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Essential Journal

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To Kill a Mockingbird

We sit down with Seedlip founder, Ben Branson, to discuss the death of the mocktail and the rise of alcohol free spirits

Words by Will HALBERT

First off, tell us a little about yourself and your background
My name is Ben Branson, I’m the Founder of Seedlip, the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirits brand. Seedlip is inspired by my family’s 300 years of farming heritage in North Lincolnshire. I’m forever curious, continually tinkering and I’m obsessed with books (as my 3000 strong collection of 1940s Penguin Books proves)! My other great love is the natural world, a countryside boy to the bone and definitely happiest in a field rather than a city!

How did the idea behind Seedlip come about? What was the motivation behind it?
Back in 2013, whilst researching interesting herbs I could grow at home, I came across a book written in 1651 called The Art of Distillation that documented distilled herbal remedies – both alcoholic & non-alcoholic. Out of curiosity I bought a copper still and began experimenting in my kitchen.

Three months later I was out for dinner at a nice restaurant in London, not drinking and got offered this pink, fruity, sweet, childish mocktail. I felt like an idiot, it didn’t go with the food, and it wasn’t a great experience. Surely there must be a better way! The dots began to join and I spent the next two years working with my still, my mother on the ingredients, my father on the design and slowly beginning to believe that maybe we could begin to solve the ‘what to drink when you’re not drinking’ dilemma with a different approach to non-alcoholic drinks. No more mocktails!

What’s the story behind the name?
In the 17th century, farmers used baskets called Seedlips to sow seed. My grandmother told me this story about my family when I was searching for a name for the company. She nailed it! It honours my family’s farming background and literally explains our process of taking the wonderful plants we work with from Seed to Lip.

How on earth did you come across an original copy of The Art of Distillation
The book was originally published in London and written by a physician John French and the more I got into distilling at home and the more I learnt about how people’s drinking habits were changing and that there was a growing need for a drink that wasn’t just fruit juice and syrups, well, the more adamant I became that I had to try and track down a copy!

I contacted the British Library, they actually own the original copy that was in King George III’s collection of books and they allowed me to go and see it, I then emailed over 15 antique book sellers in the UK and eventually one came back to me. It was by far the most expensive book I’ve ever bought but we are very proud to own a copy of The Art of Distillation from 1664, it’s the only other copy we can find in the world and fitting that we have now published a book of our own with Penguin!

Without revealing any trade secrets, how exactly does one go about producing a distilled, non-alcoholic spirit? It almost sounds like an oxymoron.
Ha! I guess it’s like electric cars or online shopping…the times change! It takes 6 weeks to make a bottle of Seedlip and we have developed a coveted, bespoke process for each individual plant we work with to capture its true character. 

This begins with sourcing the best produce, through to a cold maceration in specific ratios of neutral grain spirit and water for particular amounts of time before this individual mash is distilled in a copper pot still, the alcohol content removed and concentrated distillate of each plant collected, blended, filtered and then bottled. We don’t add any sugar, sweetener or artificial flavours. 

As we often see in low-abv beers, it’s quite a challenge coming away with something with depth and complexity without the higher ABV there to help things along.  How did you work such wonders with Seedlip’s flavour without the booze? 
In short it’s very technically challenging! Alcohol carries flavour, is a very effective solvent and preservative so the irony is rather than fight it and not use it, we actually embraced it and use it at the beginning of our process. The tricky bit was then actually the removal and understanding that each ingredient behaves differently. 

Clearly, Seedlip has been welcomed with open arms by bartenders (judging by the number of award-winning bartenders playing around with your spirit). Was that the kind of response you expected, or did you expect people to be a little more hesitant?
I had no idea what to expect! I got told enough times “that’ll never work!” that yes, I definitely doubted whether anyone would take this seriously!

When you’re a one man band hand-labelling bottles in your kitchen, packing them into boxes and then putting them in the back of your car, delivering them, then standing in a shop as I did in Selfridges in London for four hours each day, then serving Seedlip cocktails at events in the evening and then going home and doing it all again…. It’s both bloody hard and exhilarating! 

Never did I even dream that 3 years later, Seedlip would be in over 25 countries, that I’d have the most amazing team and that we would be working with over 250 Michelin star restaurants, 8 of the world’s top ten cocktail bars and iconic retailers like Selfridges. Well. It’s just been surreal and further proof of the need for high quality non-alcoholic options!

Can you tell us a little about your Nolo campaign?
We believe socialising should be about inclusivity, flavour and the experience. So last year we launched N o l o ® the first No & Low alcohol cocktail concept. It was a 2 night global event across 16x bars in 16x cities, all No & Low alcohol cocktails using Seedlip and we have just announced N o l o ® partnerships on board Virgin Atlantic and with Soho House.

Can you talk us through the three expressions of Seedlip currently available?
There are three products now in the range all which pair beautifully with Fever Tree tonic water, served over ice & a good garnish!

Seedlip Spice 94 is aromatic and woody with a great warm spice and citrus character from the allspice berries, cardamom, American Oak and grapefruit peel distillates we use. Seedlip Garden 108 is bright and fresh using English peas from my farm, floral herbs like rosemary and thyme and peppery undertones from the English variety of hops we use. Seedlip Grove 42 is zesty and complex with three kinds of orange and a fragrant character from lemongrass, ginger and Japanese sansho peppercorns. 

We have also just launched a cocktail recipe book with Penguin and 25 of the world’s best bartenders, there are over 100 recipes to make at home from nice and easy ones to some really complex cocktails. 

And finally, what’s next for yourself and Seedlip?
We have an incredibly exciting year ahead and I still feel like we are just scratching the surface of the potential and possibilities for this category. We want to continue to lead and expand the category and will be launching a sister brand to Seedlip called Æcorn Aperitifs in
the Spring. We are also building an apothecary laboratory and experimental plant nursery on my farm, which will be run by our Head of Horticulture, Tom Harfleet. 

We are resolutely committed to solving the dilemma of ‘what to drink when you’re not drinking’ on a global scale as quickly and brilliantly as possible. If the growth we have experienced with Seedlip so far is anything to go by, this category has potential beyond my reasoning or comprehension!

Ben Branson’s Seedlip: The Cocktail Book (Bantam Press) is available now