About six months into my pregnancy, I needed a drink. I met a friend for cocktails and apologetically asked the bartender to mix me something slightly more complex than my usual go-to, club soda. “I got you,” she said, nodding knowingly, before returning with a triumphant look and a bright red fruit punch. Not wanting to be a pain, I accepted the cloying drink while my sympathetic friend sipped her adult beverage beside me.
While some restaurants and bars offer thoughtful non-alcoholic cocktails, most don’t, leaving guests who aren’t drinking to either settle for soda water (or Kool-Aid in a coup glass) or risk feeling like an annoyance for ordering something off-menu. British entrepreneur Ben Branson set out to tackle this problem—one he refers to as “what to drink when you’re not drinking.” The former brand designer created Seedlip, the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit.
“In this day and age, with electric cars, online shopping and all this madness that we have at our fingertips, I don't see a good enough reason that if you’re not drinking you shouldn't be able to have a great, grown-up drink,” he says. A non-drinker himself, Branson’s aha moment didn’t come sitting at a bar, pining for the ritual of sipping a cocktail. Rather the Buckinghamshire, England-based founder, whose natural curiosity has led him to such offbeat endeavors as studying at a silent yoga school and mastering fire-breathing, got the idea while stumbling on a 17th-century tome on distillation. “I’m really curious about history,” says Branson. “To paraphrase Winston Churchill, ‘You’ve got to look back to look forward.’ There's all of this incredible natural history—hundreds of years of herbal medicine. I just began with a love of nature and a curiosity of what else I could grow from home.”
Branson began experimenting with the distillation process, using fresh peas and hay from his family’s 320-year-old farm, along with other produce and herbs. After ruling out fifty different blends, he came upon Seedlip Garden 108, an herbal, vegetal mixture of the peas and hay with rosemary, thyme, spearmint and hops, and the warm, woody Seedlip Spice 94 with cardamom, allspice, lemon and grapefruit peel. Each ingredient is distilled separately in a copper pot still before blending, filtering and diluting the mixture. It takes a staggering six weeks to make each bottle of the sugar-, allergen- and calorie-free liquid. From its meticulous creation to its polished packaging (the botanical illustrations on the bottle’s label would be at home framed in the library of a country estate,) Seedlip sends the message that while it may technically share a category with soda and tea, the beverage respects that you’re a grown-up who just wants a delicious alcohol-free drink.
Seedlip launched in London in 2015 and was quickly adopted by bars and restaurants at the forefront of the food and drink world, including the American Bar at the Savoy, The Dandelyan and The Ledbury. “They understood the need for it, because they want their guests to have a great time,” says Branson. The brand came to the U.S. in January, debuting in Los Angeles, in part because of the city’s reputation for focusing on well-being and moderation.
At LA’s Redbird, beverage director Tobin Shea says he was a little skeptical of the non-alcoholic spirit at first, noting that the $40-per-bottle price tag is similar to the cost of premium whiskeys and alcohols. But his opinion changed when he started serving Seedlip and witnessed the reactions from grateful, non-drinking guests. “It allows you to still feel social,” he says. For now, Shea’s teetotaler menu will be heavily influenced by Seedlip, and he even plans to use it in alcoholic drinks. “The flavors are so unique, it takes a cocktail to another level,” he says.
This month, Seedlip launched in New York City, appearing at another predictably impressive collection of restaurants and bars. The rapidly growing company is working on its expansion to Australia this August, and has partnered with the World’s 50 Best brand, including The World’s 50 Best Bars 2017 and The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018.
Whether ordering Seedlip at a bar or serving it at home, Branson maintains that Seedlip represents more than a drink. “It’s saying, ‘I’ve bothered, I think you should have a great time too regardless of whether you’re drinking or not,’” he says, pointing out that it’s not really about whether you drink or not, since you can’t drink all the time. “It speaks to a fundamental human need: wanting to feel part of, wanting to belong and feel valued.”
This story originally appeared on Foodandwine.com.