People say, 'You're nothing like you are on TV!'" says Spencer Matthews cheerfully. "Well, yeah – it's a TV show. I suspect Superman can't really fly."
Matthews is referring to Made In Chelsea, and the years he spent carefully establishing himself as a lothario par excellence. It's fair to say he threw himself into the role, but for Matthews that's all it was – a role, and one he was happy to leave behind.
Today, the ex-City boy, ex-party boy is happily married, happily sober, and embracing his new career as an entrepreneur. Matthews has launched the Clean Liquor Company with the intention not only to harness the rising trend of non-alcoholic spirits, but eventually come to embody it – his ambitions are no lower than "cracking the world."
He might just succeed. As with reality TV, Matthews has inserted himself into a rapidly growing industry at exactly the right moment.
We caught up at The Ned to discuss the nation's changing attitude to alcohol, life in the public eye, and why it's good to be clean...
Tell us about the new business?
The Clean Liquor Company has been quite a long and personal journey. I changed my own relationship with alcohol almost two years ago. My mind works in a completely different way to how it did before. Productivity has increased. Everything about my life has changed for the better. Perhaps not everybody drank the way that I drank...
At a dinner party three months sober, I was offered a gin and tonic made with Seedlip. It opened my eyes to this whole 'drinking but not drinking' thing.
Seedlip is described as a non-alcoholic spirit, which led me to think, 'why doesn't alcohol-free gin exist? And rum, and vodka?' Wouldn't it be great if we could develop a line of products, and ultimately a chain of bars, where you could drink whatever you want without the negative effects of the alcohol? Any cocktail you want, but without that high alcohol content that ultimately gets in the way of an extremely productive life.
You can't consume alcohol daily, to excess, and live a full life. I've tried.
Why did you go for gin first?
Because we want to compete with other people out there. Being first to the market is important, but being best is more important. Alcoholic gin has erupted over the past few years: there's literally thousands of gin brands. I went into a bar the other day and they had 60 different types of gin.
Gin is driven by juniper, and a lot of these alcohol-free alternatives are not. We wanted to be the most authentic gin replacement that you can have. And we are.
I can't believe it's not gin...?
Exactly! We're having a lot of fun with slogans at the moment. We're very fortunate to be working with Broody and Mother, huge ad brands – they do IKEA, KFC, Volvo – far larger companies than us. But they loved the concept, and they loved the opportunity to change the way the world thinks about alcohol.
You go and sit in their enormous offices in Shoreditch, and there's like 20 people in the meeting, a big screen, and I feel very important as a result of it.
Any good slogans? Or are you still workshopping them?
Oh God, we've been working on them for ages. It's quite funny, because as a brand, and as a person, I'm not anti-alcohol; I don't want to position the brand as being some preachy sobriety brand: 'don't drink alcohol, alcohol's bad for you.' If you're reading this article, I would have thought it's obvious that alcohol's bad for you, but we don't need to say it. We should all co-exist.
You're a former City man – booze was a huge part of City culture back in the day...
Oh, big time. I don't want to tread on anyone's toes by poo-pooing the way certain things have been done, and have been done for years, but alcohol was a huge part of working in the City. If back then I'd declared myself sober, I wouldn't have been very good at my job. That's a fact. A lot of what I did was client entertainment, outside of office hours, and a lot of clients want to go out. They want to get drunk, and they want to enjoy themselves.
Alcohol consumption and enjoyment shouldn't really come hand-in-hand – and they don't. A lot of people will tell you, drinking that two or three drinks too many often can really ruin your night, or ruin your week, or make you do stupid things. And it can be quite fun, obviously, and if you want to live your life that way, live your life that way – I'll encourage my son when he's older to enjoy himself and have a good time. I'm not looking to pump anyone's brakes for them.
I've lived on both sides of it. I've been very drunk and been the centre of attention, and I've been sober and worked hard – and I know which I prefer.
