Force of nature: Snow Leopard's Stephen Sparrow

“Working on the F1 deal, I got to know Allied. It spent £100m on sponsorships around the world but there was no strategy,” he says. “The drinks industry was worried about possibly no above-the-line activity and no TV advertising. Allied wanted someone with a strong sponsorship background. So I was appointed global vice president to get investing properly.  It was a great opportunity to join a multinational. 

“I was at the heart of the company but it was a bloody white elephant. The board was disingenuous. It did not really have any such intentions. It was touting itself up for sale, so the last thing it wanted was big global long-term acquisitions. The job on paper did not match reality. It was getting itself ready for sale. 

“When I was offered redundancy, I jumped at it. The severance deal gave me a year of travelling. I rode horses in Argentina for six months and learnt the tango. I went skiing for a month in the Rockies at Vail and then went to the Annapurna range in Nepal,” says an exuberant Sparrow, reliving the memories.

“I heard about the snow leopard. I thought it was mythical or extinct. I saw the leopard’s spoor where it scents its territory – sprays rocks with its scent and scratches on the ground. Apparently young males do not make this effort until they are about four years old because they are not ready to take on the dominant male,” he recounts.

He claims to be one of fewer than 100 western people who have seen a snow leopard in the wild. “An old herder said: ‘He has come to pay his respects.’  The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.”

Sparrow thought about buying land in Argentina, north of Mendoza, to grow some vines, but was sensible enough to realise that he did not know enough about it. Plus there are thousands of people like him growing grapes and/or trying to make wine, profitably.

“I was toying with the idea of doing something in the drinks business. I had no intention of launching a vodka brand but I was looking for a business with a philanthropic element – but it had to earn money.

“From my Allied days I had access to data. Vodka is profitable and has good distribution around the world. Forty per cent of cocktails in the US are vodka-based, that was the business logic behind it. I don’t spend money on market research. I just buy a round of drinks with my mates.

“I thought that Snow Leopard was a knockout name, representing purity and quality. I did an intellectual property search – nothing.

Track record

“Living in Notting Hill, I had come across spelt bread, the world’s oldest grain. I wanted the best-quality, best-tasting vodka. I needed to find a good distiller. I went to Poland as it has a good track record in producing vodka,” adds Sparrow.

So Sparrow set up the trust in 2005 in his kitchen and launched the brand in 2006. Part of his legend is that he went round delivering on a bicycle.

“I used to get deliveries to my third-floor flat. Wholesalers used to hate me, 20-30 cases up stairs. I used to carry 18 litres on my bike. The weight broke wheels.”