A St. Louis-Based Entrepreneur’s Artisan Vodka Brand Helps Save Snow Leopards
British business executive Stephen Sparrow had worked in the beverage industry for years when he decided to leave the corporate world and travel. He made his way to the Himalayas, where he saw a snow leopard for the first time. “I was just fascinated,” he says.
Sparrow then learned that snow leopards are not just endangered—they are critically endangered. Only around 3,500 snow leopards still exist in the wild, which galvanized him to do something about it. Using his industry experience, Sparrow decided to craft a luxury vodka that would donate a portion of its proceeds to snow leopard conservation.
That was in 2005. Now, over a decade later, the fruits of his labor is Snow Leopard Vodka, a top-of-the-line spirit that generates a consistent stream of revenue for the Snow Leopard Trust, an organization that seeks to protect the snow leopard’s habitat and aid the herder populations surrounding them. It’s where Sparrow donates 15 percent of the company’s profits.
His journey led him to St. Louis, where he has been busily establishing relationships with bars and restaurants. Keep reading to hear more about the brand and what Sparrow loves about St. Louis.
How did you originally become so passionate about protecting snow leopards?
I’d worked for several years in the beverage industry on the corporate side, and eventually I’d had enough of it. Growing up, during holidays from university I’d also worked as a tour guide in East Africa. Before I decided to start Snow Leopard Vodka, I spent a year traveling to places I hadn’t visited before. Eventually I got to the Himalayas, where I learned about the fraught existence of snow leopards and how endangered they are. I learned that a big part of helping snow leopards survive is to help the local herders who share their terrain.
I really wanted to do something to help, so I set up the Snow Leopard Trust in the U.K. But we had no money. My most relevant experience at that point had been as an executive in the booze industry. I thought if I could trademark Snow Leopard Vodka, make a really great-tasting vodka and give a percentage of the profits to the Snow Leopard trust, that could be the engine for providing a regular income stream that would help snow leopards succeed in the wild.
It’s never been motivated by personal gain. It was more an attitude of, “I can actually do something about this problem.” I have a background in the industry, and there’s a real simplicity in making a great product with the name of a majestic endangered species and providing the consumer with the ability to choose what they want to support. That 15 percent we give away to charity is not being charged to the consumer. People do care about these things. It’s also just a terrific vodka. We make it with spelt grain, an ancient supergrain, instead of wheat or rye—which gives it a really rich, nutty taste. Then, it’s distilled six times.
How has the process of supporting this cause changed in the years since you started?
Back in 2005 when I started, snow leopards had none of the publicity they have now. I wasn’t sure if they actually existed, or if they were a rare mythical creature. They’re an apex predator that have adapted to mountain life, and they can live in altitudes up to 7,000 metres high. The ideal snow leopard habitat is between 2,000 and 7,000 meters in altitude. They’re also majestically beautiful, and ecologically super important, if you remember a bit of high-school biology about the food chain.
I try to visit a snow leopard habitat every summer to see some of the projects benefited by the Snow Leopard Trust. I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with herders in Mongolia and in India. They live a very simple life, but they’re incredible people. These are families living on $300 annually, and you’re a stranger from the other side of the world, but when you come, they’ll have their best china out and their best biscuits to eat. The rule in the desert is you never lock your door, because someone may have gotten into trouble in the desert and needs water and shelter. It’s a wonderful community of people, who through our help are able to help others.
How did you grow your original passion and idea into a business?
I basically turned my flat in Notting Hill into the world headquarters of Snow Leopard Vodka. Then the plan was to find a business partner from the industry. Five years ago I joined with a company called The Edrington Group, owned by a charitable trust in Scotland. Much of their profits are donated to charitable causes, and they have very strong distribution. They’re an exceptional match—like Snow Leopard Vodka, their core values include philanthropy and giving.
How did your business journey bring you from England to St. Louis?
America is the most important market for premium vodka, particularly for vodka over the $20-per-bottle price point. I felt that I needed to be in the market.
Edrington has distribution points all around America, but the key was to find the right people and partners to help share the Snow Leopard story. For us, this is St. Louis. You can get a lot done quickly here, and people have really responded to the personal commitment of moving from one country to another and having to integrate. I first came here in April of last year, and I was bowled over by the beautiful spring weather. And Forest Park—I had no idea St. Louis had this amazing park.
St Louis ticked all the boxes. And in the three months I’ve spent here to date, Snow Leopard is now in about 50 of the best bars in St. Louis, predominantly in the Central West End. People have also been super friendly. I lived in Los Angeles for a few years and made a lot of what I would call fair-weather friends. Moving to the Midwest is totally different. People are very generous and open, and luckily for me I’ve made good friends and regard St. Louis as my home. I am really beginning to feel like a St. Louisan. I’ve been to my first Cardinals game, and watched the Blues play. I feel lucky that I’ve been welcomed by so many people.
What is your vision for the future of your brand?
These things really take time. I’ve been doing it for over 10 years, and we’re just now getting focused on the right market and the right way to approach it. If we could provide enough stability to snow leopard conservation that could move them from critically endangered to a safer status, that would be a real step towards change.
Where can people buy the vodka?
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