Ben Branson on Seedlip and the modern apothecary
Ben Branson is on a mission to change the way the world drinks. He’s the founder and CEO of Seedlip—a nature company producing distilled, non-alcoholic spirits.
Whilst the business is only five years old, it’s seen tremendous growth and success; from having Selfridges and Waitrose among its retail clients, to being served in over 250 Michelin Star restaurants.
Branson is the perfect spokesperson for his Diageo-backed business—charismatic, quirky and a great storyteller. His tale has humble beginnings, and a personal fascination with nature, apothecaries and distilling; all running in his blood thanks to his upbringing on a Chiltern farm which has been in his family for 320 years.
His interests in biodiversity and herbs led him to discover that there are 50,000 edible plants in the world, many with distinctive names such as bladderwrack, maidenhair or shepherd's purse. It piqued his interest to expand the diversity of flavours available and to capture unique plant tastes through maceration and distilling processes.
It was on a night out in London, though, when he realised that his weekend pastime could become a business. Not drinking alcohol that particular evening, he was served a mocktail which was sweet, fruity, and as he describes it, ‘childish’. He spotted that the non-drinkers were a ripe market for high-quality, tasty, natural and non-alcoholic spirits.
Branson shares with me some of the key business moments, including when he started to work on Seedlip full time, selling their first 1000 bottles to Selfridges, and attending sales meetings armed simply with the bare product, without packaging or a supporting website.
As the business garnered instant attention and orders, Branson recalls being unhappy, even considering closing the company. He struggled to manage the high demand for the product and was overwhelmed with the publicity and attention he received—from his visit to Buckingham Palace, to a personal cocktail-making session with Kate Moss.
He knew that the business had to grow quickly, and that the timing was right. Two other factors also supported the business model. Firstly, consumers were becoming increasingly concerned with their health, wellbeing and performance—all of which could be affected by drinking alcohol. Secondly, consumers were starting to opt for more sustainable and natural choices when it came to food and drink.
As our conversation nears the end, we discuss Seedlip’s rapid growth and how it has to keep up the pace, with new competitors likely to enter the market at any time. That’s why Branson—supported by more than sixty team members—shows no sign of slowing down and has recently launched Æcorn Aperitifs, a new brand of non-alcoholic aperitifs.
As the second business launches, does he still find it hard to be an entrepreneur? No, he is more at ease now—or as much as you can be when running a young international business. He highlights how important it is to surround yourself with a great team of people who are specialists in their respective fields. He also admits that whilst at the start of the business every day was a challenge, he’s now on a more settled path to achieve his long-term goals.
In the meantime, he’s working with Sebastian Cox on building a laboratory, a botanical library and an experimental nursery in a 19th-century barn on his farm. After all, he’s a modern-day alchemist at heart.
Production and music by James Green