Is that a question of maturity?
Absolutely. It's just a part of growing up. But it is quite remarkable: even if you test yourself and do a month of no drinking, as many people have just done with Clean Jan...
You mean Dry Jan?
I like to call it Clean Jan. We're taking over an already existing great idea!
But it's remarkable the feedback you get from people. Most people say, 'I'm faster, I'm stronger, I'm better at work, my wife's happier with me, I'm a better father, I look better, I feel better, I get more work done!' All this stuff.
And then for whatever reason, on the first of February, everyone goes back to normal life. If you can live this enhanced life without the alcohol? It took me a long time to realise it, but why wouldn't you?
It's rare to hear someone say, 'I gave up drinking for a month, and I feel awful...'
Weirdly enough, Jamie Laing has given up drinking, hasn't drank in two months, and he feels worse. He came round and he was like, 'when do I start to feel good?' You should've felt good on day three!
We wanted to tackle this negative connotation surrounding not doing anything. 'Not drinking'; 'non alcoholic'; 'alcohol free' – it's like, turning up to a party and saying, 'I'm not Brad Pitt.' The word 'no' is negative. I always felt that if I went up to a bar, and I asked for a non-alcoholic beer, you sound like an alcoholic. It draws attention to you in a negative way.
It's not right, and it makes people feel uncomfortable about making a positive life change. With the clean concept, we've changed that. Because living clean, and ordering clean, is positive. If you order a clean cocktail, or a clean rum and coke, you're still ordering your rum and coke. It's not – 'can I have a not rum and coke?' It's clean rum. It's a choice, and it's a positive choice.
Not a lot of people start a night with the intention of getting off their face...
It's the same as when e-cigarettes became a thing. We're in the e-cigarette phase of clean drinking – where everything has to look and feel the same way that alcohol looks and feels, because people are uncomfortable with a massive jump. When e-cigarettes were white, everyone wanted the orange butt; so they made e-cigarettes with an orange butt like a cigarette, even though it served no purpose. People were far more comfortable with that, because it looked like a cigarette.
So we're at the stage where our clean drinks look and taste like gin, rum, vodka, tequila. In the future, clean drinking will come in all sorts of ways. It'll be its own thing, it'll come in all these bottles that nobody has ever seen before, the liquid may not resemble anything you know now.
What do you think is behind the recent rise in clean living?
Health plays a major part. People are more health conscious now. People want to spend their money on experiences instead of feeling drunk or high. People seem to be valuing success more. A lot of people want to work for themselves, build their own businesses. The place for being loud and drunk all the time seems to be smaller by the year.
If you were 20 years old now, would you embrace the party lifestyle?
I think times have changed. If you pitched this idea to me when I was 20, I wouldn't have gone for it, but there also wouldn't have been space for it – it wouldn't have worked. Back then, it was socially normal to be drunk.
Having said that, I used to work in the City and run nightclubs – I'm sure people didn't consume the amount of alcohol that I consumed. But it was pretty normal. If you look at the London scene in general, there's a party every night. The City is busy every night, with people drinking. That is changing slightly. There's less time for it.
There's also the mental health element..
Even if you don't decrease the amount of time you spend out, but you lower your alcohol consumption, that's gonna help. I'm not a doctor but I can tell you that being sober will help your mental health. That's obvious to me.
There's always a reason to be out. When you stop drinking, you realise that time home spent with your family is a wonderful thing. And also, you're not missing out. You're not missing anything. I have a lot of friends who still go out, all the time, and great! No problem. But me not being there, I'm not missing out. I used to practically reside in a nightclub. You stand around a table, worshipping a bottle of vodka for three hours, listening to the same music.
And yeah, it can be quite fun – but is it the end of the world to not be there three times a week? No, of course it isn't. But people fall into habits – myself very much included.
Do you miss drinking at all?
When I compare the two people – who I've become and who I was – one is so much better that I don't necessarily miss the other.
