On the menu | Non-alcoholic cocktails
He’s part-apothecary and part-alchemist, with a penchant for a bit of taxidermy on the side, yet Ben Branson – the brains behind Seedlip drinks – is anything but peculiar. The man who spotted a demand for grown-up premium soft drinks promptly met it by reviving the ancient craft of distilling non-alcoholic spirits. Clever.
These are complex concoctions with natural botanical flavours – bark, spice and citrus peel, in the case of the aromatic Seedlip Spice 94, and leaf, herb and pea pods in the more spring-like, fresh-tasting Seedlip Garden 108 – and they appeal to gin lovers on a night off as well as to teetotallers.
Beautifully packaged, subtle and – crucially – dry, they have proved enormously successful in the UK since their launch two years ago, and are served in such award-winning bars and restaurants as Dandelyan, The Savoy and Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck. Branson has spent the past few months travelling to Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and right across the US to launch his healthy alternative drinks around the world.
But for Christmas he will be back in his 14th-century cottage near Amersham with his partner, Nadra (who is herself the creator of a healthy food brand, Kitchen & Soul), and their dogs, Poppy and Kiwi – although time off for Branson seems to mean an opportunity to experiment with ‘weird and wonderful ingredients’.
All through their house and garage is evidence of his flavour trials – copper mini-stills, glass test tubes, juicing and sous vide machines. Then there are Kilner jars labelled ‘fig shrub’ or ‘plum, bramble and chilli’, adding to the sense of a Victorian larder piled high with homemade drinks and preserves. Trolleys, shelves and even ladders hung from the walls groan with ingredients such as barley, dried peas and walnut husks, and the air is often steamily scented with boiling dried herbs and spices.
Branson’s mother farmed in Lincolnshire, as her family had done for over 300 years, and he grew up jumping around on tractors, the farm as his playground. His childhood gave him a lifelong passion for growing natural produce. ‘I’m more interested in farming than foraging,’ he says. Meanwhile, his father worked in brand design.
Branson was always a non-drinker. Out with Nadra in the evenings, he grew to dislike the confected, ‘crappy’ mocktails he was offered instead of wine with dinner. ‘It was around the time that Jamie Oliver starting to wage a war on sugar. I looked at all the sweet, fizzy soft drinks, and a penny just dropped.’ So he fused the two skills he’d inherited from his parents.
Like a spellbound magician’s apprentice, Branson has always been bewitched by distillation
After gaining experience in London in his father’s field, marketing such brands as Absolut vodka, Glenmorangie whisky and Innocent soft drinks, he devoted two years to perfecting his own natural-ingredient recipes, as well as the distinctive design for Seedlip – named after the baskets his family used to sow seeds by hand in the 17th century.
Those jarred peas, which are hand-picked from the family farm and dried to form the base of the original 108 spirit – 108 being the number of days it takes to sow, grow and harvest them, while Spice 94 references Columbus’s discovery of allspice in 1494 – inspired the latest of Branson’s many tattoos, ‘Peas’, inked just two weeks before we speak, spelled out on the fingers of his right hand.
Like a spellbound magician’s apprentice, Branson has always been bewitched by the process of distillation. ‘To take real ingredients from the field or garden, and capture it in a liquid that smells and tastes of the raw material – that enraptures me,’ he says.
He was further drawn in when he came across an ancient book on the internet. The Art of Distillation by Dr John French, ‘a physick’, was written in the mid-17th century and describes in detail how to distil non-alcoholic remedies, steaming off the alcohol and leaving behind the elixir of macerated natural products in water. Branson eventually bought an extremely rare copy printed in 1664, one of his most precious possessions.
Indeed, he’s quite a collector, squirreling away beautiful antique glasses, and owning a prized treasury of over 4,000 1940s Penguin Classics (‘another obsession of mine’). Then there are the stuffed birds and deer, some his own work, though Branson doesn’t go shooting – he sources animals that have died from natural causes. His taxidermy chimes, I think, with his distilling, both capturing the essence of something natural in permanent form.
Branson’s pair of Seedlip spirits, which are sugar-, sweetener- and calorie-free, are sometimes slightly astringent, mouth-cleansing and definitely ‘grown-up’, but not bitter or sour. Their flavours are gentle but pervasive, even topped up with tonic.
There may well be more releases: Branson is all set to look into ‘cold-smoking, loose-leaf tea and vinegar-based liqueurs’ over the Christmas holidays (his new cold-smoker has been added to the towers of kit in the garage) – as you do.
Meanwhile, for those who want a break from the booze, either over the next few heady party weeks or in a wholesome dry January, Branson’s cocktails – from the simple and zingy, with flavours of ginger and citrus, to the truly festive and a coffee-soused pick-me-up – will provide healthy inspiration.
Spice is Nice
- 50ml Seedlip Spice 94
- Fever Tree ginger ale, to top up
- Wide strip of orange zest, to garnish
The Espresso MartiNO
- 50ml Seedlip Spice 94
- 50ml Sandows Cold Brew Concentrate
- 15ml sugar syrup (equal parts hot water and caster sugar, heated until dissolved, then left to cool)
- 3 coffee beans
For the Red Nose Shrub (makes enough for approximately 5 servings)
- 1 punnet raspberries (about 250g)
- 10 thyme sprigs
- 250g caster sugar
- 250ml apple-cider vinegar
For the cold camomile tea (makes enough for 6-8 servings)
- 2 camomile teabags
- 15ml cherry cordial
- cranberry, to garnish
A Christmas Eve shrub to serve with a mince pie.MAKES
- 1 orange
- 2 tbsp maple syrup
- 50ml ginger juice
- 1 tsp loose-leaf lapsang souchong tea
- 1 tsp ground coffee
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- 100g caster sugar
- 100ml white-wine vinegar
- ice, to serve
- 50ml Seedlip Spice 94
- 10ml vanilla syrup
- Fever Tree soda water
- slice of green apple