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Alchemy, WTF? An interview with Dash Lilley, drinks expert, plant alchemist and co-founder of Three Spirit.

Alchemy, WTF? An interview with Dash Lilley, drinks expert, plant alchemist and co-founder of Three Spirit.

How did you, Tati and Meeta - the three founders of Three Spirit - all meet?

Well, Tati and I met on a dancefloor in a field someplace about 10 years ago. I fell in love with her right then and there and we have been rolling together ever since. We are now married, have two kids and now a business together.

I met Meeta through Tati, as they had been working together on some exciting start-up projects in the drinks space.

Tati and I had a concept that we wanted to develop; a range of functional non-alcoholic spirits and drinks that could be a worthy alternative to booze. We were both working on other things when Meeta heard about the idea, and she got excited. Her enthusiasm and focus allowed the three of us to make time for what became Three Spirit. We are all very different characters with varied experience and expertise which gives Three Spirit's founding team a great, complementary mix. I love working with them both.

Three Spirit is not my first rodeo. I left the film business where I had worked for several years to start a coconut water company. It was called Cocoface, and we basically sourced the best young coconuts in the world just at the time that coconut water was becoming a thing. It started life as a street-food and events company but quickly became a brand that was stocked in high-end retailers such as Ocado, Wholefoods Market and Planet Organic as well as across multiple European countries. Coconut water was one of the first mainstream natural functional drink products, and I was drawn to that. 

I also helped to create a wonderful Argentinian tea company called Champatea. This is where I learned a lot about medicinal plants and how to use them. Champatea is a charity owned business dedicated to protecting and reforesting ancient mountainous forests while educating communities on environmental sustainability. It's a very cool product, brand and ethos. I don't think Three Spirit would necessarily exist if I had not cut my teeth on those two experiences first. They taught me so much about the drinks business and allowed me to find the sweet spot of where to play and when.

What's your role at Three Spirit today? 

I head up product so I am responsible for creating and making our drinks. There are so many considerations, steps, people, places and challenges involved in making our drinks and putting that liquid in a bottle, so it keeps me pretty busy! I also work very closely with the team on brand, as the character and identity of our company are so important to me and I love creating products and brands. I think of our products as people, they have their own character, story and vibe. I see them as different wingmen; all good for different occasions.

I am very passionate about food and drink in general. The smells, tastes and textures all bring me great pleasure and a sense of wellbeing. These qualities are so powerful, they can trigger memories, make memories and most importantly make life worth living. I have always loved cooking as well as eating, and I am particularly drawn into the science of cooking. Every time we cook, we are playing with the chemical and physical properties of food - changing one thing into another. What's going on when we boil a potato or bake bread? It's fascinating to think about how we can break carbohydrates into sugars and sugars into alcohol or energy etc. I love that my work enables me to go deeper into the science of food and drink. To me, its all alchemy. 

Alchemy, WTF?

Good question! Alchemy is a word with lots of different meanings for different people. For me, it has a special quality of conjuring feelings of magic, intrigue and mystery. It’s really the precursor of modern-day chemistry, in essence, the science behind understanding what matter is made from and how to change it from one state to another. Alchemy is a goal and inspiration at Three Spirit, to create something that has not existed before, to create something new from individual components that have never been combined. This runs through into all that we do in terms of bringing people together with very different skill-sets and experience in order to share ideas and approach a challenge from a new perspective. We work with plant scientists, phytochemists, pharmaceutical scientists, amazing bartenders, food scientists and artists to create our liquids. It's not a traditional approach, but by working with a diverse group of people, I feel we can push the boundaries that need pushing when it comes to functional drinks.

Tell us about how you got into plants? 

I have always appreciated plants and nature and to be honest, I find it a funny question as I just assume that all people appreciate plants. How could anyone not be in awe of the plant kingdom? There are endless resources that they produce like oxygen, food, shelter, wood, a tree to climb, fuel, perfume, paper, glue, rubber, medicine, habitats and so on. But forgetting the big stuff, I guess I love nature, I love learning about how and why things exist, what their physical and chemical attributes are, what the historical use of a plant has been and how we can utilise these properties today.

