Britain’s relationship with alcohol is long and tumultuous. As we know all too well, it can be challenging to maintain a social life in this country without wetting your whistle. And, even during a quiet night in, many of us will reach to uncork a bottle of wine if it’s been a tough day at work.
But this is summer 2019, and the times they are a-changin’. Over the past two decades, Britain has experienced a 7 per cent drop in alcohol consumption, and we’ve seen the market for low-and-no-alcohol alternatives flourish.
Three years ago, Distill Ventures, the Diageo-backed and funded accelerator program for entrepreneurs in the drinks industry, spotted a lucrative opportunity in Seedlip. Founded by Ben Branson in 2015, Seedlip claims to offer the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit — an elegant, adult alternative to the “fruity, sickly-sweet mocktails” Branson found to be the only option for non-drinkers in bars and restaurants. The brand’s manifesto was, and remains, simple: to give those who don’t drink something to drink.
Despite its enormous commercial and critical success (their spirits can now be found being served in 8 out of the 10 best bars in the world, and over 300 Michelin-starred restaurants), Seedlip is a uniquely homegrown affair.
“Back in 2013,” Branson recalls, “whilst researching interesting herbs to grow at home, I came across a book written in 1651 called ‘The Art of Distillation’. It contained distilled herbal remedies — both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. Out of curiosity, I bought a copper still and began experimenting in my kitchen.”
This — combined with his conviction that there had to be a better alternative for the designated driver or tee-totaller on a night out — led him to begin experimenting with no-alcohol distillation. “I spent the next two years working with my copper still, my mother helped with the ingredients, my father with the design, and I began to believe that there could be a different approach to non-alcoholic drinks.”
Seedlip was equally inspired by Branson’s desire to to continue his family’s 300 year-old farming legacy — a history which also gave his product a name. “In the 17th Century, farmers used baskets called Seedlips to sow seeds,” he explains, “and my grandmother told me about them when I was searching for brand identity.” He considers the significance of the name to be twofold. “It honours my family’s farming background, and literally explains our process of taking plants from seed to lip.”
"Out of curiosity, I bought a copper still and began experimenting in my kitchen..."
So how is Seedlip created? “We source the highest quality ingredients from our farmers and put them through a 6 week bespoke maceration,” explains Branson, “then a double copper pot distillation, and a filtration process to create adult and complex base spirits.”
Like alcoholic spirits, the entrepreneur continues, Seedlip is designed to be enjoyed with a quality mixer, and a bottle fetches a similar price to an alcoholic alternative. But Branson also encourages drinkers to experiment with the flavours of each of the three Seedlip bottles on offer — using them as a base to get creative.
Yet, despite this thorough and traditional process, there remain a sceptical few who consider the concept of a ‘non-alcoholic spirit’ as fundamentally oxymoronic. Branson’s response? “New categories often initially don’t make sense the first time you hear them. Electric cars, dairy free milk — even mobile phones and online shopping were huge contradictions to what we had always known before. What we are doing with Seedlip is no different.”
Ben no longer drinks himself (“I don’t have the time anymore!”) so might be considered the perfect critic when it comes to trialling out his own concoctions and the best ways to enjoy them. “From Monday to Wednesday after work there is nothing better than a Seedlip and Fever Tree tonic!” he laughs. “It marks the end of the day for me and, depending on what’s growing in the garden or sitting in the fridge, I can choose a nice garnish to finish it off.”
Alternatively, if Branson wants something a little more complex, his new go-to is the ‘NOgroni’, made using Seedlip Spice 94, the Æcorn Bitter and the Æcorn Aromatic. Æcorn Aperitifs is Seedlip’s recently-launched sister brand, which can be found in Selfridges — standing as a testament to Ben’s refusal to become complacent with the success of his first foray into non-alcoholic products.
“We are still just scratching the surface of the non-alcoholic category’s potential,” he says, “and Æcorn Aperitifs hopefully takes us another step closer to our aim of changing the way the world drinks by offering more choice.”
But, as the low-and-no alcohol sector becomes increasingly popular, does Ben ever feel threatened by competitor brands muscling onto the market? “As long as producers are entering this space for the right reasons, creating products of quality and staying committed to educating the trade and the public, then I think it’s very exciting for the category and movement to keep growing.”
In three short years, Ben has achieved with Seedlip what it takes other entrepreneurs decades to secure: a loyal clientele, a clear brand identity, and a product which is sure to only appreciate in value as the nation’s appetite for healthier, less hangover-inducing alternatives only continues to get stronger. We’ll raise a glass to that.
If you’re not yet convinced, why not browse the 10 best whiskies of 2019…