Stephen Sparrow, Snow Leopard and Edrington: An Oral History


Snow Leopard Vodka header


Stephen Sparrow is well known in the industry for his dedication to the Snow Leopard brand and to conservation efforts protecting the majestic creatures that inspired his creamy, spelt vodka.

Launched in 2006, Snow Leopard Vodka was an immediate hit with consumers in the UK, including the Queen and her grandchildren. Our partners at Edrington brought this beloved brand to American shores, furthering the brand’s mission to help protect snow leopards in the wild. (15 percent of all profits go directly to the Snow Leopard Trust, the world’s largest and oldest snow leopard preservation organization.)

Breakthru sat down recently to speak with Sparrow about the history of Snow Leopard and his involvement with the brand. In addition to making outstanding spirits, Sparrow weaves a wonderful story, one we think is best told in his own words.

PART I: Riches to Rags

Snow Leopard Vodka - Stephen Sparrow

Stephen Sparrow: “I'd come from a background where one minute I'm a corporate executive being picked up by a car to go to the airport with a PA and totally spoiled. Next minute, I was back, age 35, living like a student. It was real life. If you didn't get it right, it was sink or swim. But at the same time, it was also quite exciting because you were totally in control. The success was up to you.

Now when I first set up Snow Leopard, I went to the top distributors in London, the equivalents of Breakthru, and presented the liquid, the brand, and my story. They all said, ‘Yeah, love it.’ They said, ‘But go and find us some customers. Go and find us 50 customers with repeat orders.’ In many ways, my lack of real knowledge got me going because if I'd actually known what I had to go through I would've said, ‘No way, that's too tough.’

In many ways, ignorance was advantageous for me because it meant that I, quite innocently, would break all the rules. Like, I’d wander into bars and say, ‘Can I speak to the GM or bar manager?’ They'd look at me as if the bouncer, absolutely, would kick me out and send me on my way. Then they realized I knew no better. But really, I actually knew. I was just being polite, and saying, ‘Could I speak to the boss?’ They'd say, ‘So you're a rep?’ I said, ‘No…I suppose I'm a business owner.’ ‘Don't you know you've got to get an appointment?’ I said, ‘No, I don't.’ So I'd come, I’d get five minutes, and they'd taste it while I tell the story.

Do you know what? The vodka was so good, and the story was so real, I would say eight out of ten accounts took it. These are top on-premise accounts.

In many ways, selling my ignorance was my secret weapon.

I had a lot of fun. It was tough, I was poor, I didn't get paid, I didn't pay myself for two years. My twin brother always used to tease me, ‘How come those snow leopards are getting paid and you're not?’ That's the way it is. I had to take a flatmate to get some income. It was a bit like Notting Hill, with this slightly older English guy and his naughty 25-year-old Welsh flatmate. The only bit missing was Julia Roberts.”

PART II: Nine Lives

Snow Leopard Vodka - Cocktails

“I realized, if people didn't see it in bars they wouldn't necessarily buy it from the shop. I had to figure this out myself, that we take care to get the bars going in our local area and then people start drinking Snow Leopard, and they ask where to get it. And then they tell their friends and then their friends start asking for it in their bars or shops and whatever. So that's how I did it.

I came up with this idea that I wanted nine of the top accounts in London to come up with their own signature cocktail.

I decided nine because a cat has nine lives, so technically that's a lucky number for a cat. So I went to the top places and said, you come up with a cocktail and I'll put a booklet together with your name and your cocktail. And it was great accounts. Like Claridge's, the great hotel in Mayfair. They actually started using Snow Leopard as their house martini and they called it the Meowtini.

My favorite cocktail was made by Sketch, which at that time was the first sort of uber-trendy, multi-million-pound bar, one that almost became a sort of fashion design experience. That's Sketch on Conduit Street. And I remember because I went in there and the bar manager, he saw me and started chatting and overnight he came back with a cocktail. He was the only one that came up with a good name they created themselves. It was the Bagheera, the panther in Jungle Book, which I thought was a really nice touch. That became an absolute knockout, that sort of cocktail, because it had muddled lemon, basil, it was like a posh mojito.”

PART III: Snow Leopard Comes to Life

Snow Leopard Vodka  - Stephen Sparrow Bike

“I started selling before I had the final bottle. Vodka can be made pretty quickly if you get your ingredients and get the right person to make it with the right equipment. Once I'd decided I was going to make it out of spelt grain and I found a really good Polish distillery to make it, we had the first samples within three weeks of me instructing. I went with spelt and I went with Poland because they've been making vodka longer than anybody else. Then I needed a grain which could provide not only a point of difference but also the quality could come through in the liquid. And nobody was using spelt at that time simply because it's too expensive. It's three or four times more if you go and buy a ton of spelt than you buy winter wheat or rye. But what the spelt gave you was this sort of creamy mouth feel and a flavor.

