When Ben Branson delivered his non-alcoholic spirit Seedlip Spice 94 to the thirsty people of the UK in late 2015, he laid the foundation for a new category of drinks.
Less than four years later, Branson has built Seedlip into an empire. The brand includes three expressions of Seedlip and a collection of non-alcoholic aperitifs called Æcorn,which were launched earlier this year.
And the increasing size of the Seedlip range isn’t the only indication of its impact on the world of drinks. Whether you like the liquid or not, you only need to glimpse the vast array of non-alcoholic spirits hitting shelves and bars daily, from small producers and industry giants alike, to see that Branson has inspired a full-on movement.
But if there was any doubt that Branson and Seedlip have worked a kind of alchemy on the way we drink, spirits powerhouse Diageo put it to rest in August when it acquired the majority shareholding in the business. This was no huge surprise – Seedlip was already backed by Diageo-owned accelerator programme Distill Ventures. However, by ushering Seedlip into the fold officially, Diageo has provided Branson’s brand with the resources to establish itself in markets around the world.
So what’s on the cards for Seedlip now? We sat down with Branson himself at the World Class global final in Glasgow to get the rundown on expansion, adapting to new markets and why the non-alcoholic category should stop comparing itself to alcoholic spirits.
As you’ve launched Seedlip in other markets, how has the brand had to adapt?
We’re very mindful of the fact that we’re a UK company exporting into other people’s markets, and mindful to work with other local partners – local brands, local events – to not be the British Empire marching in and saying ‘do it our way’.
Broadly, there’s this global movement happening of people wanting to moderate what they drink and wanting to drink better. A Seedlip & Tonic seems to fit that bill wherever we go, apart from the US where it’s Seedlip & Ginger Ale, because tonic’s not big in the US whereas ginger ale is huge.
In places where people don’t drink at all, Seedlip is a product that people can still enjoy – but how do you have to change your approach?
It’s actually simpler than I thought. Ultimately everybody wants to have a good time. When you boil it down, you’re providing a prop for someone to have a good time and feel a part [of something]. Ours just happens to not have any alcohol.
We’re in 28 markets now, just about to start dipping our toes into the Middle East, exploring a bigger global expansion. We’ve still got a lot to learn, but even through our work in India, we can see that people who don’t drink for religious reasons still want to have a good time. On first glance it seems complicated: I’ve got [something analogous to] a spirit, maybe they don’t want that. But just give them something that makes them feel like they’re having a great time.
We’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible in this space.
Are you considering making products for specific markets?
I would love to. In a way I think we need to. I’d like to diversify and localise where we produce and have a bit more agility.
It went from me in my kitchen to 73 people globally now in three offices. Everything’s gone so fast. We’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible in this space. Some of that is about ingredients and markets, some of that is about drinks and products and technology and techniques. Some of that is about what we’re doing at my farm, building this amazing plant library and laboratory.
Can you tell us more about that?
We’ve been farming for 320 years as a family in Lincolnshire and are still farming there today. We’re developing and restoring this 200-year-old grain farm [called Beasley] that will house a cathedral to the non-alcoholic category. It will be the home for Æcorn, for Seedlip, for anything else that we create. It’s not open to the public but hopefully will be next spring.
And how do you see the non-alcoholic category playing out over the next few years? Will the category continue to segment further into non-alcoholic rums, gins, vermouths, etc?
I see two forces at work. There are brands like Seedlip and Everleaf and Æcorn which aren’t about mimicry and imitation and less than. Then there’s the other school of thought – less than, compromise, imitation, copycats. If you take out the thing that makes it the thing, it cannot be the thing. It can’t be a rum or whisky, it just can’t. So why try? Use the opportunity and freedom to expand.
I hope there’s more of the positive side, because the category should have a long and sustainable future.