Dan Gasper talks Seedlip, Distill Ventures, and the non-alcoholic trend
Seedlip, the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit, has got the industry talking. Dan Gasper, COO of Diageo’s Distill Ventures, predicts big things for Seedlip and the non-alcoholic category in general.
Are non-drinkers second class citizens in the bar? It’s a question that Dan Gasper, COO of Distill Ventures, has on his mind when we meet in a quiet corner at BCB. He’s particularly fixated on a quirk of the English language, which depicts drinking soft drinks as drinking…well, nothing really.
“Take this for an example,” Gasper says. “When you drink a water or a Coke and people say ‘he/she’s not drinking’, it means you’re not drinking alcohol. But I am drinking something!” This prejudice means non-drinkers often stay at home. “And why should you feel like you have to do that?” he asks.
This slight of language could be a thing of the past, with a whole new crop of non-alcoholic beverages on the way. The Distill Ventures brand Seedlip, a non-alcoholic distilled spirit from Britain, marked the beginning of a new wave of zero alcohol drinks aimed at adults. Seedlip, which markets itself as “what to drink when you’re not drinking,” has started to expand into international markets and is showing strong growth from the US to Asia.
Distill Ventures: The beverage accelerator
Dan Gasper is co-founder and COO of Distill Ventures, an accelerator for drinks brands. It began when Gasper and two others, Shilen Patel and Frank Lampen, realized there wasn’t a platform in the beverage industry that helped entrepreneurs scale their investments. “In tech, you’re spoilt for choice, but what about drinks? We couldn’t believe that nobody had taken the model and applied it to the drinks space,” says Gasper.
The three pitched their accelerator project to drinks giant Diageo, which came on board as the sole investor in Distill Ventures in 2013 “It’s been a wonderful journey ever since,” Gasper says. They’ve launched two whiskey brands, Stauning and Starward, and have invested over £75 million into 16 businesses. But Seedlip, still run by founder Ben Branson, remains their biggest story by far – the first non-alcoholic product Diageo had invested in throughout its 250 year history.
Seedlip is No Copycat
One thing that’s notable about Seedlip is that, although it has an obvious similarity with gin, there is no juniper to be found in the recipe. Seedlip is far more than just a non-alcoholic gin wannabe. It’s proof that creating a good non-alcoholic drink takes more than just copying a popular spirit and stripping out the alcohol.
“Let me tell you my least favorite word in the world: mouthfeel,” Gasper says, laughing. “Alcohol does a good job of coating your mouth and the taste develops, whilst non-alcoholic drinks like sodas most often give away their flavor at the beginning and then there’s nothing.” We both try in vain to come up with a better term for this unfolding of flavors and textures but end up back at mouthfeel.
To test whether your beverage exhibits this good mouthfeel, Gasper explains his golden rule: “sip, don’t gulp,” he says. “I dare you to sip a Coke. It’s sugary, refreshing, but you gulp it down really quickly.” Seedlip, however, is different. “That’s how we’ve classified what a good non-alcohol [drink] is. You have to be able to sip it. If you just down it, it fails,” he says.
Seedlip gets behind bars
Gasper expects bartenders – and their mocktails – to play a big role in the evolution of the product. “Bartender interaction is crucial. Imagine you watch someone do something special with a cocktail, and then yours is just a crack of a lid, then it’s disappointing,” he says. And last but not least, there’s presentation. “People drink with their eyes, the drink arriving is a moment of ‘wow, oh my god,’” says Gasper. “So make it look great.”
Seedlip isn’t the only one making noise. According to Gasper, the modern wave of non-alcoholic drinks for grown-ups includes kombucha, shrubs, coffee and teas, and sodas with flavors akin to alcoholic drinks. “All of these areas are really exciting,” Gasper says.
Also, bars are responding to this – and not just in Seedlip’s London heartland. In addition to its official launch at the start of the year in the US, it’s popped up on menus around the country, including big names such as The Dead Rabbit. Seedlip has even made it as far as Australia, launching Down Under last month, in time for the southern summer. Gasper makes sure to include a shoutout to Seedlip fans in London, praising the mocktails on the menus at the recently opened Scout bar, as well as Dandelyan and Super Lyan.
The three factors driving the non-alcoholic drinks trend
Of course, the real question is why non-alcoholic drinks are taking off with consumers right now. Is it the influence of premium mixers like Fever-Tree? “No, I think it’s more general than that,” says Gasper. He argues the cause is the convergence of three separate general lifestyle trends, the first being health and wellness. “People want to save their alcohol drinking for certain times and sometimes want to be in a bar, but not drink alcohol,” Gasper says.
Second, there’s the so-called experience economy, something that’s particularly popular in London right now through things like escape rooms, and large-scale immersive theatre productions. “Nowadays, we want to experience great, fantastic things. If your friends get alcoholic cocktails, and you get a lame non-alcoholic cocktail – you’re not having a great experience,” explains Gasper.
And the third factor is “flavor explorers,” according to Gasper. He says modern consumers have changed: “They are actively exploring the world of new foods and flavors which means these modern consumers are far more open to trying new, exciting, and innovative flavors.” Says Gasper. The changing consumer is the reason why non-alcoholic beverages are now front and center, going from the bar back shelf to your next tipple.
Are Non-alcoholic Drinks Friend or Foe?
But where do all these new Seedlip drinkers come from – has the trend taken market share away from the established alcohol brands? Gasper’s answer is a firm ‘no.’
“Most restaurants expect someone to spend £20 on dinner and £20 on drinks,” he explains. “If they don’t spend money on alcohol, they spend £2 on water – in turn busting a big hole in their economic model.” Restaurants and bars are keen to make the most money possible on every seat. This is where Seedlip and other non-alcoholic drinks offer a great opportunity for sales.
Aside from Seedlip, Gasper tells me to keep an eye on shrubs – the non-alcoholic vinegar-based syrups – “try a shrub and soda, it’s delicious.” Gasper thinks the future is bright for the entire beverage industry. “There are more drinks available than you have ever imagined right now,” he says.
But Gasper isn’t getting ahead of himself here. “Whilst alcohol is at 5pm in the afternoon, non-alcohol is at 00.05 at the start of the day,” he says, smiling. It’s a salient thought for anyone who loves a good mixed drink. Thanks to Seedlip and other trailblazers, bold, complex drinks are available more widely – one step towards replacing the office watercooler with a drinks cabinet.
Foto: Photo via Birte Filmer.