Ben Bran­son and the Seedlip Gar­den Tonic

SALT Magazine - - What’s Your Spirit Drink - TEXT WEETS GOH PHO­TOS SEEDLIP, CHOO HAO XIN

The cre­ator of the world’s first non-al­co­holic spirit, Seedlip, shares about his ob­ses­sion with peas, and his plans to bring non al­co­holic

drinks up to par.

It’s only our first meet­ing, but Ben Bran­son, 35, holds out what is pos­si­bly his most prized—and frag­ile— pos­ses­sion for me to han­dle. “Put on the gloves please”, he tells me, be­fore gin­gerly pulling out an an­cient­look­ing tome from a leather bag. It’s a 350-year-old copy of The Art of Dis­til­la­tion by John French, one of the first de­tailed books on dis­til­la­tion.

It’s the book that gave the tee­to­tal Bran­son the im­pe­tus to start Seedlip. While look­ing for in­gre­di­ents to grow on his fam­ily farm in North­ern Eng­land, Bran­son chanced upon a dig­i­tal copy of the book, which listed 200 in­gre­di­ents that the al­chemists/early chemists of the 17th cen­tury used. “They were dis­till­ing both al­co­holic, and non-al­co­holic medicines in the book, and the lat­ter was some­thing new to me.”

BE­GIN­NINGS

His cu­rios­ity piqued, Bran­son bought a small cop­per still and started play­ing around in his kitchen. Skip for­ward a few months, Bran­son would be served a “hor­ri­ble mock­tail” in a London bar—and that was when some­thing clicked. “I asked my­self why the world was so be­hind in terms of non-al­co­holic drinks. I knew that some­one else out there has prob­a­bly also been given some hor­ri­ble, sug­ary blend of fruit juices in a bar,” he shares.

From there, two other parts of Bran­son’s life came into play in cre­at­ing the non-al­co­holic spirit: his ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with drinks brands, and his love for na­ture and the great out­doors, hav­ing grown up in a fam­ily with over 300 years of farm­ing his­tory—the for­mer was in­stru­men­tal in cre­at­ing and mar­ket­ing a prod­uct that looked good on shelves, and had a re­lat­able story; while the lat­ter in­flu­enced Bran­son to use qual­ity, all-nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents.

DE­LI­CIOUS ALCHEMY

Since al­co­hol is the key to ex­tract­ing flavours and the preser­va­tion of tra­di­tional spir­its, Bran­son was pre­sented with some unique chal­lenges dur­ing the pro­duc­tion of Seedlip. To ex­tract flavour, he de­vel­oped a be­spoke mac­er­a­tion process us­ing plants, al­co­hol, and wa­ter at dif­fer­ent ra­tios, de­pend­ing on the botan­i­cal used. “To bring out the best qual­i­ties of each in­gre­di­ent like oak or hops, we steep each in­gre­di­ent sep­a­rately at dif­fer­ent ABVs, for dif­fer­ent amounts of time.” He re­veals.

Once the in­gre­di­ents have given their flavour to the sol­vent, the re­sult­ing “mash” is put into a cop­per still to un­dergo two dis­til­la­tions. The first, to re­move the al­co­hol (which is col­lected to be reused in other mac­er­a­tions), and the sec­ond, done at a higher tem­per­a­ture, to con­cen­trate the flavour. The re­sult is a crys­tal-clear liq­uid essence of a par­tic­u­lar in­gre­di­ent. Th­ese essences are then blended to achieve con­sis­tency across batches as in­gre­di­ents like peas, hops, and all­spice berries can dif­fer sea­son to sea­son. The en­tire process, from mac­er­a­tion to bot­tling, takes six weeks—many times longer com­pared to most al­co­holic white spir­its like gin or vodka.

The prod­uct’s sta­bil­ity is also ex­tremely im­por­tant, as Seedlip has no sugar or al­co­hol to pre­serve it. Even then, Bran­son didn’t want the spirit to be kept in a fridge. “Part of the al­co­hol-drink­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is the rit­ual of mak­ing or pour­ing a drink. You dis­play your spir­its on back bars, cock­tail trol­leys, or in your cab­i­net at home, and we wanted to make sure that Seedlip could sit proudly on the th­ese places, and re­main stable even though the bot­tles are con­tin­u­ally opened and closed,” he ex­plains.

BUILD­ING FLAVOUR

Smells trig­ger some of the strong­est mem­o­ries, and it’s some­thing Bran­son be­came acutely aware of after los­ing his sense of smell, and get­ting it back. “When I was 21, I tried to break up a fight at a party, and got pushed out of a win­dow. I had both head and back in­juries, and lost my sense of smell for about nine months. When my sense of smell, and there­fore sense of taste came back, it was very sen­si­tive,” shares Bran­son.

Hav­ing car­ried this rev­e­la­tion with him through­out the years, the first two vari­ants of Seedlip, Gar­den and Spice, nat­u­rally were flavour pro­files that re­minded Bran­son of his child­hood.

For Seedlip Spice, the flavours are built on Bran­son’s mem­ory of his fam­ily har­vest­ing corn and bar­ley. He paints a picture, say­ing “when you sit in the com­bine har­vester, the smell is musky and aro­matic as you’re moving the earth—I wanted to cap­ture that kind of smell”. Bran­son started from all­spice berries—which bring warm, rounded spice notes of cin­na­mon and nut­meg—and added an adult, tan­nic char­ac­ter from two dif­fer­ent tree barks: oak and cas­car­illa. For com­plex­ity, there is spicy, flo­ral car­damom; and zesty top notes of lemon and grape­fruit peels.

