• David Gluckman: why Seedlip is the Emperor’s New Clothes

    Has a non-alcoholic drinks brand made more of a stir or an impact on the traditional drinks industry than Seedlip, famously the first non-alcoholic spirit? What started out as the ultimate in craft products, developed and created by Ben Branson, using herbal remedies and distillation techniques that date back to the mid-16th century, it has now become very much part of the mainstream following its tie-up with Diageo and news a whole raft of Seedlip non-alcohol products are to be developed. But is it any good? Former drinks inventor, David Gluckman, bought himself two bottles and tested them on both himself and his friends. To say he was disappointed is a bit of an understatement.

    Has a non-alcoholic drinks brand made more of a stir or an impact on the traditional drinks industry than Seedlip, famously the first non-alcoholic spirit? What started out as the ultimate in craft products, developed and created by Ben Branson, using herbal remedies and distillation techniques that date back to the mid-16th century, it has now become very much part of the mainstream following its tie-up with Diageo and news a whole raft of Seedlip non-alcohol products are to be developed. But is it any good? Former drinks inventor, David Gluckman, bought himself two bottles and tested them on both himself and his friends. To say he was disappointed is a bit of an understatement.

    mm By January 22, 2018

    The inspiration for Seedlip creator, Ben Branson, was to create a product people could enjoy when they were not drinking. What he invented has become seen as the poster brand of the burgeoning non-alcoholic drinks category, but does the drink itself deserve all the attention? The jury is well and truly out for David Gluckman.

    Seedlip can claim a hertage in distilling that goes back to the 1650s

    David Gluckman is well placed to assess whether a new drinks brand has the credentials to make it. As a former brand development consultant to Diageo he was involved in helping to create many household drinks, including Tanqueray Ten, Sheridan’s and Purdey’s.  He even had a go at developing a ‘sophisticated non-alcoholic drink’ himself with the brand Aqua Libra in the mid to late 1980’s, which had a “full, distinctive taste that really polarised opinions,” he recalls.

    He has even depicted his life as a brand creator in a new book, That Sh*t Will Never Sell. Which makes his assessment of Seedlip a fascinating read.

    On paper Seedlip can’t do anything wrong. It is the go to non-alcoholic spirits brand in the world, craved and loved by bartenders the world over – and can now boast over 3,000 listings in top bars and restaurants globally. Founder Ben Branson’s team has grown from just him and a desk of drawings to an international team of over 40 with news last week that Claire Smith-Warner, former head of spirit creation at LVMH Moët Hennessy, has joined to help widen the brand’s portfolio with more non-alcoholic drinks.

    Seedlip founder Ben Branson with Claire-Smith Warner who has just joined from LVMH.

    Seedlip is arguably the success story of the craft spirits industry since its initial launch in Selfridges in 2015. It also has the guidance and financial support of Diageo’s Distill Ventures initiative, set up to help start-ups and drinks entrepreneurs. Credit has to go to Diageo for how it quickly recognised the significance and potential of Seedlip in bringing credibility and real brand strength to the increasingly important and influential non-alcoholic drinks category.

    It is also sticking its neck out and putting the “Diageo” name, however well it is watered down by using its Distill Ventures arm, behind a super craft product in such an influential category as non-alcoholic drinks.

    But for Gluckman it is all very well having a great concept, a cool on-trend brand, but can it succeed in the long term if the actual quality, drinkability and price of the product does not stack up. Here’s his take on what Seedlip is actually like to drink.


    David Gluckman gives his verdict on Seedlip…

    Before Christmas I spent £56 on two bottles of flavoured water. Never again. I spent nearly 50 years working in the drinks business. I worked for IDV/Diageo for most of that time. My brands ranged from Baileys to Tanqueray Ten with whiskies, vodkas and even non-alcoholic drinks in between.

    I always believed in the primacy of the product. The stuff that goes into the bottle. If you tried hard enough you could even produce a better vodka – and by law vodka has to be colourless, odourless and flavourless. (We did it twice with SmirnoffBlack and Ciroc.)

    And no matter what people say about a product – distilled five times, ancient recipe, filtered through satin, blended by monks – it all comes down to how it tastes. The rest is just hype.

    And then, before Christmas, I came across Seedlip. I had been barraged with all this congratulatory stuff about it in foodie magazines and social media. I saw that it was in Tesco and John Lewis and even Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant.  I had to give it a go.

    Seedlip has caught the imagination of Heston Blumenthal who has listed it at his influential Fat Duck restaurant

    Being a new brand man, I can’t say I was knocked out by the name. I know it means a ‘sower’s basket’ and has authentic rural significance – but to me a seed lip sounds a bit like a cold sore. Not a great ‘call’ in a bar.

    Putting that aside, I then looked at the bottle and two words really stood out: ‘distilled’ and ‘botanical’. I know that Seedlip uses the broadest understanding of ‘distilled’ and uses the word as a seventeenth century apothecary would, but I think most people would associate it with alcohol production. Similarly, they can get away with using the word ‘botanical’ – i.e. it is derived from plants – but in this context most people would associate it with gin.

