Ben Branson and the Seedlip Garden Tonic
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
Seedlip is available at various places including Temple Cellars, Tangs and The Proof Flat.