This Man Created a Spirit that You Can Drink Without Getting Drunk
"On a Monday night, or if you’re driving, or if you’re pregnant, or if you’re having a night off—there are lots of reasons that you might not be drinking."
When Ben Branson started tinkering with a copper still he bought on the internet, toying with herbal distillate recipes from a 17th-century book of medicinal tinctures, being trendy is probably not what he had in mind. Flash forward three years, and his Seedlip alcohol-free spirits might be the most of-the-moment potable around. All of these Soulcycle-spinning, yoga-schvitzing, cold-pressed-juice-swilling Millennials aren't seeing strong pours of gin as conducive to their #cleaneating diets, and some of the world's best bars and restaurants are taking notice. For grownups who want to drink without drinking, Seedlip is the only game in town. Soon "adult beverage" just won't mean what it used to. We talked to Ben about how his alcohol-free gin company came to be, what people think of it, and how you should drink it (don't worry; tonic's still a good accompaniment).
Hi, Ben. Can you tell me a little bit about your background? One side of my family has been farming for over 300 years in the north of England. There are nine generations of farmers behind me, and we're still farming today, of which I'm immensely proud. I want to continue that legacy. The other side of my family are in brands and designs.
I grew up in the countryside and adore nature but worked on the agency side, on other people's' brands, for a long time. I was fortunate to do a lot of work on alcohol brands. About five years ago, I started to think that I'd like to have my own brand, but I didn't know what it was. I didn't force it. I just knew I'd like to be on the other side of the table.
Where did the idea for this alcohol-free gin come from? With Seedlip, we're really bringing together both sides of my family to create a product that fits a need and solves the dilemma of "what to drink when you're not drinking."
It actually didn't come at first as a business idea at all. I live in the countryside and am fascinated by natural history. I like to grow my own things. So I was looking at a lot of old books, old herbals and old cookery books. You know how you can be on the internet and go down the rabbit warren and end up with something totally random? Well, I found a book called The Art of Distillation. it was published in London in 1651, and in it are lots of alcoholic remedies and also lots of non-alcoholic herbal remedies which use small copper stills and distillation. Alcohol is actually created by fermentation, not distillation. Distillation is just a form of extraction that uses heat. I just thought it was really interesting, and I'm really into trying out stuff—I even learned how to do taxidermy six months ago.
So three years ago, I bought a three-liter copper still from the internet and began experimenting with it in my kitchen with the herbs I was growing in my garden. Using steam and water, I found that I could make a liquid that smelled and tasted like whatever plant I put in the copper still. That was a bit of a "eureka!" moment. It got me quite curious as to what else could be done with this. I wonder if I could make a drink with this? I wonder if anyone has done this before? It was a bit of a domino effect slowly and surely the idea of a business started forming. Could we create the world's first non-alcoholic spirit?
On a Monday night, or if you're driving, or if you're pregnant, or if you're having a night off—there are lots of reasons that you might not be drinking.
Why? Why would you take what many would consider the best part of gin out of it? First of all, this "alcohol-free gin" thing is something that has been put out by the press in a recent article. I don't think of my product as an alcohol-free gin. Traditionally, a gin must be juniper-led, and we don't add any juniper. We're not trying to taste like a gin or taste like an alcohol. There's no juniper; there's no mimicking the burn of alcohol. These are all unique flavor profiles. Obviously we have things in common with gin: copper stills, made with botanicals, served with tonic.
That said, I've learned that the world is actually beginning to drink less alcohol. We're drinking, globally [speaking], the least amount of alcohol than at any time in the last 20 years—I even found companies like Daybreaker that throw sober morning raves. Even in London, one in three young people say that they don't drink alcohol. But sugary fizzy drinks like Coca-Cola are also declining. At the same time, I also thought that cocktail culture and the innovation culture within the world of spirits was really exciting.
Do you drink alcohol? I stopped drinking when I left school, but I loved working in the alcohol world and I love my food. I'm used to going to a restaurant and seeing a great cocktail list and watching my friends having a glass of Champagne or an aperitif to start their meal, and the options for you, if you're not drinking, being very disappointing. On a Monday night, or if you're driving, or if you're pregnant, or if you're having a night off—there are lots of reasons that you might not be drinking. The alternative options to alcohol are all very poor. Usually fruity or sweet or both.
We were lucky to launch in Selfridges, and they sold those first 1,000 bottles in three weeks, and the next 1,000 in three days, and the next 1,000 in 30 minutes.
Can you walk me through how it is made? We individually distill every single ingredient, all of which are grown on trees or in the ground. We don't add any sugar or sweetener, and it takes six weeks to make any one batch.
We now have two products. Seedlip Spice is very aromatic and woody, and has two barks, two spices, and two types of citrus peel. It is very spice-led: allspice berries and cardamom are the dominant flavors. It's perfect with tonic and some red grapefruit. Our second product is Seedlip Garden which is very floral, very herbal. It's been a fantastic opportunity to use things from my farm. We use my peas, my hay, rosemary, thyme—those very traditional English garden ingredients. And again we serve that with tonic, with a slice of cucumber or in non-alcoholic cocktails.
People—especially in England, where your company is based—take their gin very seriously. How has the reception been? I was a one-man-band for the first three months after our launch. I bottled 1,000 bottles, hand-labeled and hand-delivered [them], thought they would last three months and had no idea what was going to happen. We were lucky to launch in Selfridges, and they sold those first 1,000 bottles in three weeks, and the next 1,000 in three days, and the next 1,000 in 30 minutes. I was freaking out. I had put my phone number and address on the website and that was a big mistake. It all went a little bit crazy.
We had to find another solution, so we found a bottler here in the north of England. We had to apologize to a lot of people and tell them that they couldn't get it, and tell a lot of bars and restaurants to bear with us. I finally hired an employee. We're now eight people full-time, we have two products, and we're in over 30 Michelin starred restaurants worldwide. And we've just taken some investment from Diageo who are the largest spirits company in the world. We're only ten months old and I've been invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the Duke of York!
Where do you go from here? It's very important we do things properly. We're not trying to sell to everyone and be in every store. We want to work with the right people in the right way at the right time. We want to increase awareness in the UK and then to begin very tentatively to look at the US. We don't want a huge portfolio of products and unnecessary complexity.
If we live in the US, where can we find it? We're just about to put some bottles on a boat, coming your way actually. We're going to make a little start coming over to the States in the next six weeks. At the moment, if you're in the US and want to try it, you can buy it from our website. We'll ship to you.
We hate to be this guy, but have you tried mixing this with alcohol? Everybody asks that. Seedlip has no sugar and sweetener and has great flavor, so it's obviously a good cocktail ingredient. We created it for non-alcoholic drinks, but if you want to try it in a low-alcohol cocktail, we're not precious about that.
Thanks for speaking with us.