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Non-alcoholic spirit brand Seedlip builds US sales

Seedlip, the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirits brand, is expanding its presence in the US while eyeing up expansion in major cities across the world.

Seedlip founder Ben Branson holding an original 18th century ‘seedlip’, an agricultural basket for sewing seeds

The drink, which was launched in October 2015 to solve the dilemma of ‘what-to-drink-when-you’re-not-drinking’, launched in the US earlier this year, and has already been listed in 75 accounts across the US, including The Aviary in Chicago, New York’s Eleven Madison Park, Pdf, Dead Rabbit and Atera, Los Angeles bars Walker Inn and Harvard & Stone and San Francisco’s The French Laundry and Atelier Crenn.

But the brand is eyeing up further expansion in the US, having recently taken on two US bar managers as Seedlip brand ambassadors.

“In London we started in the best restaurants, and we’ve taken a similar approach in the US,” Branson told db. 

Seedlip founder Ben Branson with garden designer Dr Catherine MacDonald at the Chelsea Flower Show (photo:db)

Last month the company scooped the Drinks Business Launch of the Year Award, with founder Ben Branson also taking the Young Achiever of the Year Award for his ballsy approach. This saw the company quadruple its production within a month of launching on the back of demand, and attract investment from Distill Ventures – a Diageo-backed company that helps fund innovation within the spirits sector, becoming the first non-alcoholic product invested in by Distell.

Branson pointed out that one advantage to the brand in the US is because as a non-alcoholic drink, it is not subject to the US’s complex and strict liquor licensing laws that make it a difficult export market for UK-produced craft spirits brands to crack.

“We are learning so much about the US market,” Branson said, pointing out that while you can’t sell liquor at a farmers market, Seedlip can be sold, while a number of other restrictions also do not apply.

“You can live in Florida, Tennessee, Chicago, Hawaii and buy a bottle of Seedlip from just one website – which you wouldn’t be able to do if it were an alcoholic spirit brand,” he told db. “So there is a hell of a lot of opportunities, and we’re learning what we can and can’t do.”

As a result, there are two distinct routes to market it is pursuing – the traditional alcoholic drinks route, which has seen Branson sign up with drinks distributor Southern Glaziers in California, and a non-alcoholic route that taps into the US demand for premium, speciality and fine food and beverages, where it is working with Seattle-based specialist fine food wholesaler Mikuni Wild Harvest.

Global ambition

But Branson is planning to expand further than the US and UK.

“We are going to Australia with the same process,” he added.

One of the advantage of the investment from the Diageo-backed Distill Venture lies in its experience in building brands, Branson points out, as well as in having investors that “understand the global community of bartenders and how trends works”.

This, he noted is the key to its strategy to establish the brand behind the bars in restaurants and drinking holes in all the major cities across the world, rather than concentrating on a more traditional country-by-country basis.

“They understand that a San Francisco bartender at the top of their game is seeing the same trends as one from London, or Paris – and that flows to the chefs and retailers, and broadly to the customer,” he argues. “Another investor would want us to concentrate on the UK,

“We are trying to grow a global premium brand so from that point of view, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo operates in the same was as one in London or Paris – and we want to light those fires now. The timing feels right, we have the belief to drive it and enough learning from the UK to put behind it.”

Talking about the success of the brand, Branson admitted it was “99% down to timing”.

“The timing was perfect – if we had launched two years earlier, it would have been too early, but with things like the sugar tax debate and the rise of craft spirits, it is like being in the slip-stream of a bigger force or trend”.

Turnover has hit £1m since the company launched, but although Branson is planning to release a third spirit next year, following the original Seedlip Spice 94 and the Seedlip Garden 108 flavour, along with limited edition seasonal line and a dark spirit, he said he wanted to avoid a big range that would “slow down the operation”.

In the UK, Seedlip is stocked by around 350 – 400 accounts across the on- and off-trade, including Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges, Berry Brothers & Rudd, Harrods, Bottle Apostle, cocktail bars including Dandelyan and The American Bar at The Savoy and more than 35 Michelin-starred restaurants including The Ledbury and The Fat Duck.

In addition to its double win at the Drinks Business Awards, the brand also scooped a gold award for its first garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, which was inspired heavily influenced by the 17th century treatise The Art of Distillation, that fist inspired Branson to create Seedlip.

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