When craft starts to resemble the emperor's new clothes

on 15 February, 2017

As I’ve entered my sixth decade on the planet I hope I’ll be forgiven for not being massively hip and only paying proper attention to Seedlip for the first time this week.

For anyone else still to encounter the product it’s a non-alcoholic spirit launched by entrepreneur Ben Branson and which Diageo has been curious and excited enough about to take a minority stake.

Lucky Ben. I’m not so convinced.

The last time I wrote about a new product without sampling it, I was mercilessly shredded by a Twitter troll – just the one – even though I’d expressed scepticism about the rebooted Hofmeister’s chances of defining a credible market position for itself, not what it tasted like.

So, this time, I’ll get my defence in first: no, I haven’t tasted Seedlip. I haven’t been sent a freebie, though I’m happy to receive one, and that’s probably the only way I’m going to try it, as twenty-seven quid a pop for what delivers the same hit as a bottle of squash tests the budget limits of a humble freelance hack.

And even if I did have cash to burn the two recipes available sound a bit, well, mad. One has allspice, cardamom, oak (!), lemon and grapefruit; the other peas, hay, spearmint, rosemary and thyme.

Now admit it, you’re with me on this one – that’s the recipe for a soup, right, not a drink.

It all sounds a bit emperor’s new clothes, the logical end-game of a craze for “craft” drinks that increasingly errs on the side of mad scientist novelty, faux heritage and pushing boundaries for the sake of it, rather than providing retailers with sensible commercial propositions and consumers with products that – the uber-geeks aside – won’t make them feel like they’re being taking for a ride.

In this case the “story” (got to have a story these days folks) relates to a 1651 book of distilled herbal remedies whose “alchemy” has been “re-purposed”.

Now, even in the mysteriously "other" world of the 17th century, alchemy didn’t mean making drinks, but the ethically-questionable art/science of turning base metals into gold, as brilliantly lampooned by Ben Jonson in his 1610 play The Alchemist. If Jonson was writing today he might well come up with a satirical comedy called The Beard Topiarist or the Cornflake Café Owner. Personally, I'd think twice about claiming alchemy in the skills section of my CV.

Branson admits in this week’s OLN that the price of Seedlip, for a 70cl bottle that, remember, has no duty charged on it, is “a hurdle we are trying to overcome” and adds that “it take us longer to make” as justification.

If it really does want to overcome this, trimming a few costs, cutting a few corners and dropping the price might achieve it a bit quicker, though a listings portfolio that includes Harvey Nicks, Claridge’s and The Fat Duck suggests the hurdle isn’t seen as a major obstacle for now.

The price is in line with a £40 bottle of gin, minus the duty, Branson points out, but there’s little incentive for shoppers to invest in this form of abstinence if they can merely trade down to, say, a bottle of Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray at around £20.

I’m sure that Branson is perfectly honest in the arithmetic behind his pricing and sincere in his belief in his product but £27 is a risky purchase for one promises pea, hay and spearmint when the competitive set includes turning on the tap for a refreshing and practically free glass of water.

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