A cup of tea with Seedlip
Interview by Emilie Forsythe (née Holmes)
A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to share a pot of tea with Ben Branson, founder and inventor of the world's first non-alcoholic spirit, Seedlip. In just two years, Ben's botanical creations have gone from garage experiment to lining the shelves of the world's best bars, filling an important gap in the drinks market in the process.
We meet at their soon-to-be-outgrown Marylebone office, where, under the watchful eye of a stuffed badger (Ben enjoys taxidermy in his spare time), I learn about the art of distillation, why we're all boozing less and how homegrown, natural ingredients will always be best...
Tell us a bit about how it all started.
Seedlip began from my love of doing arts and crafts at home. My family have been farming in North Lincolnshire and Yorkshire for 320 years so I was lucky enough to grow up understanding what it means to get a potato onto your plate. I got into growing my own plants and food at home but I eventually got bored. I had mastered growing rosemary, my mint had taken over and it led me to think about the plants and farming techniques that had been forgotten. So I went looking to nature for something of the things we’d lost. I love old things too, so spend quite a lot of time pouring over old cookery books and reading about the things people used to grow. It started with herbs, and then I found myself learning about Nicholas Culpeper and other botanists - it was a whole new world for me. I found a copy of a book on distillation that someone had scanned in online which talked about alcoholic and non-alcoholic remedies and the idea of using plants as medicine and that piqued my interest. It was from 1651 and had about 200 ingredients listed in it, so I thought I’d give distillation a go.
[Ben now owns one of the very few hard copies of The Art of Distillation]
So what is distillation and how did you start doing it at home?
Distillation is just a form of extraction, much like brewing tea is a form of extraction. People always think of alcohol when we talk about distillation but we get numerous products via distillation - essential oils, orange blossom water, rose blossom water. You find distillation used in pharmaceuticals and in the oil industry. It’s just a process but we tend to associate it with only alcohol.
So I’d read this book on distilling herbs and plants for medicinal purposes and my work background was design, working with spirit brands where I’d learnt a little about distilling, so I decided to bite the bullet and try it myself. I went online and bought myself a copper still and had different ingredients in my garden, so I set about copying some of the techniques I’d read about. Just like I’ve always wanted to learn taxidermy, and in the same way as I enjoy pressing flowers, it began from an interest to learn and try my hand at something new...or very old, in fact!
I took a load of fresh mint from my garden, I put it in the copper still with water and I put the pot on a hot plate to heat that up. As soon as it starts to get to the boiling point, all of the compounds, the oils, all of those flavour molecules release from the mint. They then turn to vapour and you have to catch them so that you can turn them into a concentrated liquid. What I was left with this super minty essence. It lost its flavour and went cloudy after two days, so I still had some work to do to turn it into a safe product...
So at what point in your experimentation did you realise that you had made something delicious?
I kept playing around with my still, chucking in all kinds of potential ingredients from all spice, berries, oak chips and citrus fruits to the extremes where I was trying to distil soil and stones.
This is probably a good time to say that I don’t make Seedlip anymore, but I did at the start! I have always thought that ingredients should be viewed as individual things. The way that a pea is genetically structured is different to, for example, how hay is structured, and a mint plant is comprised of different compounds to a lemon and so on. So that influenced my experimentation with the copper still and I began to learn how each of the ingredients produced their best flavour at different boiling points.
We now have six distillates in each of our drinks and that means that we distil everything individually. It’s not the simplest process - it takes us six weeks to make one bottle - but it’s incredibly important that we capture the best flavour every time.
You said it wasn’t originally intended to be a business. Does that mean it was circumstantial that you found yourself at the heart of this non-alcoholic trend?
Yes, definitely. I was just mucking around with stuff at home, and then I found myself going out one evening and realising that the options were shit if you’re not drinking. Then in late 2013, when Jamie Oliver waged war on sugar, we started seeing all of the comparisons between soft drinks and piles of sugar. Then the same comparisons were drawn with alcohol and the dots started to connect. I figured out that as a society we were drinking less alcohol and less sugary soft drinks, smoothies and juices, but at the same time people were willing to spend more on craft spirits etc. All these things happening all at once sparked the idea of creating Seedlip.
