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A Booze-Free Bar Crawl with Seedlip Ben

We go out for a night off the sauce with the founder of non-alcoholic spirit Seedlip.

One year and four months ago I met a tired and uncertain man who had been sat up till 4am hand labeling bottles on his kitchen floor, about to launch the world’s first non-alcoholic distilled spirit. Back then it was a huge unknown that could have easily flopped.

But, of course, it didn’t. Seedlip did better than anyone could have predicted, so well in fact that when I call Ben to see if we can organise another catch up there is a genuine choice of which Michelin-starred restaurant we could pick to enjoy a Seedlip and tonic.

In the end, we go on a five-stop bar crawl around some of London’s most prestigious venues, all stocking his product. There are champagne-like cocktails, Martinis with vinegar shrubs and warming punches on a terrace. All serious drinks that pack a flavourful punch. Not one drop of alcohol the whole evening.

We meet at the month-long pop-up Seedlip Terrace at Harvey Nics in Knightsbridge. Although it’s only been a year I’m struggling to remember what Ben looks like – he’s had so much success that I begin to imagine he’s infinitely more American, with a big, cheesy grin. Luckily he finds me first and, thankfully, hasn’t turned an oompa-loompa shade of orange or installed a new set of pearly whites. Instead Ben is best described as unassuming, dressed in autumnal shades of green and brown with his unruly hair tucked away beneath a flat cap.

It’s a miserable January day and the rain has to yet to make its mind up as to whether or not it feels like drenching us, but luckily the verdant terrace is under cover, and we find a dry corner to decamp and order a Seedlip Raspberry Martini.

“2016 feels like the year that lapsed, that we had to get out the way. We started it as a tiny operation and now have an 11-strong team of employees. From those first four months of hell, hand labeling on the kitchen floor, Seedlip now has a sales team, ambassadors and it’s already broken international borders – we’re in LA and are looking for a PR agency to get into New York,” Ben tells me.

The success story is truly staggering, and the terrace we’re sat on is evidential proof of how just how big that gap in the market was. Most spirit brands in their first year could only dream of having such exposure. Take away the alcohol, and, it turns out, you’ve got something the world wants to hear about.

Which makes me wonder – has no one yet brought out a rival product?

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“Seedlip is still the only one,” says Ben. “I’ve not even heard whispers or rumours of another but there is a lot of size in this opportunity and room for more. I think we’ve only got perhaps another nine months till someone brings another product out.”

I’m more optimistic, however, and would comfortably give Seedlip even longer to have complete market domination. Because before Ben, no one was truly taking non-alcoholic drinks seriously and certainly no one felt good about ordering them. Who wants to sip on a can of coke while their friends lap up Gin Martinis and Champagne Cocktails?

“Because it sits on the backbar alongside your vodkas, gins and tequila, it’s the same experience ordering a Seedlip drink as every other cocktail. Your bartender doesn’t have to reach down for the juices, instead the exact same ritual is happening before you, from the jigger to the glass. Seedlip and tonic, it sounds the same, and that is psychologically important to have the same level of effort put into your drinks to have a good time,” explains Ben.

Our Seedlip Raspberry Martini is quickly winning me over. Rather than a light, fruity flavour, the drinks uses a raspberry shrub made with vinegar, giving it a tart, puckering mouthfeel with loads of herbaceous botanicals behind it. I have to pinch myself to remember I’m not drinking.

When I first covered Seedlip, the liquid certainly impressed me but I had only ever tried it neat. For me, back then, it had all the flavour of a botanical spirit but was missing that thicker, oily texture and bite that booze has. Having now tried it in a cocktail, where the shrub gave plenty of body, there truly is no difference. Apart from the fact I haven’t started to slur.

“We’re in 40 Michelin-starred restaurants and over 200 UK venues now,” says Ben, with an understandable tone of incredulity. “We’ve targeted key influential accounts, who are already trying to champion great drinking. 2017 will be about growing and maintaining that status. We’ll also respond to the demand that we get – we don’t want to stay tight in zone one, after all there are a lot of great bars and hotels all around the world.”

With that sentence, the last drop of my Martini has vanished and we’re ready to move onto The Fount Bar in Selfridges.

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As we meander through the hoards of wealthy weekday shoppers, Ben recalls his first deliveries to Selfridges in his car, marching through the store with his precious first bottles. “They’re great with start-ups,” he tells me. In fact Selfridges sold the first 1000 bottles of Seedlip in just three weeks.

The bar we’ve come to drink at is in the accessories department, surrounded by shiny new Chanel bags and beautiful YSL scarfs. Perched at the fourteen-seat bar we’re surrounded by ladies who look as if they lunch exuberantly and often. Not that they’re overweight mind, but if you’re sipping champagne as a break between buying luxury goods… well it’s not everyone’s life is it? But that’s the mood – champagne, cocktails and nibbles.

Drinks here are curated by Ryan Chetiyawardana, the man behind Mr Lyan, and another of Seedlip’s long-term supporters. We order two Seedlip Crystals, made with sparkling Seedlip, clarified peach, lime blossom and vanilla but are also pressured into giving another of the non-alcoholic cocktails a go when our charming bartender says we’ve chosen wrong. (Had he have known he was serving the creator of Seedlip, I imagine he might not have been so keen to say there was a better option.)

Despite the recommendation, Seedlip Crystal won by a mile. It’s light, refreshing, sweetened by the vanilla, given body by the peach and dried out by the sparkling Seedlip. Served in a flute we look no more auspicious than the champagne guzzlers surrounding us (in fact… we look much less auspicious).

In this polished, bright white marble environment Seedlip looks at home, with its beautiful bottle and copper top, seeming at ease with luxury. Yet on the terrace, which was grassy, wooden and draped in forest hues, Seedlip looked just as at ease with nature. I’m starting to understand the versatility of the product more and more.