As mentioned before I love cooking and eating, so you inevitably learn about plants because you eat them. You learn about what they taste like, where they come from, how to grow them and how to prepare them. My mum was a massive influence on me in the kitchen and the garden. She was a great cook and a keen gardener, so I stuck close to her and picked up a taste for it. In fact, I have always found watching cooking and gardening shows on TV really therapeutic and relaxing. My dad, on the other hand, used to work in the wine business and so I also learned about what to drink. He started working for my mum's dad (my grandpa) who had a family wine business dating back to the early 20th century, and so I think by osmosis I started an appreciation of how grapes are grown, the different varieties, the terroir, the complexity of flavours, the never-ending variables dictating the end result, the romantic and distant growing regions and so on. It's only with hindsight that I can maybe say that these early experiences during childhood were in part responsible for my interest in the magnificent properties of plants today.

It should also be said that I have always been attracted to plants that have physiological properties. Can a plant or substance make you feel X, Y or Z, etc? That means things like coffee and tea as well as some more exotic plants known as entheogens such as tobacco, cacao or psilocybin. These type of plants, when taken ceremonially, are traditionally used to alter one's state and allow a change of mood or perspective. These altered states can be liberating, intoxicating, healing and sometimes overwhelming, but they also offer insight into ourselves and our surroundings in a deep and meaningful way. This is something that I am respectful of and always curious. It is perhaps through this curiosity that I have found a more recent passion for functional foods and drinks, looking at how we can utilise amazing and powerful plants to create worthy and novel products that can be beneficial and add more fun in our daily lives.

How did you approach creating the three drinks? 

We focused on creating one drink initially - Social Elixir - but the idea was always to reach the magic number of three as soon as soon as we could. They are all very different from one another, and that is no accident. We originally set out to look closely at alcohol and study in detail how alcohol (ethanol) interacts with the human nervous system and mechanisms responsible for mood. We identified alcohol's obvious perceived positive effects, such as loss of inhibition, relaxation and mood enhancement. We then looked to find the most suitable plants that could provide a similar effect on dopamine, serotonin and GABA in the brain. It's not just the physiological effects that were of interest, it was the undeniable cultural and sociological positives around alcohol that inspired the concept. 

It is so vital that people socialise, gather together, share stories and jokes, forget your troubles or share them with a mate or even a stranger. These things are what we call connection and they have been happening for millennia, and often accompanied by booze of some kind. The alcohol helps grease the wheels of socialising, but socialising alone is the powerful holistic practice that helps keep us sane and happy, connected and in the loop. 

We wanted to address the fact that more and more people are choosing to drink less or stop drinking altogether, or if like me you just want more options other than ‘to booze or not to booze'. If you don't drink alcohol why shouldn't there be an alternative that can help you loosen up and get you in the right vibe to socialise like you would at the pub? That's what we set out to achieve with Three Spirit.

Our newer products Livener and Nightcap use similar research and thinking as the original. These drinks have a more specific uses, so the Livener - as it sounds - is designed to get you lively, stimulate the palette and is a fun, uplifting drink. Nightcap is all about relaxation and slow sippin' - so is more of an end of the night drink - hence the name Nightcap.

In order to make our liquids we have worked with some amazing people who all bring something different to the party. We have a phytochemist and pharmaceutical scientist in our team, both of whom bring incredible knowledge on how to use the right plants and compounds in the right way to achieve our goals. We have worked with herbalists and foragers to find plants. We work with a collection of leading bartenders like Tristen Stevenson, Robin Honhold, Matt Hastings and Thom Aske, who have helped shape the flavour profiles of our drinks to create stand-alone liquids that can deliver complex and challenging flavours and be used to make endless cocktails or sipped neat. We also work with Professor Michael Heinrich, Professor of Ethnopharmacology and Pharmacognosy at UCL, where he studies and teaches the use of plants in both traditional and pharmaceutical medicine. It's a vast cross-section of expertise but it's this mix that enables us to do something new.

Tell us more about your work with UCL?

