Seedlip founder Ben Branson has a great story to tell about how he built a global non-alcoholic brand from a second-hand still found on the internet. He spoke candidly with the latest issue of Drinks Trade about his distilling journey and what’s next for Seedlip.
Is the no-alcohol category a flash in the pan?
Look at health and wellness trends and how much that has grown over the last ten years. Sugary soft drinks have declined and alcohol volume sales have decreased yet the value has increased. People are looking for both better soft drinks and better alcoholic drinks and a healthier, more aware, world. I think that is incredibly exciting in terms of offering a great drink regardless of whether you are drinking alcohol or not. We have become more mindful about what we are drinking. There are now 30 to 40 other non–alcoholic spirits in the world that have launched in the last six months. I feel like we are just getting started.
Three years ago 99.9% of all the bars in the world did not offer a non-alcoholic cocktail and fast forward three years and we are in at least 5000 bars around the world that have at least two non-alcoholic cocktails. In three years that’s great, but there is so much still to go in terms of educating bartenders and the public on good options.
How many employees do you have at Seedlip now?
There are 60 of us now. We have just opened in Sydney. We have an office in Los Angeles and one in the UK. It’s the biggest company I have ever worked for!
Are there plans to develop more flavours or limited editions?
So we launched our next business in London called Acorn Aperitifs. It’s a first ever range of non-alcoholic aperitifs, which is really exciting. It helps build our portfolio and add to the category.
There are more Seedlip products in the pipeline but we have launched three products in three years. Although we have grown very fast as a business globally we have not launched loads of products. We wanted to make sure the products are right at the right time for the right reasons and I think that is what we will continue to do at Seedlip.
Tell us about the Nogroni that you have trademarked?
We want to make it the most famous non-alcoholic cocktail in the world. Forget the Shirley Temple. At the moment it has Seedlip Spice and we worked on a Campari-style product and a sweet vermouth style product that we made using 24 ingredients and a kettle.
There was lots of brewing of teas and syrups. We made it originally to serve at World’s 50 Best Bar Awards in London in October ’17 and it went down a storm. We kept making it and it was really flying so Acorn our new business is part of a way of making that a lot simpler. Three bottles and equal parts in, anyone can do it.
We have also launched NoLo last summer as a first no and low alcohol cocktail concept that we are still trying to figure out what we do with next. We launched that across 16 cities in the world including Sydney, Melbourne, Singapore and in New Zealand. It was really amazing and focuses on inclusivity, experience and flavour rather than alcohol. People don’t realise Negroni’s have got 24% ABV. That’s a boozy drink! If you could have three Nogroni’s the bar makes more money and you get to stay longer.
We registered Nolo as well. We keep the lawyers busy.
What were you doing before Seedlip?
I come from this farm and design background. My mother’s family has been farming for 320 years so for nine generations with everybody working for themselves. Dad set up a design company nearly 30 years ago.
I grew up doing a mixture of work experience in the school holidays sitting on a tractor and then being in London learning about brands. They were completely different worlds.
When I left school I entered the design world. Back in the summer of 2013 I had my own design agency.
We were a small team working with luxury brands, perfumes, fashion brands, and we were about a year old – happy days, nice and busy, lovely clients, no plans to do anything else.
Then my world changed.
I was trying to work out what I could grow at home so I was trawling the internet. I came across all these old cookbooks.
If you look up The Art of Distillation PDF you will find what I found. Whoever they were, thank God, had scanned this book.
There are 200 ingredients mentioned in it and they are recipes for non-alcoholic medicine and alcoholic medicine using herbs and spices with distillation as the method of extraction. I just remember thinking – woah, this is really cool.
I bought a two-year-old copper still on the internet and started playing around on evenings and weekends, aimlessly amateur.
How did you get from there to selling a million bottles of Seedlip?
A few months later I was in London not drinking on a Monday night and asked a waitress if they had anything good that was non-alcoholic.
Typically if I wasn’t drinking I would probably drink tonic water but this time she came back with this disgusting mocktail.
It wasn’t a lightning bolt moment, but I definitely remember I felt like an idiot. I didn’t want to finish it. It didn’t go with the food and it didn’t fit the ambience. I just didn’t feel good about it.
I left and the dots started to join. I started thinking maybe there is something in what I am doing at home.
What was the commercial turning point for the brand?
Two years later, I am standing in Selfridges in London. Where do you launch a drinks brand in London that gives really good credibility?
Selfridges, Selfridges, Selfridges.
My friend launched her rum brand there called the Duffy Share and she said, I can put you in touch with the buyer.
So I thought, OK, let’s do this. I emailed; she emailed back. She said she doesn’t like anything without alcohol but would give me 15 minutes.
I had never pitched Seedlip to anyone; it wasn’t really finished. I had liquid in a bottle.
I thought I had a world first, I wanted to keep it under wraps; this is a great acid test, if this top buyer gets it, then maybe we are onto something.
I spent an hour with her and she was pulling people into the office to taste it. She said I want it and I want an exclusive with Selfridges.
Overnight I had my first retail listing and route to market for launch.
She introduced me to the five best bartenders in London and then I hit the streets.
I got embroiled in the lovely competitive nature of bartenders wanting to know about things first, so I just rode it, and met as many of them as I could.
I doubled the first production run to 100 bottles because I thought the feeling was good. That was just over three years ago.
I heard you have some famous Seedlippers around the world
Yes, I just heard the other day that Ronaldo likes Seedlip and that he was drinking it in a bar in London.
Then I spent two hours making cocktails with Kate Moss one on one, that was pretty nuts.
Elton John drinks it. Prince Andrew likes it, which included a pretty amazing visit to Buckingham Palace. I’m overwhelmed by it all.
Read more from Seedlip founder Ben Branson in the latest issue of Drinks Trade. Click here to view the digital edition