Saving the Snow Leopard One Bottle of Vodka at a Time
When transplanted Englishman and entrepreneur Stephen Sparrow took a trip to the Himalayas and learned there were less than 7,000 snow leopards left in existence, his innate sense of philanthropism began to stir.
Stephen’s interest in helping others began after graduating from Oxford University when he established a charity in Grahamstown, South Africa, for underprivileged children to get an education.
Working on safaris also spurred his interest in wildlife conservation.
It was a long and winding road to producing vodka, however.
After working in a London law firm for a few weeks, he joined Jackie Stewart’s racing team, Stewart Grand Prix 1998, that subsequently became Jaguar Racing.
After six years, he moved to Allied Domecq, an international spirits company, as global vice president, but a year later, the company was sold.
“With half an hour of getting my severance deal, I booked three flights: one to Argentina to ride horses and learn the tango, one to Colorado to ski for a month and one to the Himalayas,” he says.
The flight to the Himalayas changed Stephen’s life.
Although he did not see the snow leopard on that trip, he learned that the animal is a keystone creature in the central Asian mountain range which provides the water source to 60% of the planet.
He found out about the Snow Leopard Trust that helps local communities living near snow leopards, and when he returned to London, he established a subsidiary.
“You help snow leopards by helping the local communities predator-proof their livestock, educate the villagers to avoid retaliation killings and incentivize them to protect the leopards,” he says.
“I was interested in the Snow Leopard Trust because it was about community-based conservation, and the way you help the snow leopard survive in the wild is by helping the local people,” he says.
Stephen knew the booze business from his work with Allied Domecq, so to fund the trust, he trademarked the Snow Leopard name for a vodka, a product that mirrored the majesty of the creature he wanted to save from extinction.
“It would have to be a great vodka made from the greatest grain,” he says. “I chose spelt which is the purest and most expensive wheat and has a lovely vanilla, nutty flavor that transcends into the vodka.
“It’s distilled in Poland since the Poles make the best vodka and have been making it the longest,” he says.
With his apartment as his office, he used his bicycle, “Geronimo,” to deliver the vodka to nine pubs around London.
“My close friend, Peter Phillips, the Queen’s eldest grandson, served Snow Leopard Vodka as the only drink at his wedding at Windsor Castle,” he says, “and Prince William was photographed getting off a helicopter with a three-liter bottle of Snow Leopard in his hand, and that got in the press.”
Stephen knew that if he wanted to fully fund the Trust, he would have to get a trade partner. Six years ago, he merged with The Edrington Group who urged him to move to America, where super-premium vodka is the most popular.
“And the Midwest, in particular, is where we had a good distributor and where there are a lot of independent bars and restaurants, and Midwesterners are a friendly lot,” he says, smiling. “I’m a Cardinals and Blues fan now, and we’ve done Jammin’ at the Zoo and some events at the Missouri Botanical Garden.”
Stephen finally got not only a look but a picture of a snow leopard.
A severe cold front struck Mongolia nine years ago, wiping out much of the villagers’ livestock, and Stephen realized they would be desperate.
“The Trust was just starting, but I raided my bank and donated $15,000 to the 200 families, and they asked me to come and visit,” he says.
“I went to Mongolia, and on my fourth day, we were trekking and came across an ibex carcass,” he says.
“I saw a snow leopard and managed to get a picture with my handheld camera, and I’m elated,” he says. “We’re walking back, and an old man from the village was sitting on a wall and asked my translator, ‘Why is that man from far far away so smiley?’ She said that I’d just gotten a great shot of a snow leopard, and I was thankful that I’d been invited to Mongolia. The old man smiled and said to my translator, “No, the snow leopard came to pay his respects.’”
The Snow Leopard Trust receives 15% from each bottle sold.