“Brands you buy say something about you,” says Ben. “Whether it’s whisky, a car or what you drink when you’re not drinking. What’s been interesting has been seeing the social from people at home, making themselves Seedlip and tonic, and realising they’ve bothered with the garnish – whether it’s the grapefruit twist for Seedlip Spice or the cucumber ribbon with Seedlip Garden. It’s quite cool because I know they wouldn’t do that for a lime and soda.”

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From The Fount we travel south across the river to Dandelyan, discussing in the cab Ben’s relationship within the drinks industry – a community built on booze and late nights. Somehow he seems already a part of it, and nothing shows this more than walking into Dandelyan, currently ranked third best bar in the world, and seeing each member of staff rush up to greet him. This is a pretty slick entrance for even the booziest Londoner, let alone a teetotaller who lives in the countryside. Maybe I’ve been doing it all wrong?

As soon as we’re settled at the bar Aidan Bowie, the UK’s current World Class Bartender, presents us with miniature coupettes filled with what looks like sparkling wine. It’s a little welcome drink for friends which I’ve had here before, but this time we’re not drinking. Oh dear, how embarrassing I think. Poor Aidan doesn’t realise Ben won’t drink this. I’ll have to drink them both (hurrah, booze!) But then, and rather shockingly, Ben reaches for his drink and takes a trusting sip.

It is, of course, non-alcoholic. A little concoction Aidan has whipped up using sparkling Seedlip and a shrub, which looks exactly like the typical welcoming sparkling wine coupette. Good show.

We order Wild Things, a combination of Seedlip, ylang ylang and Dandelyan’s own herbal tonic, which they poetically say has all of the bark but none of the bite. I’ll simply say it’s outrageously delicious. Long, spiced and flavourful, I think I’m beginning to get a placebo effect (despite the fact I know it’s non-alcoholic) and the drink immediately relaxes me, washing away that 5 o’clock craving for gin.

It’s at Dandelyan that Ben shows me his copy of The Art of Distillation, by John French published in 1664. His copy is truly that old and it’s quite humbling to be shown this ancient text whose rediscovery brought about Seedlip. The brand has really fit into the foodie scene – focused as it is on the savoury, fresh ingredients and great produce. And while normally soft drinks struggle to pair with food, at Launceston Place, for January, Ben has created a whole Seedlip pairing menu to five courses of Michelin-starred food.

“We’re trying to build non-alcoholic world which isn’t mocktails and we’re spoilt because we have all the history of flavour to work with and yet no idea what works and what doesn’t when it comes to this new genre,” says Ben.

Having just released their second flavour, Seedlip Garden - 2017 will be all about the pea. Seedlip is even making an appearance at a pea festival (as well as more established destinations such as Wilderness and Port Elliot).

“This year we’re going to own the pea,” says Ben, rather excitedly.

This catch up isn’t just a friendly bar crawl though, I’ve wanted to find out exactly what’s been invested into Seedlip for some time. Three ‘cocktails’ in and I figure it’s about time to ask.

“It’s still mine,” says Ben. “Diageo invested a 20% minority share hold, because they believed in the product, but equally they can’t exactly help us, tell us what our growth should be, or offer predictions. They know where a vodka brand should be positioning itself a year in, but they can’t tell us the same. But they know the world is moving and they want to invest in longevity and believe in good drinks no matter what.”

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Our time at Dandelyan is up (not before everyone has said goodbye to Ben though, it’s like a room full of his best pals), and we’re on the way to Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair, where, at the Donovan Bar, another ardent Seedlip supporter has been promoting the drinks with a special January menu. As we dash from the hotel to find a taxi London decides snow is in order and we have a frost-bitten journey across the river.

Inside this luxe hotel bar, and now that’s it’s past 5pm, couples are sipping Martinis in cosy corners and groups of pre-diners are struggling not to binge on the free olives. The dedicated Seedlip menu is beautifully presented in the front of the drinks list and I opt for a light, floral drink while Ben flips to the back and places his usual order of a Seedlip Martini with olive brine. See, I knew he’d turned a little bit American.

“I feel like there’s a place for it now,” says Ben (about Seedlip, not the Dirty Martini). “Putting a team in feels like I’m doing the things that I can for the brand – marketing, telling the story. I would give it away for free without my sales team, I’m just really glad when someone likes it. Don’t give me commercial opportunities.”

Just nine months ago, Ben says he couldn’t have sat down for an afternoon with me. Life was that manic. I leave it to our last venue though, another Seedlip terrace, this time in The Bloomsbury Club, to ask whether he’d do it all again.

By this time, we’re clutching Seedlip Punches - it’s the end of a long day and Ben truly doesn’t have an answer. Launching Seedlip has been a truly difficult journey and yet it’s been so well received I have to wonder what it’s like for all those who have a go at this and fail. At least Ben can look around as say, that year, 2016, was worth it.

In another year, and when we hopefully do this all over again, Seedlip will have no doubt seen in the world’s first non-alcoholic cocktail competition and probably added another flavour to the portfolio. But that’s for us to find out. By that stage, while everyone around me was just getting started, I felt ready to call it a night, after all there’s little option to call in the next day and say you went pretty heavy on the Seedlip last night.

The last time I wrote about Seedlip, I ended my story by saying it was the most innovative product of 2015, and at the very least it had started a conversation about the non-alcoholic alternative and applying the same care and craft to ALL drinks that bars churn out. Which is something worth raising a glass to - whether you're teetotaler, an occasional imbiber or a cocktail enthusiast.

This time I’ll simply say - five bars, five drinks and one very sober writer. The stuff of magic then.