There are times, say, New Year's Eve, when I wouldn't mind a cheeky glass, but I wouldn't say it grates me. And the cheeky glass for me is pointless, because if I have a cheeky glass I'll want ten cheeky glasses. I'm greedy like that. The cheeky glass wouldn't do it for me. So there's no point in the cheeky glass.
Ultimately, it's a decision that I've made. If I wanted to go back to drinking, nobody would be concerned. I don't think I ever hung up my boots saying, 'right, I was a terrible drunk, and I need to go to rehab and change my life!' That's not what happened. I thought I could do without alcohol for a bit, and I loved it so much that I realised this is how I want to be.
I wasn't achieving the things that I knew I could achieve, and I blamed the alcohol for that. So I got rid of alcohol – to move on and progress and be a better bloke.
You spent your twenties growing up in the public eye – did that affect you at all?
Probably subconsciously, yeah. Spending six years on Made In Chelsea – it's not a normal environment in which to live. I left that show, and life was so different outside of it. So undramatic and normal. Uncolourful, almost – just normal. And I loved it!
You can have a lovely, normal relationship with your wife, and no one's trying to get in the way of it. No producer's breathing down your neck trying to make it more exciting for people to watch. It was wonderful!
You've gotta develop your life outside the show. It's quite difficult when you're on the show as well, because that's all people see. You're known as whatever you're portrayed as on the show, and if you decide for a good story to play something a certain way, that's what people think you're really like.
So you've gotta be quite careful, and I got that really wrong over the course of a few years – playing up to being a bad character.
You were kind of the first wave of that semi-reality TV generation...
If I'm honest, I couldn't wait to get out of it. And it's not that I didn't enjoy it at the time, but for me this chapter is a different chapter, and it's a much more exciting chapter.
But I don't regret chapter one, and it's brilliant that because you've been on TV people pick up your phone calls. It comes in handy in business, when you go up north to visit some bottling line and they recognise you. It's better than if they didn't.
But being a successful entrepreneur is far more challenging than being entertaining on television. Being entertaining on television isn't enough to fulfil me.
You seem very at peace with people confusing the TV you for the real you...
It doesn't really matter to me what people think of me, if I'm honest. I obviously would like it if people took me seriously and liked me, but ultimately if you have an opinion of me that doesn't fit my expectation, it's certainly not going to bother me. People need to remember that television shows are made to be entertaining. If you followed us around all the time, filming us, you'd have a particularly boring time in the edit.
In a scene, there's a beginning, middle and end, and it has to go a certain way, and if you disagree in the scene that's better than if you agree. So often, in order to get stuff done quickly, we would disagree with one another – and it's not necessarily as the scene would have gone had we not been filming it.
It's interesting, the way both alcohol and reality TV is being reassessed with regards to mental health...
The mental health route is something I would very much like to explore, on a more serious level. I'm very fortunate not to suffer with my mental health, but my wife has been quite anxious in the past, and she very much pins anxiety onto drinking, and I'm sure millions of other people do as well. It's something that people really suffer with.
I don't want to make any health statements, as I've said, I'm not a doctor, but there must be a correlation between drinking less and an improvement in mental health issues. There must be.
What's the five year plan?
Our five year plan is big and bold and barely achievable, but that's how we like it. We'd rather be working to achieve stuff that doesn't seem feasible than be comfortable with what we're doing on a day-to-day basis. By the end of this year, we want bottles in Australia, Dubai, France, Spain, and the States. It's a brand that the whole world needs and wants, whether you know it or not.
All of the taste, and none of the hangover? That's the sales pitch for CleanGin, planned to be the first non-alcoholic spirit of many from the Clean Liquor Company. At 1.2% ABV, and four calories per 50ml serve, you can knock back multiple (clean) G&Ts without any fear of a sore head the morning after. £24.99 per 70cl bottle. cleanliquor.com