By working with Prof Michael Heinrich we are looking at ways to learn more about plants, full stop. We work with UCL to choose the best plants and extracts to use in our drinks now or in the future. On top of this, we are working with the school to design and execute an independent research project into the efficacy of our products and some of our key ingredients. This we hope will provide novel research that can benefit the wider industry as well as helping us improve our products, supply chain and extraction processes.

Professor Michael Heinrich


What processes do you use to get plants into the drinks? 

Good question, what don't we do?! So we use a variety of techniques to extract the desired flavour and functional properties from plant material, where the real chemistry comes into play. The plants have been grown and harvested - the fruits, seeds, roots or leaves have been picked - snow is the time to try and capture the magic and all the wonderful natural properties from the plant. We are all about active compounds, so this means some methods of extraction are better than others depending on the plant.

For instance, we use dry powdered extracts of high-grade cacao in Social Elixir, which allows us to extract the maximum amount of theobromine, the active compound in the plant that is of most interest to us. Theobromine is an incredible compound that can promote positive mood and energy, so we like it very much. In some cases, we use ethanol to extract the flavour and functional compounds out of the plant matter. This method is often best for pulling delicate flavours and non-water soluble material from the plant. We use this method for plants such as lemon balm and white willow in Nightcap. In other cases, we use vegetable glycerine to extract the desired properties from plants. This is an amazing method for pulling colour and flavour from the raw material and also has the benefit of adding natural sweetness with no addition of sugar. We brew our own hops for Nightcap and make an infusion with the fresh hop flowers before adding the liquid to our other extractions. We ferment and age the nectar of coconut flowers for 12 months, harnessing the power of wild yeasts and natural mothers of vinegar. The sugars in the nectar transform into acetic acid creating coconut vinegar that is sweet and sour and full of prebiotics. We use insane oleoresins (super sticky tar like extracts) made from black pepper, Sichuan pepper and habanero peppers that pack enough punch to knock out a small elephant, but we utilise these powerful flavours in minute amounts to deliver incredible mouthfeel and complexity that make our drinks memorable.

Essentially, we make life hard for ourselves because taking the easy path often ends up with a mediocre result that is just not worth getting excited about. We do things that no one else has done or would do, unless they were mad. Often it's like trying to get a square peg through a round hole, but there is always a way. I pull my hair out daily, trying to overcome product challenges - whether they are technical, financial or emotional - but the rollercoaster ride is fun, and I don't wanna get off just yet!

How do you source the ingredients?

We have some amazing partners who cultivate many beautiful plant-based ingredients. It is really important for me to find producers who are both innovative and ambitious as well as technically proficient and able to produce a consistent level of quality. That is not always easy. There is generally a divide between large mainstream ingredient suppliers with all the credentials and efficiencies and the smaller artisan producers who are pushing the boundaries of what is possible. I like to work with both as they are good at different things. When we work with the smaller guys, we can create bespoke ingredients that are made to the exact specification that we need. For instance, we source our guayusa from small native farming communities in Ecuador who grow the magic caffeinated leaf under the canopy of the rainforest, meaning that their cultivation methods are in harmony with the surrounding habitat that is so very rich in flora and fauna. The dried leaves are then transported to an incredibly high tech lab in the United States where we produce a beautiful extract using methods, equipment and techniques that would never be available in the jungle. It is this balance of working with ancient plants and high-quality raw material and then finding modern techniques to get the best out of the plant for our needs. We need to be able to make it soluble, identify the flavour and functional compounds of interest and produce a consistent and safe extract that can be blended and bottled.

We work with a lovely birch water farmer who taps birch trees in Loch Ness Scotland. The harvest happens once a year in the Spring when the trees have sucked up the maximum mineral-rich water from the rich soil. Only a small amount of liquid is taken from each tree as to not cause harm, and as a result, we get an incredibly delicate, milky, acidic vanilla-tinged liquid that works beautifully in Nightcap. We are helping these guys figure out ways to scale so that they can continue to supply us rather than us using a bigger producer that lacks the care and craft that we always look for.

 

Any ingredients you're excited to work with in the future? 

