Claire Smith-Warner on the future of Seedlip
After a successful career in alcohol, Claire Smith-Warner speaks to The Spirits Business about her plans for booze-free Seedlip.
*This feature was originally published in the April 2018 issue of The Spirits Business
“I was with Belvedere and Moët-Hennessy for 15 years. It doesn’t feel that long. I don’t know how, but the time seemed to just fly; it’s just crazy,” enthuses Claire Smith-Warner, former director of spirits education at Moët-Hennessy.
With the company, Smith-Warner created 13 types of Belvedere Vodka, hosted talks and seminars and grabbed the title of Best International Brand Ambassador at Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards in 2015.
It was after working in bars and restaurants while studying a law degree at Nottingham Trent University that Smith-Warner decided to embark on a career in drinks. “After graduation, I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I just stayed working in hospitality and realised that there was a whole industry behind bars, restaurants and the brands.”
While working for several small Polish brands, including Wyborowa vodka, which was eventually sold to Pernod Ricard, Smith-Warner was made redundant and was “catapulted” into the London on-trade.
After working alongside industry legends Dick Bradsell and Henry Besant, among others, she was introduced to Moët-Hennessy, where she “leveraged her Polish vodka knowledge” to help launch the company’s newly acquired brand Belvedere in the UK. “It’s really crazy because I didn’t see myself having this sort of career, but it seems to have chosen me,” she says.
She then moved into the brand team, and spent a year working with the distiller in France, who was making the flavours for the vodka at the time. It was when he retired that Smith-Warner took over leading flavour development, and, in 2008, became responsible for all liquid development as head of spirit creation.
At Belvedere, she became passionate about health and wellbeing. The brand launched its ‘Be Natural’ manifesto in 2016, alongside the Belvedere Spritz Collection of cocktails, to encourage consumers to think more about what they drink. “I wanted to find a way to raise awareness about living a healthy life, despite being in the hospitality industry.”
She also became passionate about reducing sugar in drinks. “I became a real advocate for anti-sugar, avoiding sugar where possible, and talking about nature a lot – ways that we can be closer to nature as a way for us to feel a bit healthier.”
So her move into the world of non-alcoholic beverages came as no surprise. After meeting Ben Branson, founder of non-alcoholic distilled spirit Seedlip, six years ago; the next step seemed only natural. “I’ve always been very supportive of what he was doing when he launched Seedlip,” explains Smith-Warner. “Last year, we started talking about the potential that existed in the non-alcoholic space and how nature was very important to that. And it just seemed that there were lots of similarities between what I was doing and where he was going, and I wanted to help be a part of that.”
Joining the alcohol-free world of Seedlip in January 2018 as head of new brands has proven to be a “very fast-moving and dynamic place” for Smith-Warner. “I honestly haven’t had time to catch my breath since I started; it has been a whirlwind and very exciting,” she says. “This year is going to be a very big and important one for us, there’s actually quite a lot in the pipeline that we’ll be sharing.”
And she is already working on three new “standalone” brands for 2018, details of which she’s keen to keep under wraps, but each “will be rooted in nature”. “They won’t be similar to Seedlip, but they will complement the Seedlip portfolio,” she teases. There are also plans for a new Seedlip, which will sit alongside the existing portfolio – Seedlip Spice 94 and Seedlip Garden 108 – and is expected to launch this year.
The brand’s growth since 2015 is impressive. In just two years, Seedlip opened offices in London and Los Angeles, expanded its team to 40 employees, and now boasts listings around the world.
It was also an attractive investment for one of the world’s biggest drinks groups. In 2016, Diageo took a minority stake in the company through its startup accelerator programme Distill Ventures – marking the Johnnie Walker maker’s move into booze-free products.
And when it comes to better drinking, Smith-Warner is adamant that the on-trade can play a key role in educating consumers and boosting the non-alcohol category’s image. “I think we will see a lot more menu space given over to low- or no-alcohol options. We ran our first non-alcoholic cocktail competition this year and the level of cocktail skills and craftsmanship was phenomenal,” she says.
“We want to encourage these incredible bartenders to create fantastic cocktails to put on the menu; more education, more choice, more communication on non-alcoholic cocktails being complex and sophisticated options rather than fruity, juicy and sweet like they used to be.”
Smith-Warner is optimistic about the future of the category. “We generally feel that the category will flourish in the next three to five years,” she says. “More and more we’ll start to see a blurring between alcoholic drinks and non-alcoholic drinks, and the abv will become less of a factor. It will become more about flavour, complexity, the occasion and the experience – these will be the main drivers for the choices that we make.
“Innovation was a key part of my role at Belvedere, but what I’m doing now is very much about how we can future-proof our industry. I’m innovating within a category that doesn’t yet exist. Seedlip has done an incredible job in establishing non-alcoholic as a serious player and now we have to take that momentum and run with it.”