Seedlip Gar­den on the other hand, was to cap­ture Bran­son’s smell and mem­ory “of sum­mer, sit­ting in [their] fields as a kid, with grandpa, shelling and eat­ing peas”. Start­ing from the peas grown on his fam­ily’s farm, Bran­son worked to build depth and com­plex­ity around it. Flo­ral rose­mary, a “bit­ter pep­per­i­ness” from hops, and wet grass notes from hay, which is a mix of rye and al­falfa that they also pro­duce on the farm.

PEA LOVE

If the idea of us­ing peas to flavour a spirit sounds a touch crazy, that’s be­cause it prob­a­bly was, and might still be. Bran­son ad­mits that he’s “naive”, and cel­e­brates the fact that he’s not a sci­en­tist, nor has he owned a drinks com­pany be­fore.

“In fact, this has been my big­gest boon. I t means that I’m not lim­ited by any pre­con­ceived no­tions of what I can or can­not do. I con­stantly ask stupid ques­tions and try stupid things—like us­ing peas to flavour a spirit.” says Bran­son.

His cho­sen drink—Seedlip Gar­den with a dry tonic, gar­nished with a sugar snap pea bro­ken into half—is em­blem­atic of his no-lim­its ap­proach to the brand, and his love for peas. The drink’s sim­plic­ity means that

“Ul­ti­mately, when it comes to great cock­tail bars and great restau­rants, peo­ple are seek­ing flavour. They’re pay­ing for taste, and they want some­thing that tastes great. We be­lieve that can come whether there’s al­co­hol

or not,” ex­claims Bran­son.

any­one can repli­cate the drink at home, or or­der it from any bar that stocks Seedlip, mir­ror­ing the brand’s ethos of in­clu­sion, and mak­ing the drink­ing ex­pe­ri­ence eas­ily avail­able to tee­to­talers.

A SPIRIT BAR NONE

Seedlip started in Novem­ber 2015 in London, with just Bran­son dis­till­ing, la­belling, and de­liv­er­ing ev­ery­thing by hand, and has grown to a team of 65 peo­ple across eight coun­tries. They’ve been gar­ner­ing world­wide at­ten­tion, hav­ing worked with the World’s 50 Best Bars Awards to serve cock­tails to some of the most well-re­garded bar­tenders from around the world. For that, Bran­son spent 10 months work­ing on the NO­groni, an al­co­hol­free ne­groni with a base of Seedlip Spice. To re­place the ver­mouth and amaro, he cre­ated al­co­hol-free sub­sti­tutes with 22 in­gre­di­ents, in­clud­ing bit­ter Ital­ian syrups, var­i­ous tinc­tures and ex­tracts, worm­wood tea, and ver­jus. The re­sult­ing drink is com­plex, bit­ter yet sur­pris­ingly fruity, with a long, aro­matic fin­ish.

“We served 300 NO­gro­nis that night; it was pretty spe­cial. Es­pe­cially when you’ve got some­one like Erik Lor­incz (head bar­tender at The Savoy’s leg­endary Amer­i­can Bar, which won World’s Best Bar 2017) com­ing up to you and telling you that your drink is amaz­ing, and that he wants to serve it at The Savoy,” Bran­son shares.

He adds, “bar­tenders see a drink the way a chef sees a dish. It shouldn’t be worse just be­cause it’s veg­e­tar­ian, or whether it has gluten. You still want it to be amaz­ing, even though it’s made for some­one with di­etary re­stric­tions. Ba­si­cally want to be here for when you’re not drink­ing.”

THE (TEE)TO­TAL EX­PE­RI­ENCE

While some might scoff at the idea of an al­co­hol-free spirit (some com­mon re­frains in­clude “just don’t drink”, and “why?”), Bran­son ex­plains. “I love the world of al­co­hol.

I’ve spent my ca­reer work­ing on al­co­hol. I love to sit at the bar and watch a drink be­ing made, to check out what prod­ucts they have be­hind the bar. There are a lot of pas­sion­ate peo­ple in this in­dus­try, a lot of great sto­ries and char­ac­ters, and a lot of won­der­ful, craft prod­ucts—and non drinkers shouldn’t be ex­cluded from this.”

With Seedlip’s cur­rent lineup, Bran­son feels like he’s only scratch­ing the sur­face of pos­si­bil­i­ties. New flavour pro­files are in the pipe­line (he’s tight-lipped about an up­com­ing flavour, soon to be re­leased), while they’re also work­ing on cre­at­ing a dark spirit for the line. A hor­ti­cul­tural lab and nurs­ery has also been set up on Bran­son’s fam­ily farm to ex­plore new botan­i­cals that they can grow.

“Ul­ti­mately, when it comes to great cock­tail bars and great restau­rants, peo­ple are seek­ing flavour. They’re pay­ing for taste, and they want some­thing that tastes great. We be­lieve that can come whether there’s al­co­hol or not,” ex­claims Bran­son.

Soak in the cityscape Jeon­de­ung of Mar­rakesh,Tem­ple­cap­i­talin

In­cheon,ofMorocco.Korea

Seedlip is avail­able at var­i­ous places in­clud­ing Tem­ple Cel­lars, Tangs and The Proof Flat.

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