Sober People Deserve Better Than Seedlip

Sober People Deserve Better Than Seedlip
Photo: Claire Lower

I love sober people. I want them to be happy, and I want them to feel welcome in all establishments, including bars. Dry January may be well over, but the “sober curious” movement is gaining hashtags, no-proof bars are cropping up in major cities, and companies like Seedlip are putting out fancy looking bottles of not-gin for abstainers to enjoy at home. (Seedlip is so popular, my dad called me to ask me about it.) This is all fantastic.

But Seedlip is, unfortunately, the La Croix of spirits, as in it literally tastes like a flat can of flavoured seltzer. It’s a frustrating product, because it almost accomplishes what it sets out to do, and how you first experience Seedlip has a major impact on your opinion of it.

My first taste was consumed straight, at room temperature, and out of a tiny shot glass, and I felt hustled, scammed, bamboozled, hood winked, led astray! The beautifully branded (35-dollar) bottle of Seedlip Grove had promised me a “sophisticated, warm, citrus blend” with all sorts of lush botanical distillates, with the “cool prickle of Japanese Sansho Peppercorn.” What I got was closer to the last, melted ice-diluted sip you’d find at the bottom of a G&T. There was a whisper of citrus flavour (and citric acid), but that was it. (I later tried a bit of the Spice Seedlip at my bar, and found it to be slightly more flavorful, but vaguely medicinal.)

I then tried Seedlip with ginger beer, and all I could taste was ginger beer. I tried it with tonic, and all I could taste was (diluted) tonic. I tried it with plain seltzer, and all I could taste was a weaker version La Croix. By this point my palate was clouded by indignation, and I needed a (preferably sober) taste tester. My favourite sober person (my partner of three years) was at work, so I bullied A.A. Newton (who is now my neighbour!) and her sober partner (lovely Thomas) into swinging by my apartment for an experiment.

I made two mocktails: a faux daiquiri based on Camper English’s Garden Cooler (Camper uses Seedlip Garden; I had Grove), and a Bee’s Knees-inspired beverage with two ounces of Seedlip, one ounce of fresh lemon juice, and 3/4 of an ounce of honey syrup. For each Seedlip mocktail, I also mixed up a control, using water in place of the no-spirit spirit.

To Seedlip’s credit, my tasters did prefer the mocktail made with the Seedlip. “It has more going on,” Thomas said. Alice added that it “tasted like a really good botanical lemonade.” Things were looking good for Seedlip, and then I let them try it on its own. “This tastes like barely flavored water,” said Alice. “If I spent $US35 ($52) on this, I’d be pissed,” added Thomas. “It’s more enjoyable to drink a litre of Pellegrino, and I feel like the Pellegrino has more going on.”

They then tasted the product with tonic, and for a moment things were looking good for Seedlip once more, until they tried the tonic (which was Fever-Tree), by itself, and Thomas declared that the Seedlip “actually made the tonic worse” as it diluted the flavour and fizz. As they were leaving, I tried to give the now half-full bottle of Seedlip to Thomas. He did not want it.

This is the problem with Seedlip: Its success hinges utterly on the skill and creativity of the mixologist, while also leaning heavily on other, flavorful ingredients. Seedlip does add a little bit of something to mocktails, but it’s hard to say exactly what.

“The thing that replaces the alcohol should—in theory—be the star of the show, not the subtlest flavour addition,” Thomas had said, and I agree. Seedlip has no edge, no bitterness, and no body. It’s too thin, too timid, and too safe. The Seedlip mocktails were, as Alice first observed, very good botanical lemonades, but there are much cheaper ways to make a good botanical lemonade (lavender syrup, rose water, and fresh herbs are just a few ingredients that come to mind).

Three people is a small sample size, however, so I reached out to a few people of varying levels of alcohol abstinence. My friend Brett—who quit drinking nearly two years ago—seemed to have a holistic appreciation for the product. “I see a lot of side eye about ‘Dry January’ and ‘sober curious’ movements,” he told me over email, “but honestly, I think it’s great that people check in on their consumption of alcohol.

As we get older, our bodies change, our needs change, and our tastes change. Maybe you just want to see what a booze-free month is like. Maybe that’s the thing that helps you realise you need a booze-free year. Or a booze-free life. And if Seedlip or any other zero- or low-alcohol brand is helping more people make that assessment, then I’m in favour of it.” But Brett also felt that knowing how to use Seedlip is key: “To draw a comparison to food, an ingredient is really only as good as the chef preparing it. I was on the fence [about buying a bottle], but after I saw what the bartender in Denver could do with it, I decided I would like to keep a bottle or two of Seedlip around. I used to make cocktails at home and Seedlip honestly made me feel like that’s something I could maybe have back.”

My friend Nicole recently took several months off from drinking and has had varied experiences with Seedlip. “[My partner] Dan bought some for me recently and it’s not at all fun by itself, kinda weird as is. I have had good mocktails with it at very good bars (in NY mostly). It seems like it’s tricky to understand how to use it for most people,” she told me over Twitter.

“Basically Seedlip is great if you are a cocktail genius,” she said, adding, “Hopefully it’s just the beginning and we’ll keep on innovating.” Another friend of mine who had tried Seedlip thought it was “good with Fever-Tree…but a little watery and flavourless without a lot of additives. Bitters and tonic has more of a kick,” she added, “so I don’t know that Seedlip is necessary.”

Seedlip in its current iteration may not be necessary, but something like it is definitely needed. Lots of people are looking for a non-alcoholic experience that scratches that fancy cocktail itch for a variety of reasons, and Seedlip is almost there. Branding isn’t nothing, and part of the joy of having a well-curated bar cart does comes from gazing at all the pretty bottles.

At this, it excels, but Seedlip is also a fantastic muse, and its ability to serve as a delicately flavored booze placeholder has inspired both professional bartenders and consumers to get a little more creative with mocktails. This has value, but Seedlip itself is not, in my opinion, worth the $45-$55 it retails for. One should be able to enjoy such a product with a little seltzer, as a treat, without searching for flavour.

If I wanted to search for the “essence” of a plant part in a beverage, I’d reach for an actual (fizzy) La Croix.

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