CleanCo, the brightly bottled spirit brand founded by Spencer Matthews, is going from strength to strength. Not literally, of course — that would somewhat miss the point. Because CleanCo, with its intoxicating line-up of Gin, Vodka, Tequila and Rum alternatives, is a non-alcoholic endeavour.
Launched in 2019, this clean-living company has been something of a passion project for Matthews. The television-star-turned-entrepreneur stopped drinking almost three years ago — around the time his son, Theodore, was born — and he set out to create a vibrant, viable alternative to mainstream spirits.
“When faced with adversity,” says Matthews from his airy London townhouse, “I think a lot of people turn to alcohol. The whole reason we’re talking about this company now is because I abused alcohol for many years. And I wouldn’t need much of an excuse to hit the bottle.
“A global pandemic, then,” he adds, “is quite a good reason for people to turn to booze. But that comes with consequences. We’re human, at the end of the day, and drinking to excess regularly is unsustainable behaviour.”
They’re strong, impactful words — and a far-cry from the Spencer Matthews of old: a man who rose to infamy through 10 scandal-fuelled seasons of semi-reality show Made in Chelsea. Instead, this is Matthews made good; Spencer 2.0; a man with a bold business plan and a head screwed tightly onto a pair of broad entrepreneurial shoulders.
“In 2018,” he recalls, “I’d been thinking about the business idea — almost obsessively — for months. I’d been sober around four months, and just couldn’t wrap my head around why a vibrant and exciting market didn’t already exist in the world of low or non-alcoholic spirits.”
But Matthews, despite having some top tastebud credentials (he was a finalist in 2018’s Celebrity Masterchef), didn’t know how to create a brand from scratch. So he took another mature, methodical step: he asked for help.
"When faced with adversity, people turn to alcohol..."
“My advice, for anybody looking to start a business,” says Matthews, “would be to surround yourself with good people. For me, coming from a background in popular — and unpopular — television, I really had no idea how to start a drinks brand. Fortunately, early on in the journey, I met a man called Justin Hicklin — who is now our chairman.
“He’s a very level-headed, cool customer,” adds Matthews, “who previously worked with Johnnie Walker and Diageo. And we clicked almost instantly — because we both wanted to remove the stigma from ordering a non-alcoholic drink. We wanted to turn that into a positive life decision — and make something with low or no alcohol that tasted like a real gin and tonic. Because who would want to drink alcohol to excess if there were fantastic alternatives out there?”
The early days of CleanCo were shaped, shaken and stirred by Matthews himself. The clean and clear branding was a direct response to his existing, confusing competitors in the non-alcoholic spirits sector. The direction of the business — to replicate every major spirit — was a roadmap Matthews refused to swerve away from. And, as he was already a well-known personality, his wide-reaching social presence doubled as early advertising.
“I often accidentally speak ill of my television career,” admits Matthews. “But, obviously, it was a bit of a help — a handy leg-up that I was able to speak to more than just my immediate phone book. And, after we made some more key hires early on, things really started to pick up speed. We began to raise money, get wider recognition and some cash injection from serious funds.”
One such fund, Lightspeed Venture Partners, became convinced of CleanCo’s potential over a single lunch with Matthews. Before the bill was settled, the brand had been signed into the rarefied Lightspeed portfolio — a group that includes Snapchat, Ripple and Gwyneth Paltrow’s bohemian lifestyle juggernaut, Goop.
“There was a huge amount of serendipity involved with growing the company,” nods Matthews, “with a lot of things just seeming to fall into place — or snowballing. But it happened at a just about controllable rate”.
Then, however, came something not even the most well-practiced, proficient brand could have controlled: a global pandemic. With best-laid business plans up in the air and international retailers shutting up shop, the Covid-19 crisis should have turned even the most experienced executives to the bottle. But not Spencer Matthews — unless, that is, he was pouring out a sobering ‘Clean G&T‘.
“Much like sailing a ship,” Matthews smiles, “I think it would have been preferable to have clear waters and a nice breeze in those first few months. But the stormy seas we got, and level of uncertainty that was in the air, wasn’t helpful at all.
“There was a huge amount of serendipity involved with growing the company..."
“Although,” he adds, “we quickly realised that this global pandemic was having an effect on people’s drinking habits. And, although we had to carefully consider our tone of voice — anyone trying to sell anything during a pandemic could have looked distasteful — we knew the nature of our product, and the health-conscious reasons for which it was created.”
Which brings us to perhaps the most innovative, interesting part of CleanCo. Matthews believes that there is a place for the product in the lives of everyone — “whether you’re an alcoholic or you’re teetotal”. But it’s not just the customers themselves that vary, but also the way these individuals actually consume CleanCo’s spirits.
“It’s not just about cutting down,” explains Matthews. “Some people use it to drink the same amount — but for longer. Moderation is a really key part of our messaging. And this idea of ‘drinking clean’ is a really interesting way to stay in the fun, for longer.
“Because a very small percentage of Brits actually understand what this category is,” he adds. “But I use this metaphor: imagine enjoying a really delicious cheeseburger — but then being told you have to go vegan for health reasons. Back in the day, your options would have been a nut roast, or Quorn. That’s it. Now, you’ve got things like Beyond Meat burgers — that are legitimately delicious. And, because the compromise is so much smaller, the desire is still there.”
And it’s a desirability that CleanCo’s range of spirits has truly earned. The gin-mimicking ‘Clean G’ is a botanical blast. The ‘Clean R’ imitates every golden spice and Caribbean caramel note of a good rum. And the latest addition to the collection, ‘Clean T’, is as punchy and complex as a classic tequila. So how does the brand do it — creating more authentic, non-alcoholic spins on existing spirits than anyone else?
“Obviously, it’s not just me with a pot and pan,” laughs Matthews. “We have people with scientific backgrounds and real flavorists who work with us now, in-house. We’re able to extract flavours out of many different ingredients and we care enormously about where we source those ingredients from. But some liquids are obviously harder to crack than others. Whisky, for example, is particularly difficult — but we’re working on it…”
And Matthews — despite having a good time — is working hard. His whole team is. And this work ethic, combined with the genuine ingenuity of CleanCo’s principled, praiseworthy ideas, has seen the brand flourish. Could having a celebrity founder and figurehead be the real reason the company has succeeded? Perhaps, but Matthews thinks it’s more than that.
“Early sales, perhaps, could have been propped up by fans of mine. But it’s always been the idea for it to be bigger than me. It has nothing to do with me — not really. I just had a lightning bolt idea one day and started the company. In an ideal world, we’ll eventually see millions of people drinking CleanCo — and the company will be hundreds of times bigger than I could ever be”.
Want more interviews with clean-eating celebrities? Lewis Hamilton explains why he founded a vegan burger chain…
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