A TRIP TO THE HIMALAYAS BROUGHT AN EPIPHANY FOR NATURE LOVER Stephen Sparrow, WRITES Leanne Mirandilla, AND A NOVEL IDEA FOR FUNDING THE BATTLE TO SAVE THE ENDANGERED SNOW LEOPARD
How a passion for nature conservation brought a premium vodka to life
Stephen sparrow has always had a strong love of nature. Like most of us, the Englishman fed his passion through travel; he even worked as a safari guide in East Africa during his holidays while attending law school. However, a life-changing discovery on a trip to the Himalayas switched him from passive nature lover to environmental activist; he returned home to found and run an organisation dedicated to conserving an endangered species, the snow leopard. When he struggled to find the funds necessary, he found the solution at the bottom of a bottle.
“I learnt about the existence of the snow leopard 10 years ago when I was travelling in the Himalayas,” Sparrow says. “I found out that there are only 5,000 left in the world living in Central Asian countries.” After returning to the UK, he established a British branch of the Us-based Snow Leopard Trust, which he found was doing amazing work, with staff in China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Pakistan implementing sustainable conservation programmes. But he faced a fundamental difficulty— lack of funds.
“I needed to find a way of funding the Snow Leopard Trust UK, and my piggy bank wasn’t that flush. I wasn’t going to last 10 seconds in Goldman Sachs. So how could I fund it?” The answer came from an unexpected place. “I had worked in the drinks industry, so I thought, how could I use my business skills to make some money?”
After starting his working life as a solicitor, Sparrow had switched gears and entered the world of lifestyle brands, working at Jaguar and then Allied Domecq, the producer of such mid-level brands as Beefeater gin, Malibu rum and Stolichnaya vodka. He hit on the idea of creating a spirits brand to solve the problem, but to
sustain a brand as well as raise funds for snow leopard conservation, Sparrow decided he needed to create a premium product.
“I came up with making a vodka from spelt grain, because spelt is the oldest grain on the planet,” he says. “It’s five times more expensive, but it’s the purest type of grain, which means you don’t need pesticides because the very thick sheath keeps off pests. That’s how you get this lovely taste.” Also, Snow Leopard Vodka is made in Poland, which boasts the longest history of vodka production. The water used in it is drawn from an artesian well in Lublin and charcoalfiltered to rid it of any impurities. The end result is an excellent vodka that possesses a fresh, floral nose, says Sparrow.
Fifteen per cent of proceeds from Snow Leopard Vodka, whose celebrity fans include Kate Moss, Mario Testino and Vivienne Westwood, goes to the Snow Leopard Trust. Since it was created in 2005, the vodka has helped fund numerous conservation projects, from eco-education camps for children to scientific research. But most of the money goes towards providing livestock insurance to poor, nomadic herders who live in snow leopard habitats. The herders present one of the biggest threats to the animals.
“When herders lose livestock to a carnivore attack,” Sparrow explains, “they put a trap down and kill the snow leopard in retribution. They do this to protect their livelihood.” The trust has worked to provide insurance to herders so they receive compensation for animals lost to snow leopards, thereby reducing the motivation to kill the predators.
Another programme involves training the women of herding communities to spin the fleeces of their livestock into yarn, rather than just sell the fleeces. Yarn fetches about three times as much money as a fleece. In return for the training, the communities promise to protect the snow leopards in the territories they share.
The vodka brand, which is now in Edrington’s luxury spirits portfolio, quickly became a hit and drew a celebrity following. Stella Mccartney frequently orders it for her parties, and it was the only spirit that Peter Phillips, the son of Britain’s Princess Anne, served at his wedding in 2008. Even Prince William has been photographed enjoying Snow Leopard. “If it’s good enough for Prince William, then I guess it’s good enough for most of us,” Sparrow says.
And it’s just been launched in Hong Kong, so order a bottle or 10 and savour the knowledge that you’re helping to save an endangered species with every sip.
on the prowl Only about 5,000 snow leopards are left in the wild
call of the wild Stephen Sparrow; Pink Panther cocktails made with Snow Leopard vodka; guests party hard at Snow Leopard’s launch in Hong Kong in August