A spirit for the dry season
Newly available in Canada, Seedlip is a distilled spirit flavoured with trendy botanicals. It's pricey, smooth, served in upscale restaurants – and completely non-alcoholic
Welcome to January, the driest month of the year. No, not because of rainfall levels or the liquid water content of snow. Because of reduced alcohol consumption.
Did you, like so many other well-intentioned goal setters, wake up on Jan. 1 and resolve to become a born-again teetotaller for, well, at least 30 days? And how long do you think that will last?
Perhaps until the night you stumble out of an overcrowded yoga class, green to the gills from all those blasted kale smoothies, and fall prey to the nearest bar stool? Well, if you're lucky, the pub of your potential undoing will be pouring Seedlip, the world's first distilled non-alcoholic spirit brand.
There are two intensely aromatic flavours of the smooth, botanical-based, copper-pot distillates: Seedlip Garden 108 (a green, grassy floral blend with top notes of sweet peas and hay) and Seedlip Spice 94 (a warm and citrusy spice blend with a long-lingering cardamom and all-spice berry finish). Created by Ben Branson, a former ad agency executive and gentleman farmer from the north of England, and launched there last year, it's now available online in Canada through Mikuni Wild Harvest, a fine-food wholesaler, at $52 for a 700-millilitre bottle.
Designed to mimic the versatility of a spirit base (without the alcohol burn or buzz) and solve the (now trademarked) dilemma of "What to Drink When You're Not Drinking," Seedlip became the toast of London when it launched at the high-end Selfridges & Co. department store. According to the company's promotional materials, the first 1,000 bottles sold out in three weeks, the next 1,000 in three days and next 1,000 in 30 minutes.
The tipple came to be when Branson, who doesn't drink, was puttering around his family's 15th-century stone cottage in the Buckinghamshire countryside (where he also taught himself how to do taxidermy) and happened upon a book published in 1651 called The Art of Distillation.
Using a three-litre copper still bought over the Internet and herbs grown in his garden, he began distilling his own extracts. Three years ago, he hand-bottled and labelled the first batch and brought it to his friends at famed restaurants The Fat Duck and The Ledbury, who saw the potential as a base for mixing.
Seedlip is now available in 35 Michelin-starred restaurants and upscale bars in Britain, where Dry January is nearly as big as Jesus – more than two million people tried to cut down on their booze consumption in January, 2015, according to the advocacy organization, Alcohol Concern. Buoyed by such stellar sales, the company secured a major investment from Distill Ventures, a Diageo-backed spirits innovation group, for its North American launch last month. The French Laundry in California's Napa Valley and New York's Gramercy Tavern were among the early adopters.
In Canada, Toronto's tony Opus Restaurant in Yorkville was the first to pour it. "I thought it would taste like gin, but it's not like that at all," Opus executive chef Jason Cox says. "It's super smooth and really coats the tongue. It's, um, how should I put this? It's kind of musky and sexy."
For a multitude of reasons, Canadians are drinking less alcohol (even though we're spending more on what we are drinking). According to a report released last February by Gregory Taylor, the country's then-chief public health officer, the drop is even more apparent in young Canadians between the ages of 15 to 24. This clean-living trend has manifested in low-alcohol beverage listings across the country.
In Vancouver, where I live, mocktails have become de rigueur in any decent restaurant. Even Juke, a small fried-chicken joint in Chinatown, mixes an excellent "Half Ass Storm," replacing the rum normally found in a Dark and Stormy with grapefruit juice. Several other Vancouver restaurants, including the East End's Mackenzie Room, serve low-alcohol "session" cocktails made with beer, cider, wine and such low-proof aperitifs as vermouth and amaro.
Cox had heard of Seedlip through Mikuni and ordered two bottles after a regular client became pregnant last fall and complained to him about all the lime-and-sodas she was being forced to drink when dining out.
"It's been really fun for us to play with," says Cox, who has experimented with cucumber, coriander and peach nectar. "It's more elegant than drinking vinegars" – another term for shrubs, or preserved fruits – "which hit you like a shot in the face. And the packaging is very classy. The other night, it created a huge buzz around the bar. Everyone wanted to try it. I imagine it will be very popular with some of our clients who don't drink alcohol for religious reasons."
Tyler Gray, a co-owner of Mikuni Wild Harvest, suggests mixing Seedlip with tonic or other carbonated mixer to help aerate the flavour and give it a more vivacious mouthfeel. "The drink isn't intended to be consumed neat," he explains. Indeed, when testing the product at home, I found the consistency slightly watery.
The aromas are extremely intense and the taste has stamina. But because these non-spirit spirits don't contain any sugar, sweeteners or alcohol, the body is quite thin. I can see the potential for mixing drinks with egg whites, or olive brine for a dirty martini. But with just tonic or soda? Honestly, I think a good bartender could mix a drink that is just as interesting – and far less expensive – with a well-made shrub or syrup.
Still, in these dry times, Seedlip is a fun bottle to have behind the bar. It will certainly impress people and could even win you new friends. In Toronto, Cox's pregnant customer was planning a New Year's Eve party at her home. "When she invited me, she said 'Oh, bring that bottle of Seedlip if you want.'"