Loads, there is a never-ending list of curiosities to explore. We have analysed and considered so many plants for their flavour and function whilst developing our three current products, and while most considerations didn't make the cut, there is a big (excuse the football chat) sub-bench full of quality options. I don't want to give away too much in terms of future ingredients of interest, as some of these we keep close to our chest as we don't want our secrets out before our new products launch.

I have many favourite plants so not possible to name THE favourite, but I can try and name a few. In terms of everyday joy and usefulness, it is hard to beat rosemary. I love growing it, I love cooking with it, and if I see it in someone's front garden I can't resist giving its leaves a little pinch and then savouring the smell which just puts a smile on my face. It's full of rosmarinic acid too which is a powerful antioxidant and good for preventing inflammation. For something a little more exotic, I am particularly into cacao at the moment and have been experimenting with it in different ways. I long to visit small specialist farms in Guatemala to see the alien-like fruit grow on the tree and watch and learn about each step during harvesting of the cacao beans. I love the Hawthorn tree more than most; memories of climbing them when I was a little kid still resonates, and enjoying their magnificent pink flowers in Spring all over London makes me very happy. Their berries produce a wonderful flavour and they are one ingredient that I hope to work with in the future as studies show that the berry may help reduce anxiety and also reduce hair loss, who knew!?

I can't forget to mention some other heavyweight trees like red cedar or giant redwoods that both smell amazing but are also awe-inspiring due to how long they can live and how tall they can grow. Too many plants and not enough time!!!

What have you been doing through lock-down to keep happy and healthy?  

I have been lucky that Three Spirit has been doing well during lockdown, so that has kept me busy. Its been a mad, strange time for all of us but with so many businesses suffering, we are grateful that we have weathered the storm so far. That said it’s been a challenge; juggling kids, homeschooling and work - so finding some upsides of lockdown is important. I have been loving the sun throughout spring, spending loads of time outside rather than in an office which is where I am happiest. I have been running a lot which is new for me, as I usually play a lot of football to keep fit and stay sane, so running has filled some of the football void, and I'm really into it now!  A morning run before work before breakfast makes me feel great and puts me in the right frame of mind for the day, followed by a ceremonial dose of pure cacao (45g of 100% pure cacao) in a drink on an empty stomach. This has replaced the need for coffee for me, and breakfast in general. The run and cacao combo gives me a huge hit of energy combined with a calm sense of focus and clarity which I find very helpful for work. It keeps me going until lunch and I like the fact that I can now alternate days where I consume coffee- which I absolutely love and probably have abused over the years.

I have been enjoying spending more time with the kids, I have two boys (5 & 2), so they are a handful, but we have had a great time together during this time. Lockdown has provided a once in a lifetime opportunity to step back, feel no guilt, no FOMO and do what is most important, whether that is staying home, spending time with family, getting the garden, in shape, learning a new skill or just trying your best to survive each day.

Favourite Three Spirit drink? How best to enjoy it?

Nightcap holds a special place in my heart. Even when it was just a concept on paper, I knew that it would be my favourite. It is full of flavours and plants that I love, its mellow, woody spice and its soft velvety texture makes it almost addictive. I can make some of my favourite classic cocktails with the Nightcap, Old Fashioneds, smokey Sours (Penicillin), or you can simply enjoy it over ice and you’re good. Add a tiny thimble of peat-heavy whiskey in your glass, and bang you've just created a mega delicious, super low-ABV Old Fashioned... delicious.

 

What's next for Three Spirit? 

We have lots of very exciting plans, including kicking off a research project with UCL this year which will be very exciting for me. I look forward to working with amazing scientists to learn more about how we can do better and share new knowledge.

We are working on developing several new drinks that are all so different, and have lots of potential. It's probably what I enjoy most about my job, being able to think up something and then working toward making it a reality. Watch this space.

We are launching in the US later this year which is so exciting, and such an interesting market for us, as people there are more familiar with the notion of functional ingredients and products.

I can't wait to see what the future holds, and I look forward to sharing more drinks, more ingredients and more education as we go. I'm always happy to hear about new ideas, and to talk to people about what we do, so get in touch!