When I launched twelve years ago I sold more Snow Leopard in London than some of the top premium brands.

It’s not a huge amount, about 1,000 cases, but that was with one guy and a bicycle. No marketing money. And when I say 'no' I mean zero. I had those little, dumpy bottles with just the ‘Snow Leopard’ name on it. And then I had a generic bottle with the Snow Leopard prototype and sample. The bartenders were surprised by how good the quality of the juice was for a guy walking off the street without an appointment, without a finished bottle.”

PART IV: Friends in High Places

Snow Leopard Vodka - Windsor Castle

“One of my good pals, Peter, is the Queen's oldest grandchild. We've known each other quite a long time. And you get to, when you set up a business, you really find out who your friends are whether they're people who can help you or who just disappear. And then there are people who you don't expect to help you and they just sort of become superstars for you. He phones me up and goes, ‘When are you launching your Snow Leopard?’ He's big into the environment and the natural world, too. I said, ‘It's going to be springtime.’ And he goes, ‘Will it be ready by April 21st?’ And I said, "Could be." And he said, ‘Can you get me a finished bottle? Can I buy it?’ And I said, ‘Yes, of course. What's the rush?’ And he says, ‘Well, it's my grandmother's 80th birthday and it's really difficult to get her something original. And I just think that would be a cool present.’ So on her 80th birthday, he gave her the first bottle of Snow Leopard. Apparently it ended up on the drinks trolley in Buckingham Palace and I don't think it lasted a week.

Later, Peter was getting married at Windsor Castle, the same place Harry and Meghan were married. He phones me and says, ‘Can I buy some of your vodka for our wedding?’ I said, ‘Yes, sure,’ expecting, fingers crossed, I might get a case. He says, ‘Hmm. 300 people coming, so we'll definitely need 100 bottles.’

I was lucky enough to be sort of invited and actually sat next to Prince Harry, because Peter thought it would be fun to put his vodka baron mate next to Harry, and he thought we'd get on.

We are both into the natural world and rugby and I'd been a reservist in the army. It was an absolutely cracking wedding.

Both Prince William and Prince Harry, they were kind enough to come selling at private clients. And at one stage William got out of a helicopter with a three-liter jeroboam of Snow Leopard. I was in America at the time. I come back to England, and my email's down. I'm thinking, I've paid my subscription, what's wrong? I phoned the provider and asked, ‘Why's my email down? What's the problem?’ ‘Oh, you've had too many hits, too many people looking at your website.’ And I said, ‘How many hits?’ And she said, ‘You went over 30,000 in under 12 hours. You've gone over your monthly limit.’ What had happened, when I was in America, Prince William had been photographed getting out of this helicopter with a three-liter bottle of Snow Leopard, going to a party. Because he was dating Kate Middleton at the time, he was getting a lot of stick from the press. He was in the Royal Air Force at the time and using this military piece of equipment to go and visit his girlfriend. They ran this piece saying, actually this time William had a legitimate reason for using a tax-funded military helicopter because he had such a precious cargo.”

PART V: Survival Adaptations

Snow Leopard Vodka - Snow Leopard Trust

“Snow Leopard has always been a bit pioneering, a bit ahead of the curve. Twelve years ago, people were really paying lip service to the environment and what was going on with creatures, plants, endangered species, whether it be animals or plants. I think people genuinely are more concerned than they were, and I think the consumer is voting with their wallet in a way that they weren't twelve years ago.

We give money to something called the Snow Leopard Trust, which is an international charity recognized as the top snow leopard conservation charity in the world. It’s headquartered in Seattle, but all the money goes to community-based conservation projects in key snow leopard habitats. What appealed to me about snow leopard conservation was the way you help the snow leopards survive in the wild is by helping local people. And if you really simplify it, it is by helping women and children, the women herders. In return for the Snow Leopard Trust helping these families be more prosperous, the women would agree to influence the rest of the community, so no snow leopards were killed on their patch.

I believe that Snow Leopard Vodka can be the economic engine to preserve the snow leopard in the wild for good.

By having a long-term mechanism that the current consumer cares about. As long as we maintain the quality of the juice, which is first class, and we sell it at an approachable price, why wouldn't you? As a consumer, why wouldn't you?

My plan had always been, from day one, to set it up, get it going, prove that it works, and then find a major partner. I knew it was virtually impossible to do this on your own. It's the distribution. That’s the reason why Edrington is perfect for me and Snow Leopard.”

Epilogue: A Breakthru Moment

Stephen Sparrow’s passion transformed a bottle of distilled spelt into a powerful force for good, helping communities halfway around the world and growing local businesses at home. Breakthru is thrilled to work with Sparrow and Edrington to bring Snow Leopard Vodka to your business. Talk to your Breakthru Sales Consultant about Snow Leopard’s mission and how your business can leverage it to reach spirits consumers.

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