    I wonder how many people bought it by mistake during the Christmas rush. An expensive bottle with the word ‘botanical’ writ large, it could have been a premium gin.

    How much? 

    Seedlip is made from herbs and botanicals inspired by the farm where Ben Branson grew up

    And then I saw the price. A ‘shot’ in a bar cost me £4.50. More than vodka or gin or standard whisky. And then I Googled it and saw that a 70cl bottle sold for £28 on Amazon.

    Seedlip has no alcohol so it doesn’t pay the excise duty that goes on a 70cl bottle of spirits.

    By now I am expecting something really special. I ordered a shot – I had to taste it. I resisted the barman’s suggestion that I mix it with tonic. I wanted to find out exactly what I was paying for.

    What was I expecting? Distilled and botanical indicated an intense flavour hit with lots of intriguing complexity. And the price reinforced those expectations.  It had to be special.

    I was amazed. It was truly awful. Insipid, bland, nondescript. To me it was flavoured water – and weakly flavoured at that. My taste buds had to stand on tip-toe to get the tiniest semblance of satisfaction. But no dice.

    Tried and tested 

    But my opinion was based on a single shot. To give the respect any new product was due, I went on to Amazon and ordered two bottles of Seedlip: the original, called ‘Garden’ and what they call ‘Spice’. Cost me £56.

    I tried them every which way and tested them on my friends. Some were drinkers who understood the rationale. Others had given up drink and were crying out for a decent substitute.

    Not a single person liked them. It was a real case of the emperor arrogantly flaunting his new clothes. ‘Garden’ was just watery. And ‘Spice’ reminded them of dental mouthwash.

    Seedlip has become the go to brand for style bars looking to serve non-alcoholic cocktails

    Then I saw how Seedlip has become the base in a lot of award-winning cocktails. Not sure how that works. Would you be able to taste Seedlip mixed in with a variety of other ingredients?

    I looked at the Seedlip website and read about the recipe based on the ancient art of distilling and the honest bucolic family provenance. But if all that hype doesn’t lead to a decent product, forget it.

    I gather there’s a big marketing and PR spend behind Seedlip which has clearly contributed to its widespread and growing acceptance. But when are people going to figure it out? It seems to be very profitable and that’s what may be funding the campaign.

    On the plus side…

    As a brand developer I am forced to look at the positive side. With all that backing, Seedlip may be creating a market. And to succeed, markets need competition.

    If I were Coke, Pepsi or Fever-Tree I’d be following Seedlip’s progress with interest. And then I’d emerge with a superior product. Shouldn’t be hard.

    To me, Seedlip’s utter blandness, its lack of character and its ridiculous price makes it a sitting duck.

    Being a bit of a crossword freak, I looked at anagrams for Seedlip. Only one emerged. It was ‘spieled’. To ‘spiel’ means ‘to talk glibly, to tell the tale’. Enough said?

    • You can read more of Gluckman’s views on drinks brands and what works in his whirlwind tour down the back bar in That Sh*t Will Never Sell.
      • Jean-Paul Nageri
      • August 15, 2018

      David Gluckman is an interesting fellow, Seedlip is never meant to be taken on its own, but paired with some other drink e.g tonics, soda water, etc. It wouldn’t be fair to make the comparison knowing that 🙂 But in the true sense, Mr. Gluckman is right, there’s room for an innovation that can be taken directly which would definitely blow Seedlip out of the way, for this is normally what a consumer would want. I mean what if I don’t want to mix it with a tonic scenario….

      • Industries: Pr
        • Nicholas Dunham
        • September 10, 2018

        I’m not sure. Their website is pretty clear that it can be enjoyed on its own. Furthermore, if it’s as weak as Mr Gluckman says, it would be even less detectable mixed with other elements.

        Where I see some disagreement between Seedlip and this article is the issue of taxes: Gluckman says they pay no taxes because there’s no alcohol. In contrast, their website states that they pay tax on the neutral grain alcohol used for extraction (later distilled out). I’d like to know what’s true there.

        • Industries: Other
      • zack
      • September 2, 2018

      yeah this drink completely sucks. it tastes like water with a tiny splash of vinegar and an absolute drop of, oh idk, “essence of pea”? mixing it with tonic and peas (as per the suggestion on the bottle) doesn’t actually taste very different than drinking tonic and peas on its own. very boring.

      • Industries: Other
      • Adam
      • September 15, 2018

      I just bought this and brought it around to a friend’s house who doesn’t drink much. I honestly really wanted to like it, like an up-market elderflower? We poured out a “double” and mixed with soda, and i bate to say it couldn’t taste a thing. We tried another shot, another, then poured a slug in and couldn’t taste it. I then drank it “Nest” expecting to wince and was blown away how weak it was. Drinking it neat it still barely transmits it’s taste.

      I love the concept, beautiful packaging, but will they or someone else please turn up the volume x10? I feel absolutely ripped off.

