Seedlip founder Ben Branson on the budding NoLo drinks scene
Food & Drink
Seedlip is a pioneer in the flourishing ‘NoLo’ movement – that is the zero and low-alcohol beverage scene ruffling the traditional drinks industry. Founded in 2015 by Ben Branson – a budding botanist with a background in drinks branding – its complex flavours and refined design has made the company a benchmark within this market. Recently Seedlip added the Æcorn Drinks sister brand to its portfolio, and with the help of the majority stakeholder Diageo, it is about to expand further. We spoke with Branson to get a feel for the promising NoLo drinks landscape.
Spinach: There seems to be a growing NoLo scene around the world. In the UK alone there are some 70 such labels and the number is reportedly expected to double in the next year. You’ve been in a position to observe changing consumer behavior.
Branson: It is still a small industry, but there is a definite awareness of alcohol consumption and a growing appetite for non-alcoholic drinks as well as those with lower alcohol content. Health and fitness are driving the over-30s who are generally shifting their behaviour and moderating their alcohol intake. The younger generation – late teens and twenties – have made it their priority to live a no-and low-alcohol lifestyle. They all seem concerned with how things are made and want to know the ingredients involved and what happens at every stage. This consumer is generally really brand aware and expects a certain degree of transparency from us.
Spinach: You caught the zeitgeist in 2017 when you started Seedlip. What made you want to begin a brand focused on distilled non-alcoholic drinks?
Branson: When the idea started around 2015, there were so few choices for non-alcoholic adult drinks in pubs and bars other than cordials and sweet mixes. And since I don’t drink alcohol, it always felt like a compromise. So, I started off casually experimenting with my small still – distilling anything from grass to chilies. Then I decided to give Seedlip a go.
Spinach: Branding seems integral to what you’ve achieved. The Seedlip design – from the label to the memorable illustrations and the whole narrative you’ve created – evokes the spirit of high-end alcoholic products. Was re-creating the glamour, the sense of occasion, the theatre of drinking an essential component to the brand?
Branson: Yes, much of drinking is about the psychological aspect. It is about walking into a bar and ordering a cocktail, seeing the bottle design and the graphics, watching the bartender at work, the equipment, and glass-wear. Every style item is important, and we don’t want to offer anything less.
Spinach: Your products – the original Spice 94, Garden 108, and the citrussy Grove 42 – have complex botanicals compositions and mature flavours – all of which appear magically to come alive with tonic water and the right garnish. How challenging was refining the production process?
Branson: We knew from the start that the spirit needed to be a distilled non-alcoholic beverage, which is tricky in that you don’t have the alcohol or the sugar to help with preservation. We don’t add any after-flavours either, so we get the most out of every ingredient we use by individually macerating and distilling in each stage.
Spinach: How did you envisage spirits which, combined with mixers, would provide a similar sensory satisfaction to their alcoholic siblings? After all, the spirits themselves have so little taste without mixers.
Branson: The problem is that sugar and alcohol are the best carriers of flavour. So either you add syrup and balance that with acidity, or you add bubbles and the carbonation brings through the aromas. This is why the tonic wakes up the Seedlip flavour profile and brings the aromas alive.
Spinach: Why make Æcorn a separate brand to Seedlip and with such a different visual identity?
Branson: The two are very different. Æcorn is an aperitif brand and the idea from the start was around making an English vermouth. We still need to educate people on non-alcoholic drinks and it, therefore, makes sense to keep the two apart.
Spinach: One of Seedlip’s recent coups is the ready-made NOgroni and recreating the flavours and the romance without the alcohol content. Having published The Life Negroni, a book dedicated entirely to the cocktail, it somehow makes sense to reinvent this classic drink since its charm lies with a combination of the alcohol and all the other components – the narrative, the history and lifestyle, and the sense of glamour and nostalgia it evokes.
Branson: I completely agree, it goes back to that sense of occasion we discussed. The NOgroni idea came about in 2017 when we got invited to the bar of the year awards and were given a cocktail booth and needed to make more drinks to show the potential of Seedlip. So, we started experimenting with making a no-alcohol Negroni and it was a hit with bartenders, which is why we then created this ready-made NOgroni cocktail. It is a real hero for us.
Spinach: Does this mean you will give a similar Seedlip treatment to other cocktails, including perhaps the ultimate: the Martini?
Branson: We haven’t ruled out the idea. In the meantime, to make one at home, try mixing Æcorn Dry with Seedlip Garden on ice, then add a touch of olive brine for a MartiNO – a drink close to a Martini.
Spinach: You seem to have a strong ecological focus, experimenting with zero-waste products such as a gift package composed of biomass and mycelium. How important is sustainability to your brand?
Branson: The climate emergency is a big factor in how we operate and with our future development. We want to use natural components where possible and cut waste as much as we can.
Spinach: Seedlip has caused a buzz from the start. Famously your first batch sold out in Selfridges in just three weeks – a third of which vanished from the shelves in the first 30 minutes. How do you see the company evolving from here?
Branson: We sell in 35 countries and in 20 states in the US, and we hope to explore the American market with Æcorn. But on a more general level, it would be good to educate people on non-alcoholic drinks. If you take a look at our bottles, we don’t lead with the words ‘no-alcohol’ on the label– that comes second in our branding. This should not be the sole reason you buy Seedlip. I would really like to see ‘no-drinking’ becoming normal, rather than something you necessarily need to talk about.
Images from top: Ben Branson © Brian Whar; Seedlip range, zero-waste packaging, MartiNO © Rob Lawson. See why brands – from winemakers to distillers and brewers – are observing the new trend for natural and lower-alcoholic products here.
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