As bartenders rush around making non-alcoholic cocktails in a bar in The Rocks, Sydney, Ben Brandon, founder of Seedlip, talks about his family’s farming roots. It’s from these roots that Branson gained his love of nature, quality produce, and natural flavours.
This is the man who could be said to have single-handedly created the latest cocktail trend: non-alcoholic drinks. There exists an irony to it: Brandon is promoting them in the oldest part of a country whose European settlement dates back 100 years younger than his family’s North Lincolnshire farm.
Looking at the Seedlip story, you may think you see yet another multitude of non-alcoholic products that have sprung up in recent times. After all, it’s on trend, beautifully packaged, and has the ability to appeal to an increasing number of people around the world seeking to socialise without alcohol.
In reality, the story of this brand is so much bigger. It’s one of tradition and family – of nature and the land. More to the point, it’s the story of believing in an idea that few others understood.
“For every person who wanted to support what we were doing – including my family,” recalls Seedlip founder Ben Branson, “there was a whole host of other people who didn’t believe we’d even sell a bottle, and that it was a ridiculous idea.”
Even Branson, in Australia, to open the company’s third global office in Sydney (the other two are in the U.K. and L.A.), didn’t quite expect the degree of overwhelming success that the brand has achieved.
“Three years ago, I was in my kitchen [coming up with the idea]. Now we have Seedlip in 25 countries, and we’re opening these offices,’ he said.
“I am blessed to have an amazing team and the support of so many of the world’s best bars and restaurants who want to give their guests great options, whether they’re drinking alcohol or not. It’s been surreal.”
As Branson tells it, the idea for the brand came one evening when he was out to dinner and didn’t feel like drinking. The ‘mocktail’ he was served was so bad, he knew there had to be a better option.
So Branson started tinkering with a copper still he bought on the internet and herbal distillate recipes from a 17th-century book of medicinal tinctures.
“I literally had no idea how it was going to go. I guess I just believed in really simple terms, if you are not drinking alcohol for whatever reason, you should be able to get a good grown-up option that is not full of sugar and fruit juice.”
I feel like we are just getting started with what is possible in this category
But that was three years ago. Today, Branson estimates that even in the last nine months, there have been at least 40 products launched from 15 countries in the non-alcoholic spirit space, ranging across the full spectrum of quality.
“There are still way too many lime and sodas, orange juices, horrible mocktails being served around the world that we have a job to do to educate bartenders and consumers that they should be demanding better.
“I was deliberate in not wanting to try and mimic any other alcohol,” Branson continued. “We don’t have any rules in terms of categories, so we can use whatever ingredients we want. We can pair ingredients in interesting ways and solely work with flavour profiles we wanted to create.”
And that is the thing with Seedlip; it is all about flavour and specifically natural flavours. Whether you are looking at their Spice, their Garden or their Grove varieties, Branson uses terms that all come back to his upbringing in the country and his love of nature.
When he describes the Spice expression, he talks about the warm brown spice notes from the allspice berry; he explains Garden in terms of the English peas and hay that come from his farm and the Grove as a real celebration of citrus.
“We have been farming in North Lincolnshire, which is about a 4-hour drive north from London, as a family for 320 years. Nine generations behind me and proud we are still farming today.
“The original farm is about 1,000-acre farm, and we grow the peas that are then used in Seedlip Garden, last summer we harvested 2500 tonnes of peas, so we work out that it is about 80 peas per bottle and want to keep doing that and keep using more ingredients and start growing more ingredients.”
Brandon talks a lot about real ingredients and real flavours and sites his network of farmers around the world. But more it was the fascination that came from realising that he could make a liquid that smelled and tasted like whatever plant he put in the copper still.
And while you might think that using a still for a non-alcoholic product is counter-intuitive, Brandon points out that fermentation produces the alcohol, distillation is a way of concentrating, clarifying, removing and is really useful to us.
“Distillation is key. Firstly we use it to remove the small amount of alcohol that we use through evaporation of that alcohol and then we do a second distillation to capture and concentrate the pure flavour of the plant. We wanted the key flavour molecules in the most concentrated and purest form.
“Now we are doing that individually to the 18 ingredients we work with which is why it takes us six weeks to make a bottle. We are after that pure favour. Seedlip doesn’t go in the fridge, so it sits on the back bar, it sits on your bar cart; so in terms of stability, clarity and purity distillation is incredibly helpful.”
While Branson is keen to expand the range, he is careful to point out that they don’t want to launch a load of different products onto the market. “We want to ensure that they are doing things for the right reason and at the same right time,” he says.
The next step for the brand is a new aperitif range called Æcorn which will launch in the UK next month. While Branson is careful not to give too many details away, he has revealed that there will be three variations that use a grape base and aromatised with botanicals.
“So much like the Vermouth world, it is focused around that aperitif with food occasion. It supports and is a great ingredient to work with Seedlip in terms of cocktails but with very different flavour profiles, very different ingredients and different method of production.”
Now while you might think that Æcorn could easily be a non-alcoholic Vermouth, Branson is quick to point out that although there are similarities, the range will be very different from what you might expect.
“We have not deliberately tried to imitate this specific blend profile of Vermouth. There is no wormwood for example in any of the æcorn products, partly because pregnant ladies are a perfect target for Acorn and non-alcoholic products in general, and it’s not recommended.
“We are still just scratching the surface of the category’s potential, and Æcorn Apéritifs takes us another step closer to our aim of changing the way the world drinks.”
And changed it, Seedlip almost has. While Branson acknowledges that there is still a long way to go in terms of education, both for bartenders and for consumers, he believes the landscape for non-alcoholic options is very different than it was just three years ago.
He points out that while almost all of the 20,000 good quality bars and restaurants in the UK didn’t have a non-alcoholic option available, today at least a quarter of those have at least two options on the menu or available. “I feel like we are just getting started with what is possible in this category”.
“That’s a great feeling three years in, both for the potential of the brand and the future of the category. We want to grow the category and build quality and credibility. We want to find more tools for bartenders and for people at home to be able to make great drinks with.”
With thanks to the bar Maybe Sammy, we have the recipes for their two Seedlip cocktails
Ciao Ciao Bambina
30mls Seedlip Spice,
30mls Coffee Cordial,
30mls Pink Grapefruit Juice
top up with Grapefruit Tonic (StrangeLove)
30ml Seedlip Garden
Garnish with frozen grapes