Jenee Craver has plenty of experience mixing cocktails. She’s been a bartender for years, and currently manages the drinks program at Nick Elmi’s buzzy ITV on East Passyunk. But when I brought her the latest trendy spirit I’ve discovered, she didn’t know what to make of it. With arty, well-designed logos and standard glass shape, these bottles look like they’d fit right in with the other spirits arranged behind her bar.
But Seedlip is something totally different. It’s billed as the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit.
I originally went searching for the best nonalcoholic beverage options because I have been choosing to avoid alcohol lately. And it isn’t just me staying off the sauce these days. “Dry January” and “Dry July” have become annual events for many regular imbibers, and on the day of our tasting at ITV, chef and owner Nick Elmi himself was in the middle of a 30 day break from booze. Perfect. Seedlip wasn’t created for teetotalers. Its company tagline is, “What to drink when you’re not drinking.”
Before I ordered both varieties — “Spice” and “Garden” — I learned that Seedlip is served in numerous Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, including here in the US at the French Laundry. So I knew it would intrigue cocktail experts like Craver and restaurant owners like Elmi, especially since Seedlip is not currently being poured anywhere in Philly. It has only recently become available here in the US, but if it takes off here the way it has in the UK, where it was created, it will be popping up in more and more bars and restaurants soon.
I couldn’t imagine what Seedlip would taste like or how it was made, so while I was waiting for my precious bottles of non-booze to arrive, I called Ben Branson, Seedlip’s creator, to get some answers.
“I have always been crafty, and I’m from a farming family,” he said. “I was wondering what else I could do with the herbs I was growing.” Then he crossed paths with The Art of Distillation, a 16th-century volume on herbal remedies that’s filled with recipes for distilling botanicals without alcohol. “It wasn’t long before I was playing around with a copper still in my own kitchen.”
Branson built on those antique recipes and techniques, refining the distilling process to get a more stable distillate with more potent flavors, and launched Seedlip in the UK in 2015. His little experiment took off, attracting investment from megabrand Diageo. Now, the brand is poised for a major expansion into the US, with distribution at Dean & DeLuca planned for the next few months.
When we uncapped the Seedlip bottles at ITV, Craver and I both marveled at the aroma. The Spice version has a warm woody fragrance that called to mind whiskey and other brown spirits. The Garden bottle was floral and vegetal, reminiscent of gin. Seedlip isn’t meant to be sipped on its own, just like many alcohol-based spirits are not. And though the flavors aren’t bad straight, they also aren’t exactly fully realized. Plus, the mouthfeel of Seedlip is definitely watery.
We gathered two types of Fever Tree tonic water — elderflower and Mediterranean — plus fresh citrus and ITV’s array of flavored syrups, and Craver started mixing drinks.
First up: Seedlip’s Spice with Craver’s house made Thai syrup, Mediterranean tonic, and a squeeze of fresh lemon.
“Wow, you really get a nice bitter edge of that wood spice at the end,” said Craver on first sip. With a hint of sweetness and added body from the syrup, the drink is well balanced, with the full flavor you’d expect from a craft cocktail. Clearly, it exceeded both our expectations. I kept drinking it as she moved on to other experiments.
I asked Craver, an active member of the United States Bartender’s Guild, what she drinks when she isn’t drinking, and she replied, “whiskey.” (Ha!) Her favorite cocktail is the whiskey sour and its variations, so naturally she wanted to try a nonalcoholic sour, using the Garden Seedlip, plenty of fresh squeezed lemon, simple syrup, and a touch of egg white. This one was a big hit — bright, refreshing, and aromatic. It was also festive and pretty, which counts for a lot when you’re looking for an alcohol-free alternative at a fancy cocktail bar like ITV.
Even Elmi was surprised by how closely Seedlip mimicked the aspects of a cocktail most drinkers like — balance, aroma, complexity, bitterness. “This actually tastes like a drink,” he said. And though Seedlip is not currently on the cocktail menu at ITV, Craver says it would be a welcome addition.
“Pregnant women often ask me for a mocktail that really looks like a cocktail so others don’t know they’re not drinking. This would be great for that,” she says. And that’s far from the only reason someone might seek out a terrific booze-free beverage.
Craver fields at least five requests for nonalcoholic cocktails during any given night at ITV, she said. Seedlip has the potential to give her and bartenders everywhere a much sharper tool to create a true craft cocktail experience for those who are choosing to avoid alcohol for whatever reason.
Elmi says he enjoys the better quality sleep he gets during those months he takes off from booze. Everyone does — sleep studies show alcohol negatively impacts your ability to get a good night’s rest.
Seedlip is one way to enjoy delicious cocktails, a night out at a cool bar, and that blissful sober sleep. Or it will be, as soon as local bars and restaurants start adding it their menus. Given the company’s planned PR push this spring and increased distribution inside the US, it’s only a matter of time.
Until then, you can order Seedlip online.