Jenny Needham talks to the brothers whose lockdown dream in the Dales led to the creation of the UK's first bottled hard seltzer

WHAT do you like to toast the New Year in with? A good glass of red? Yet another pint of ale? A flute of Champagne, perhaps? For this year's revellers, it might just be a bottle of hard seltzer.

Hard or "spiked" seltzer is carbonated water combined with alcohol and fruit flavouring. The best versions use real fruit juice, others add artificial flavouring. And part of the reason why it's becoming so popular is that it ticks a lot of the boxes for health-conscious consumers – it's gluten-free, low-calorie, low-sugar, low-carb, and low-alcohol.

The Americans have been fans for years, and now hard seltzer is having a moment here, too. And you might be surprised to know that an idea dreamt up in Swaledale is in the vanguard of bringing this bubbly, quaffable beverage to UK drinkers.

James and Tom Henderson formulated their plan when the pandemic struck and they left London to hunker down for the duration with their parents in Grinton, near Reeth. They arrived with overnight bags and ended up staying for months. James, 33 and already in the drinks trade, was furloughed, while 31-year-old Tom lost his job during the first lockdown.

"I certainly thought it would be a matter of days or weeks and must have only packed a small few changes of clothes," says James. "Then, of course, time flew and Tom and I had grown full beards whilst reverting somewhat incongruously to childhood. What a place to weather it out in though. Our house in Grinton has the most stunning views over Reeth and that brilliant warm summer in 2020 made it all the better to enjoy the space outside. It was a very special period in many ways and we both gained a closer connection to and appreciation of the Dale as our home."

James had first started hearing about hard seltzer through trade media back in 2018, and had harboured dreams of his own venture since working with Sipsmith Gin when they were a start-up.

"It’s very rare to see a completely new ‘category’ of drink emerge, and here was one that was being drunk as ubiquitously and easily as beer, whilst being health-conscious, and outselling the biggest beer brands in the States. I remember being at The Bridge Inn in Grinton with my best friend, eulogising about hard seltzer’s potential and wistfully imagining it as a catalyst to at last achieve the dream of selling my own product. He just told me to stop whingeing and do it. It took two years, but here we are."

James and Tom Henderson

James and Tom Henderson

The brothers were lucky to catch the hard seltzer phenomenon early. "We bought in a selection of the first brands to emerge, from home and abroad, but the quality, flavour and overall enjoyment of the liquids across the board was astonishingly low. This was great news for us as we set out to create a hard seltzer we could be proud to share with people; that was not just more drinkable than others, but positively moreish and with authentic flavours.

"Great taste is our biggest USP and we spared no expense to find the best ingredients and production methods available. We are the only premium hard seltzer in a glass bottle rather than a can, and as a British product from a family business, we have real heart as a brand."

The name of Yan Tan seltzer was inspired by Swaledale

The name of Yan Tan seltzer was inspired by Swaledale

James and Tom engaged food scientists who were able to source a library of flavour samples to work through in the lab, a process that took several weeks. "It’s tricky because with zero sugar, the fruit and botanicals mixed with alcohol can often taste quite raw," explains James. "We wanted to base the flavours around a British garden theme, with elderflower and damson front of mind. Hawthorn married perfectly with elderflower, and our damson was better with rhubarb to give it a bit of sharpness."

Base alcohol made from British apples adds a perfect soft and fruity foundation for each product. Outside of this, the majority of the ingredients are locally sourced and the drink is produced in partnership with the famous Robinsons Brewery in Stockport, who produce premium mixers alongside their range of beers.

Finding the right name for their product took time. "We were scribbling down all sorts of names for weeks, from obscure wildlife to British folklore," says James. "One morning I had been up all night – again – working on the business model when Dad came down to make a cup of tea and said ‘how about Yan Tan – it’s a Swardle (Swaledale dialect) rhyme the shepherds use. It means One Two – like you and Tom'."

The packaging is all home-designed, the most noticeable element a feather motif, which represents the birdlife of Swaledale and the family parrots Sekou and Angel, plus "the great British festival spirit of dressing up and feeling a little wild of a summer".

For both James (the City, Carlsberg and, Sipsmith, amongst other former employers) and Tom (Wowcher and Zoopla Property), the creation of Yan Tan has been a voyage of discovery, having to teach themselves elements of production, food science, fundraising, financial modelling, digital commerce and brand marketing along the way. "But it's been amazing to share a dream with a brother you are close to and trust – it would be us against the world, but with Yan Tan we want the world to come with us."

James is now back in London, but since committing to the venture full-time, Tom has been living the country life in Grinton. The brothers grew up in South London, but North Yorkshire has always been part of their lives. "Our grandfather lived in Well, near Bedale, and several times a year we would embark on what seemed an epic car journey north, one I take every few weeks now without thinking," says James. "That feeling of the country was significant to us, as well as to our parents, who moved to Grinton eight years ago."

When we spoke, the plan was to be in Grinton once again for the festive season – "a nip in the air, midnight mass down the road and a couple of drinks at The Bridge Inn with the brass band. The Yan Tan will certainly be flowing like the river Swale – the stock tends to deplete quite quickly when people come round. Not many friends had come across hard seltzer some months ago, but it’s no exaggeration to say that Yan Tan is now a part of our circle's drinking vocabulary."

  • Yan Tan seltzer is also available locally at Campbells of Leyburn, The Blue Lion at East Witton, and The Gift Shop in Reeth.