And why do you think it is that we’re seeing a decline in alcohol-consumption?
I think there a few different forces at work. Firstly, I think the movement towards more natural food, looking at the backs of labels and all that sort of stuff definitely has burst a bit of a bubble for the processed food world. People want food that is better quality and they’ll pay more for it, so that’s filtered into drinks too. Secondly, the world of social media and people trying to curate their lives online has definitely impacted how we consume alcohol. People know now that walking into interview, your potential boss has already looked at your Facebook and Instagram page, so being seen to be legless at 4 o’clock on a Sunday morning is something that we take a little bit more seriously. Finally, the access that we have to information and health in general means that there are just no excuses for not looking after yourself - gone are the days of living in ignorance. All of those things have a slipstream effect.
You are keen to position Seedlip as ‘what to drink when you’re not drinking’ rather than a drink for teetotalers. Why is that important?
We can fully appreciate a really delicious wine or beer, but we’re hearing increasingly from customers that they’re just not interested in drinking mediocre tasting alcohol. People either want to pay more for a quality alcoholic drink, or abstain altogether. So these people who don’t drink all the time are being let down when they’re handed a sugary soft drink in a bar. We think about these sometime-drinkers and are aware of the fact that if when they try, and hopefully enjoy Seedlip, they’ll be sure to recommend it to their pregnant and teetotal friends.
It seems that the beautiful bottle and branding plays an important role in further legitimising not drinking, as there is now an aspirational alternative.
Absolutely. We wanted ordering a Seedlip and tonic to feel as much as an enjoyable ritual as ordering a boozy drink, as drinking is often about the experience rather than the effects. If you walk up to the bar and order a vodka and soda and I order a Seedlip and tonic, the bartender will go and pull two bottles from the back bar and make both drinks in exactly the same way. That’s important as it means we both feel part of the ritual.
The category you’ve ended up - whether intentionally or not - is growing fast and it seems there is a lot of excitement around non-alcoholic drinks. Do you welcome non-alcoholic beers and wines or do you see that as competition?
I think that all of the excitement is a good thing. It’s a good thing that in the last couple of years beer has started sorting itself out and the craft guys are doing a great job of creating great-tasting, non-alcoholic drinks. Wine, I think, has got a hell of a long way to go though. The way we’ve approached Seedlip is to not try and mimic anything else. That’s been my standpoint, because I always felt that if it’’s a ‘less-than’ version of something, you start from a point of, ‘yeah, but it’s not’. You’re setting someone up to be disappointed. I think I’m correct in saying that if you take the thing away from the thing, that makes it the thing, then it’s not the thing anymore! So it can’t be the same. Hence why, while we’ve got obvious links to gin because we use plants, we use distillation and we serve it with tonic, we don’t have gin flavour profiles and we don’t talk about Seedlip being a non-alcoholic gin or anything like that.
Diageo are now invested in growing Seedlip with you, but what are the things that as you grow you, as the founder, won’t budge on?
What we look like, sound like, and taste like - that’s where I have full view and control, and then the vision and strategy. Making sure that this halo, this reputation we’ve built of saying please and thank you and doing things right and doing things properly, remains. It’s a measure of how wrong things have got that ‘doing things properly’ is unique, but it’s something we will always do. People talk about making it simple but it’s not keeping it simple - doing things properly is often far from simple but instead it’s bothering to do the work to make it come across as clear and simple as possible. And that means not being afraid to say no sometimes. I do believe though that there is the right balance between doing things properly and doing things quickly.
Finally, what’s the dream for you? Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
To eventually live in the middle of nowhere and learn how to make an axe, have 200 dogs, and do some taxidermy! When? I don’t know, but within the next ten years would be amazing...