By the time Imme Ermgassen met the artisan behind botanical aperitif Botivo on a dancefloor in Mexico, she was already well-versed in the craft beverage. It was a small-batch brand with an unclear identity when Imme and Sam Paget Steavenson coincidentally crossed paths; he had started producing early iterations of Botivo organically for his events company, simply as a means of accommodating sober guests. Met with an overwhelmingly positive response, he knew he would need help nurturing the business.
At a seemingly fated wedding on the other side of the world, he got talking to Imme. “He mentioned he had this product called Botivo and I said, ‘Yes! I've been drinking it. I'm obsessed with it. But actually, the branding doesn't speak to me.’” In Imme’s eyes, the original packaging was too serious, and it didn’t capture the spirit of the product. “It’s incredibly special and absolutely delicious - and I'm not someone who would ever normally consider a non-alcoholic drink,” she says. “For me, it’s a really playful, pleasurable drink.”
She immediately began work on a proposal – which, fortuitously, came at just the right time for Sam. “I’m quite introverted and we needed to stoke the fire a bit,” he admits. “If I could have described my business partner before I met them, it would have been 90 per cent Imme.” A self-described “healthy hedonist” with a background in brand advertising, her authentic enthusiasm for the product made her an obvious fit.
The blend of Sam’s artistic sensibility and Imme’s consumer understanding would prove to be the perfect balance, steering Botivo in a more confident direction and captivating a rising corner of the drinks market. “Our customers are mainly natural wine drinkers, craft beer drinkers; people who have discerning tastes and enjoy challenging taste profiles,” Imme says. It’s not strictly sober people who are drawn to this aperitif-inspired drink – their analysis shows that only 10% of Botivo’s customers are non-drinkers. “What we’re trying to do is create a delicious handmade drink where the alcohol content is irrelevant.”
Each ingredient is prepared and blended at Botivo’s headquarters on Lannock Farm in Hertfordshire, and every batch is made by Sam, with Niki, an ex-Brew Dog brewer, recently joining the team to help support growing production. The beverage has an unpasteurised apple cider vinegar base, though “I didn’t use the antioxidant for its gut health benefits, but rather because it is an amazing carrier of flavour,” Sam says. “We age it for a year to allow the taste to mellow and develop a bit of complexity.” A blend of gentian, wormwood, rosemary and thyme, lifted with a hint of citrus, “it works with wildflower honey to draw out the botanical notes.”
“Our neighbours here are also in the food and drink world,” Sam says. “There is a brilliant coffee roaster called Campervan Coffee Co, and also the amazing Crossover Blendery, a brewery where they forage lesser-known British fruits to make delicious barrel-aged beers.” This like-mindedness has fostered a close community where everyone knows and supports each other, a cushion which is especially important for such a young business. “There was no blueprint for making Botivo,” Sam laughs. “If someone wanted to make gin they could buy hundreds of books about how to distil gin, but with Botivo it is a lot of trial and error. That’s the benefit of doing small batches – we can figure it out as we go.”
Limiting their runs is just one way Sam and Imme reduce their carbon footprint. They source the majority of ingredients from around the UK, and their cider vinegar is made using apples picked on family-owned British farms. Last year, the brand was approved by Slow Food, a grassroots organisation which champions minimally processed foods and traditional farming. This is a unique feat for an aperitif company; Botivo stands out in its refusal to use flavourings or preservatives.
Naturally, Botivo’s branding has evolved with its taste. When Imme joined, she commissioned her artist friend Rozalina Burkova to illustrate 21 characters of different genders, sizes, races and ages for the labels, each having a visibly merry time. “There's no reason why a product can't be pleasurable if it doesn't have alcohol in it,” Imme says. “The illustration is supposed to represent this artisanal and almost hedonistic world that everyone can see themselves in.”
The choice of brand colour was given great thought, with both Sam and Imme predicting that it would become a huge part of Botivo’s identity. They wanted to capture the universally uplifting feeling of leaving work behind and indulging in a small pleasure of some kind. Before long, the phrase ‘yellow hour’ was coined. “That's the most important time of the day for a lot of people,” Imme says. “You finally get to ease into your own time, and you deserve a really special drink in that moment.” Sam smiles as he remembers one of their most-valued pieces of feedback: reports that the River Cafe team will often share a bottle of Botivo at the end of a long day.
With a batch of learning curves behind them, Sam and Imme have growing ambitions for their brand, with a plan to roll out limited-edition flavours in the coming months. “Our dream one day is for Botivo to be at every bar and in every home,” Imme says. “It’s a brand for everyone to feel comfortable sharing around the table, whichever way they choose to drink it.”
Words by Bébhinn Campbell.
Photography by Lauren Maccabee.