Tipple Your Fancy?
Hole & Corner meet Sweetdram: seeking to shake up preconceptions of the most traditional of alcohols and make liqueurs that people actually want to drink...
What’s the first thing you think about when you think about liqueurs? Family occasions where your nan serves sherry in crystal thimbles or a splash of alcohol in a heavy based tumbler, with an astringent whiff seemingly combining sugar, paint stripper and peat that you’re supposed to enjoy drinking?
Andrew MacLeod Smith, Daniel Fisher, Vangeli Moschopoulos and Joe Ricketts have founded their drinks brand Sweetdram on a simple but refreshing concept – to ‘make liqueurs that we want to drink’. Embodying the values of a luxury, crafted brand, their aim is to create liqueurs that are free from artificial flavours, with less sugar… and are delicious. We talk to Andrew MacLeod Smith about how Sweetdram came about...
How did you all meet?
Dan and I met at university while studying for our Masters degrees in brewing and distilling. I then worked with Joe and Van on another distilling project and quickly came to trust their sensibilities, so I asked them both to join the Sweetdram team. But really we’re all just industry friends who believe in a common cause: make booze better. We also have quite different backgrounds (fine art, copywriting, wine and spirits retail, engineering) and this definitely adds to the overall dynamism of the brand.
What’s been your approach to tackling the historical preconceptions around liqueurs?
We’re trying to shift preconceptions by showing drinkers what a liqueur can be if it’s designed correctly. This means challenging two fundamental traits that have previously defined the category. The first is sugar content. Parisian limonadiers often used the term liqueur as a general descriptor for all confectionary during the Enlightenment period, so the word itself is rooted in sweetness. Not only that, current EU regulations call for 100 grams of sugar per litre of spirit or it can’t legally be called a liqueur. That seems ridiculous to us on several levels. It’s not only wildly out of touch in a health sense; it’s also at odds with the palates of modern drinkers who want their spirits to be dry and complex, not saccharine. The second is that many botanical-led, 'herbal' liqueurs, like the ones we make, tend to be swampy and heavy. There’s a good reason for that: they were created in a different time for a totally different purpose, as patent medicines. I’m not convinced that a liqueur created by monks to cure gout or indigestion is relevant to the modern drinker. In fact, the more you think about it, the more a balanced and sippable modern liqueur, with a primary focus on flavour, makes sense.
What was the first alcohol you made for market?
We recently released Escubac, which we distil using 14 botanicals, including caraway, cardamom, nutmeg and citrus, then sweeten with raisins, vanilla, a little sugar and colour with saffron. We designed it to be sipped neat, like a nice whisky, or mixed with tonic as a genuine alternative to the standard, classic G&T. We make it in France at Distillerie Combier, who notoriously don’t work with third parties, so we feel privileged that they allow us to fly out there every other month to distil on their antique stills. The long lyne arms and partial rectifiers on their kit produce a delicate, aromatic spirit, which is an ideal base for a modern liqueur like Escubac.
What was your starting point for this?
I came from gin originally, but the gin sector’s become saturated and a little repetitive. It’s also a narrow style for a distiller who wants to be creative. There’s such a tight legal definition, and an even tighter social expectation, of what constitutes a gin that means it’s almost impossible to express yourself properly. So we stepped out of that tiny box and it liberated us in terms of what was creatively possible. We began to look at distillation in different ways, thought about how we could appropriate the gin process to create a proprietary spirit that wasn’t juniper-forward. That’s how the idea for a modern liqueur came around, and that’s why it sits somewhere between gin, a botanical spirit, and traditional elixirs on the spectrum. From there, we needed a concept, something that suited the fact we’re based in east London but planned to make Escubac in France. Through research, we discovered this little-known, obsolete style, which originated as usquebaugh, a spicy yellow cordial made in Tudor England, and was later adopted by the French who francized the name to Escubac.
How long did it take to realise and launch the product?
We spent 18 months developing it, from initial concept through to our first production run. We designed 90% of the recipe within the first nine months - the rest of the time was spent perfecting it. That final 10% made the difference; it’s where we found balance between all these massive flavours. The process overall took a while to complete, longer than most products, but we never entertained releasing Escubac before it was ready.
Can you describe briefly your approach to making a new product?
We approach each product in its own unique way, but our methods typically follow the same pattern. We start with a roundtable conversation, where we debate ideas until we arrive at a loose concept, which we then solidify with a short research phase. Research can be as simple as speaking to a group of bartenders we respect or as complex as analysing the composition of certain ingredients to see how they pair chemically. From there, we distil the botanicals individually to create a small library of flavoured distillates, for example cinnamon or cloves, which can be blended together to build a provisional recipe. We produce these using bespoke lab glassware, specially designed to mimic the distillation process on a larger scale. We then transfer the basic recipe to our intermediate 110-litre copper still, to test and finesse it, before we consider it for production. Even at the production stage, we retain absolute control, choosing to take over facilities and distil ourselves rather than contract it out to someone else. From a technical perspective, assuming responsibility is the only way to ensure consistent quality.
The aesthetics of the brand and the different liqueurs seem paramount to you. How do you find the right creative collaborators to work with?
While the emphasis is obviously on the liquid inside the bottle, aesthetic is crucial to the overall impression left by the brand, so when we choose whom to collaborate with, it must be someone whose work inspires us. That applies to both design and distilling collaborations. For example, we approached Andreas Neophytou to design our core identity and custom typeface because we’d seen his work on previous projects. It was clear from the outset that he understood the fundamental importance of concepts and systems. Everything we do has a solid concept at its core and an underlying system driving it. The simple geometric shapes Andreas used for the Dram logo inform other aspects of the brand, including the Escubac label. Product designer Felix de Pass referenced the same shapes when he created the dimensions of our bespoke bottle, and the limited edition labels extend the system further, allowing us to move any coloured shape from the logo around a modular grid to create an infinite number of label permutations; even the architecture of our workshop was influenced by these shapes and systems. Although it might not be immediately obvious, anything we create has a sound reason and structure behind it.
We also recently collaborated with some talented young illustrators on a series of Sweetdram posters, which Vangeli screenprints by hand at a studio in Peckham. It’s our modern interpretation of those vintage liqueur posters everyone knows and loves.
You’ve just had your studio built by SODA? How does your studio space affect the working process?
Working with SODA as collaborators instead of clients meant they could get under our skin and explore what drives us. As a result, the space they’ve created not only balances function and aesthetic, it also acts as an extension of Sweetdram and a showcase for what we do. More than being just a nice place to work, the space completely immerses us in the brand everyday. Having the ability to distil and create continuously, to test the potential of the materials and tools we use, will ultimately make us better distillers.
What’s coming up next?
A Smoked Spiced Rum, which we’ve designed with East London Liquor Company, will be available at the end of November, limited to 700 bottles. We also have another New-York-based collaboration, with a different distilling partner, scheduled for release early next year. Beyond that, we don’t know. It feels like we’re telling a story on the fly, without an outline, and chapter one is all about modern liqueurs. We’re not sure what the next chapter will be yet, and that excites us very much.
Photographs Andy Donohoe
Interview Julia Jarvis