim and vigour” to those who drank it, but before long the name was shortened to Vimto. It was registered as a medicine and the cordial could be diluted with hot, cold or soda water. Advertisements from those early years claimed it “builds up the system” and “eliminates that out-of-sorts feeling.”
In the early 1920s, Richard Goodsir, a representative of the Kiwi boot polish company and a friend of John Noel Nichols, took a few samples of Vimto cordial to India with him for local bottling plants to try out. There was a readymade market on hand in the form of British troops, but the Indian population also developed a liking for Vimto and its popularity soon spread to neighboring parts of the British Empire, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Burma (now Myanmar).
So when Indians began flocking to the Gulf to take up clerical jobs, naturally many of them took some Vimto cordial with them, which is how Abdulla Aujan & Brothers in Saudi Arabia came upon it.
They soon saw its potential. Invented at the height of the anti-alcohol Temperance movement in Britain, it trumpeted its non-alcoholic content, making it both suitable and appealing to Muslim consumers. The company struck a deal to become sole importers and distributors of the cordial.
It was shipped in crates from Salford, just outside Manchester, offloaded in Bahrain and transported around the Arabian peninsula in dhows. In 1979 Aujan & Brothers began producing Vimto under license at a factory in Dammam.
“A member of the Nichols family went out to Saudi Arabia and personally handed over the recipe, which remains a family secret to this day — and yes, the people who know the recipe never travel together,” said Stableford.
Today, Vimto is available in 85 countries and counting, and in 38 out of 40 Muslim countries. But Saudi Arabia is still the biggest non-domestic market, with Vimto-lovers consuming 52 million bottles a year of it in cordial, still (ready-diluted) and fizzy form, although the cordial remains most popular by far.
For the makers of Vimto, success has been sweet indeed — literally doubly so in the Middle East. The Vimto sold there is double concentration to cater to the region’s extra sweet tooth.
The next biggest non-domestic markets are Kuwait and the UAE. Within Saudi Arabia, Vimto has a 90 percent share in the concentrated drinks market.
Even adverts for Vimto — Aujan launch a new campaign each year on Arab satellite TV stations — have achieved cult status.
In the 1990s, Vimto expanded into continental Europe and into confectionery. But the war in Yemen has disrupted distribution there because supply routes are under blockade. No Vimto concentrate was shipped there in December.
Change in the Saudi economy is expected to mean a slowdown in sales this year with profits for 2018 not expected to exceed the low single-digit mark.
On the other hand, UK sales were up nine percent as of November 2017 while revenues in Africa are expected to show a 20 percent increase.
However, Nichols — still the owners of Vimto — say the company was well-prepared for the introduction of tax on sugary drinks in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Regional turmoil notwithstanding, it seems Vimto will continue to keep its customers sweet.
“There’s a lot of choice out there these days but people love Vimto because they know it, they recognize it and they trust it,” said Stableford. “It does exactly what a brand should do. It’s the real deal.”


Score! Scrabble dictionary adds ‘OK,’ ‘ew’ to official play

Updated 24 September 2018
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Score! Scrabble dictionary adds ‘OK,’ ‘ew’ to official play

  • Among more than 300 additions are yowza, OK and ew
  • There’s another special new entry because it involves use of a q without a u: qapik

NEW YORK: Scrabble players, time to rethink your game because 300 new words are coming your way, including some long-awaited gems: OK and ew, to name a few.
Merriam-Webster released the sixth edition of “The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary” on Monday, four years after the last freshening up. The company, at the behest of Scrabble owner Hasbro Inc., left out one possibility under consideration for a hot minute — RBI — after consulting competitive players who thought it potentially too contentious. There was a remote case to be made since RBI has morphed into an actual word, pronounced rib-ee.
But that’s OK because, “OK.”
“OK is something Scrabble players have been waiting for, for a long time,” said lexicographer Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster. “Basically two- and three-letter words are the lifeblood of the game.”
There’s more good news in qapik, adding to an arsenal of 20 playable words beginning with q that don’t need a u. Not that Scrabblers care all that much about definitions, qapik is a unit of currency in Azerbaijan.
“Every time there’s a word with q and no u, it’s a big deal,” Sokolowski said. “Most of these are obscure.”
There are some sweet scorers now eligible for play, including bizjet, and some magical vowel dumps, such as arancini, those Italian balls of cooked rice. Bizjet, meaning — yes — a small plane used for business, would be worth a whopping 120 points on an opening play, but only if it’s made into a plural with an s. That’s due to the 50-point bonus for using all seven tiles and the double word bonus space usually played at the start.
The Springfield, Massachusetts-based dictionary company sought counsel from the North American Scrabble Players Association when updating the book, Sokolowski said, “to make sure that they agree these words are desirable.”
Sokolowski has a favorite among the new words but not, primarily, because of Scrabble scores. “It’s macaron,” he said, referring to the delicate French sandwich cookie featuring different flavors and fillings.
“I just like what it means,” he said.
Merriam-Webster put out the first official Scrabble dictionary in 1976. Before that, the game’s rules called for any desk dictionary to be consulted. Since an official dictionary was created, it has been updated every four to eight years, Sokolowski said.
There are other new entries Sokolowski likes, from a wordsmith’s view.
“I think ew is interesting because it expresses something new about what we’re seeing in language, which is to say that we are now incorporating more of what you might call transcribed speech. Sounds like ew or mm-hmm, or other things like coulda or kinda. Traditionally, they were not in the dictionary but because so much of our communication is texting and social media that is written language, we are finding more transcribed speech and getting a new group of spellings for the dictionary,” he said.
Like ew, there’s another interjection now in play, yowza, along with a word some might have thought was already allowed: zen.
There’s often chatter around Scrabble boards over which foreign words have been accepted into English to the degree they’re playable. Say hello to schneid, another of the new kids, this one with German roots. It’s a sports term for a losing streak. Other foreigners added because they predominantly no longer require linguistic white gloves, such as italics or quotation marks: bibimbap, cotija and sriracha.
Scrabble was first trademarked as such in 1948, after it was thought up under a different name in 1933 by Alfred Mosher Butts, an out-of-work architect in Poughkeepsie, New York. Interest in the game picked up in the early 1950s, according to legend, when the president of Macy’s happened upon it while on vacation.
Now, the official dictionary holds more than 100,000 words. Other newcomers Sokolowski shared are aquafaba, beatdown, zomboid, twerk, sheeple, wayback, bokeh, botnet, emoji, facepalm, frowny, hivemind, puggle and nubber.