This Inventor Wants to Change How You Drink
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we can do better than the mocktail.
By Laura Chubb
“Seedlip = like going to a hooker for a hug.” Ben Branson, the inventor of Seedlip, enjoyed that insult from the Twittersphere enough to retweet it. “I just thought it was genius,” he laughs. It gets at the prevailing obstacle to his big idea, he says: a variation on “What’s the point in that?” The point is precisely this: Seedlip is the world’s first top-shelf, premium-priced distilled spirit, crafted from botanicals, offering all the complex flavor and sophistication of, say, sipping a fine gin. Only there’s no booze in it.
“I know whether someone gets Seedlip within about three seconds of talking to them,” says the 34-year-old, whose farm-boy upbringing and big-city present collide visibly: Chuck Taylors, tattooed arms and a tweed flat cap, the nationally recognized symbol for “country bumpkin” in his native U.K. And for every person who doesn’t get Seedlip, there’s a big, important one who does. When I meet Branson, he’s in San Francisco at the invitation of Michelin-spangled, $325-per-dinner Atelier Crenn. The first U.S. account he won, back in January? The French Laundry.
So, what’s driving him? “I just want to change the way the world drinks,” Branson says, like it’s straightforward enough. Because the challenge before him is pretty universal: “What do you drink when you’re not drinking?” Today, the answer is limited and decidedly ho-hum: water, coffee, soda, fruit juice. At the downtown bar where we meet, he’s obviously unimpressed by the non-alcoholic options and begrudgingly orders a ginger ale. Why, Branson wondered, shouldn’t someone thirsting for a complex, well-crafted beverage that’s not pumped full of caffeine or sugar have more choice? “It’s like equal rights,” he laughs, only half-joking. To date, Seedlip (a basket farmers would carry when hand-sowing seeds) has gone to market with two products: Spice 94, a peppery little number with notes of cardamom, and Garden 108, with overtones of peas, hay and rosemary. Both are best mixed with tonic, or as the base for a refreshingly different cocktail.
It’ll be bigger than Red Bull.
Aaron Polsky, manager of LA’s Harvard & Stone
Branson, it should be noted, is a total rookie (his pre-Seedlip gig was running a small design agency). But he knew enough to recognize how lifestyles are evolving, as well as our relationship to food and drink. Frozen meals and fast food are being replaced by farmers markets and rooftop gardens. And sodas are one casualty in the war on sugar: Coca-Cola this year announced a profit plunge of 55 percent. Big beer and spirits are losing market share to their craft counterparts, as those golden-ticket consumers, millennials, adopt a “less, but better” model. And even our palates are changing, seeking out more savory, layered flavors — Fernet-Branca, an aromatic liqueur made from more than 27 herbs and spices, is a fixture at any cocktail bar catering to hip young things.
Seedlip’s already got the drinks industries, both alcoholic and not, sitting at attention. When Branson launched solo 18 months ago in the U.K., the initial production of 1,000 bottles sold out in three weeks; inside of three months, he boosted the bottle run to 10,000. Diageo, the multinational owner of brands including Smirnoff, Guinness and Johnnie Walker, has bought a minority stake — the only non-alcoholic drink Diageo has ever invested in.
“It’ll be bigger than Red Bull,” reckons Aaron Polsky, who manages LA “rager” (his words) Harvard & Stone, with legendary craft cocktail venues like Milk & Honey and Amor y Amargo on his résumé. He was skeptical at first and then met Branson. Today, he’s a Seedlip brand ambassador. PDT, New York City’s hallowed speakeasy, didn’t offer non-alcoholic options — until now. And at London’s posh Dandelyan bar, Tales of the Cocktail’s “world’s best bartender” Ryan Chetiyawardana has introduced an entire menu of Seedlip-based booze-free drinks.
Branson is at once confident enough in his product to claim he’ll “light fires all around the world” — and so flummoxed by the pace of success that he breaks off, stares into space and mutters, “It’s just mental.” And to think he wasn’t even planning a business when Seedlip began to take form: He was merely distilling herbs in his kitchen for fun (Branson’s family has been farming since the 1700s, and he cops to “loving a bit of arts and crafts”). With money he’d saved from doing a design project for Nike, he plunged into an industry he had zero experience in and invented a completely new drinks category.
That “newness” could also be his curse, according to Ray Latif, managing editor at industry pub BevNet. People often don’t “get” the product because it’s so new. “Building education and awareness for a non-alcoholic spirit — an oxymoron to most — will be an uphill battle,” he cautions. But he allows that if other players enter the field — competitors have yet to emerge — “it would actually be in Seedlip’s favor, in that it would help define and grow the category.”
For now, Branson seems perfectly cool with people not getting it — all part of his strange, modestly audacious confidence. Like he’s accidentally stumbled on an idea that’s too good to ignore. He’s already planning a brown spirit — taking the tasting notes of whiskey and creating a heady blend of flavors like fig, oak and coffee — and pledges that, within the next 18 months, Seedlip will be in the best bars, hotels and restaurants of the world’s 25 most influential cities. “As our drinking habits change, I want Seedlip to be leading that and showing what’s possible,” he says. “At times that feels totally unrealistic and ridiculous. Other times, I look at where we are already, and I think, Yeah, we could.”
He pushes away the ginger ale.
- Laura Chubb, OZY Author Contact Laura Chubb