      • Industries: Other
      • Donald
      • October 22, 2018

      Well that completely blows my optimism!
      Unless these people are devious undercover agents for Johnnie Walker et al, this inordinately expensive stuff is not the solution (sic) I’d anticipated.

      • Industries: Other
      • BooglaooShrimp
      • November 6, 2018

      Anyone who lists the glycerine-riddled Ciroc as an “achievement” doesn’t really need to be listened to I’m afraid.

      • Industries: Buyer Retailer
      • Audrey Stamp
      • November 8, 2018

      I gave up alcohol in July. My first taste of seedlip was disappointing as I was expecting the hit that you get from alcohol. But it has really grown on me and now I love it and can really taste the flavours. I love it paired with Fever Tree Elderflower tonic.

      • Industries: Buyer Retailer
      • Werner Hauf
      • November 10, 2018

      I agree that it is a complete and utter waste of money, I maar still angry with myself for falling
      for it!
      It is disgusting hoe much they charge for thia shite, I’d rather have tap water which had more flavour!

      • Industries: Other
      • Marie S.
      • November 23, 2018

      Hmm. A very negative review of a non-alcoholic product on a web site that appears to be for those in the alcohol trade. Far be it from me to suggest any degree of bias!

      I’m quite prepared to believe that Seedlip are successful purveyors of new clothes for the emperor, but certainly not on the basis of this article.

      • Industries: Other
      1. mm
        • Peter Dean
        • January 9, 2019

        We are a website for the on-trade which I’m sure you are aware is not solely alcohol-based – the on-trade relies on all manner of non-alcoholic drinks whether it is bars, restaurants and hotels and we are totally supportive of non-alcoholic brands. The article is the personal opinion of David Gluckman who, as the inventor of one of the world’s most famous non-alcoholic brands, Aqua Libra is well placed to comment. Thanks for your interest.

        • Industries: Other
    1. Reply

      Unbelievably atrocious!!! Tasteless, thin, no flavour when added to tonic, except tonic and stupidly expensive. Kings new clothes is what I said before reading Gluckmans article. Cannot believe Diablo have been conned into this. I bought it for Christmas only because I got 20 quid off 3 but still wickedly overpriced!! Will not be perusing it further, tothe embarrassed to offer it to guests!!!

      • Industries: Buyer Operator/On-trade
      • Maggie Frost
      • December 25, 2018

      Total joke,found more flavour in the free cucumber water on most bars.
      Sampled all three,neat, tasteless .
      Expensive well packaged con.Don’t bother,sure the hype cannot maintain this product for long

      • Industries: Buyer Retailer
      • Erica
      • January 1, 2019

      Can anyone suggest something better? e.g. something I can make at my bar? I sometimes make ginger and chilli cordial and mix with limejuice and soda… but it always tastes better with a dash of bitters (not alcohol-free). What can I serve to people who really want NO alcohol?

      • Industries: Other
      • David Randall
      • January 7, 2019

      These comments are too cynical/dismissive. I tried it (original herbal garden) with club soda, ice and a twist of lime. A delicate and flavoursome drink worth savouring.

      • Industries: Buyer Retailer
      • Vanessa Scully
      • January 13, 2019

      I bought a bottle of Seedlip Aromatic because I was looking for something to replace gin and tonic after a day at work. Fixing a drink is not just about the drink, it is about the anticipation and the ritual. The right glass, the right balance, the look, the smell. I find that Seedlip allows me to have an experience which approximates the enjoyment I used to get from a gin and tonic. I would welcome other “high end” alternatives on the market, but at the moment this product fills a really important niche in what is Dry January (and maybe beyond) for me.

      • Industries: Other
      • Faz
      • January 15, 2019

      Bought some today to try, I really was disappointed when was taken off the market. It is severely over priced. It has a taste alright but a very unpleasant one! I would never purchase this product again.

      • Industries: Other
      • WW
      • January 20, 2019

      Got a bottle as an xmas present and really looked forward to trying it. Took it to a party with a mix of alcohol/non alcohol drinks – it panned! Dreadful stuff. The only way I can describe the taste is clove olive but without any of the actual pleasantness of the taste of clove. £28 a bottle – outrageous.

      • Industries: Other
      • Richard Hall
      • January 22, 2019

      Utterly without point whatsoever! Thought it’d be fun for dry Jan. Tried the citrus one – I’d rather have a slice of lemon in my tonic or even a squeeze of orange in there. Total waste of money

      • Industries: Other
      • Wedding caterer
      • January 22, 2019

      As someone who regularly caters for teetotal clients I really wanted this to be good – it tastes like cardomon flavour mouthwash, with an unsustainable price point- we found the fever tree flavoured tonic water was far more popular

      • Industries: Buyer Operator/On-trade
      • Wendy
      • January 27, 2019

      Seedlip has an extremely subtle taste. To me it was a like a weak solution of vinegar and water.

      • Industries: Other

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