Seeds of change

13 November, 2017


It was a trial and error process until he eventually, with help, found the Seedlip formula. In the meantime, Branson needed to find out whether a non-alcoholic spirit was market-viable. But he has instinct. “If you’re not drinking, the options are really poor – one-dimensional, fruity, sweet and unsophisticated. Soft drinks are under pressure because of sugar; alcohol is under pressure too – we’re drinking less but better. But I love the world of bars and hospitality. So if you’re not drinking what do you drink?” Whether he knew it or not at the time, Branson’s musings had led to the brand’s slogan: What to Drink When You’re Not Drinking’.

“Quite quickly I realised I had to choose between it and my agency,” says Branson. ‘It’ became Seedlip, but for a man who had helped name brands for so many start-ups, this one had to be perfect. “It took me three months to find the name. I wanted to go down a botanical or Latin path, but nothing stuck, nothing was personal. When I went home to see my grandmother I asked her about what it was like growing up on the farm. She said there were no machines around and most things were done by hand. She would use baskets called seedlips to sow seeds from. It was the perfect fit – that’s what we’re doing, taking things from seeds to lip.”

Branson poured his life savings into the brand. “I went for it lock stock – I even got a tattoo of the crest on my arm and that crest was another family collaboration.” His dad’s design agency took on the branding in exchange for a stake in the business. While the long-term plan was to create the product on the farm using his family produce, for the launch Branson needed a tried-and-tested distiller. He found one in Germany, who announced Seedlip was “a pretty fucking ridiculous idea” but promised to make it if Branson headed out to Germany to help. The result was “neutral grain spirit and water, with no fermentation, using different boiling points of water and alcohol to remove the small amount of alcohol”. The taste profile would then be shaped by wood distillate, spices and citrus. “I wanted something that was earthy and aromatic and just six ingredients – more than a soft drink but fewer than most gins – to be able to celebrate each one.”

Taste tests went well – top bartenders and buyers seemed to like it – and by late 2015, Seedlip was ready to debut. Selfridges in London took an exclusivity deal and all 1,000 bottles of the first batch sold out in three weeks. “I had forecast five months and it takes six weeks to produce. It was suddenly a crisis of people wanting it and not being able to get it. It was stressful.” Still labelling the bottles himself, Branson finally produced another 1,000-bottle batch “It went in three days.” The next batch? “Thirty minutes.”

Branson needed two things – investment and people. He hired his first member of staff and met with Diageo’s Distill Ventures, which in 2016 was announced as a partner. A year and a half later Seedlip employees 29 people and has year-to-year growth of 1,083%. The marketing strategy has evolved from just London to Australia and the US, and another nine top cocktail cities – he’s gone after the influencers at the top end of the business. Seedlip Garden followed up the original Spice and now a dark spirit Seedlip is in development. There’s just once piece of the puzzle to put in place – the brand’s own distillery will be completed in spring 2018. “We’ve proven there’s something there, now it’s about deepening what we’re doing and bringing the brand home.” Home, of course, is the family farm.

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Nick Strangeway

Bar food's blurred lines

Once upon a time pubs and bars were somewhere you went with the sole purpose of getting pissed and there wasn’t a knife and fork in sight, just a packet of dry roasted nuts.