Peter Smith accidentally created the ‘Holy Grail of vegan drinks’ when his wife fell ill five years ago. Today, his County Durham food and drinks company is on the cusp of going global. Kate Stanley reports

VEGANISM is one of Britain’s fastest growing lifestyle movements, with a new generation of health-conscious consumers pushing up sales of vegan food and drinks and abstaining from using any animal products in their day-to-day lives.

According to new research released in April, the number of people taking up veganism in the UK has skyrocketed to 3.5 million - seven per cent of the population - while celebrities including Ellie Goulding and Miley Cyrus have helped quash the out-dated stereotypical vegan image.

For County Durham entrepreneur Peter Smith, the fact his exclusive range of Besos-branded products can carry the vegan logo is merely an accidental commercial bonus; he believes his creamy Irish liqueur is tasty enough to rival leading bestseller Baileys, and soaring sales figures certainly back his claims.

In the next 12 months, he fully expects his Spanish drink Besos de Oro – made from the ‘milky’ tiger nut horchata – to be on supermarket shelves the length and breadth of the UK, as well as making inroads across the US and in Berlin, which has been dubbed the vegan capital of Europe.

He is also working with a large UK chocolatier to develop a range of vegan chocolate bars using the ‘milky’ tiger nut horchata, with plans to sell them in their tens-of-thousands each month through health food stores alone.

Projected growth has led Peter to enlist the support of economic development organisation Business Durham and relocate his company to larger premises on its Dabble Duck Industrial Estate in Shildon, where it expects to create jobs and run a multi-million-pound operation.

“The firm is doing everything I ever dreamt of and more," he says. "By 2020, I see my drinks being on every shelf that Baileys is on; I’m absolutely sure it will happen. We are expanding into the US this year and to Germany before Christmas. My dream over the next four years is to be in as many countries as possible. Everyone will recognise the Besos brand; yes, it will be vegan-friendly, but more importantly it will be synonymous with high-quality and a delicious taste.”

Peter invented Besos de Oro (which means Golden Kisses) five years ago while living and working with his wife Penelope in Spain, where its key ingredient, the tiger nut - not actually a nut, but harvested from the roots of a plant - is grown.

“She had two heart attacks and became seriously ill. There were times I thought I might lose her,” says Peter, who returned to the region in 2015 and lives in Barnard Castle. “She changed everything - her diet, her lifestyle - and doctors said to have no more than one alcoholic drink a day, which in the Spanish sunshine can be hard.

“One day she asked for a brandy, so to make it last a little longer I grabbed a carton of horchata concentrate, which is a milk-like drink the Spanish love, and I poured some into her drink. It looked and tasted like Baileys, only better. It was phenomenal.

“I’d accidentally come up with a vegan and lactose-free version of Baileys liqueur, but while Baileys is full of sugar, which masks the alcohol, ours is not so sweet and you can really taste and enjoy the lovely, smoky Spanish brandy. It’s got a kick; it is now our star.”

Peter set up food and drinks firm Besos to start selling the liqueur, which is produced in Spain using horchata concentrate, making it suitable for vegetarians, vegans and people with nut allergies and lactose intolerance.

In its first year of trading, Besos sold 1,800 bottles, mainly at vegan fairs and online. Last year sales grew almost 800 per cent to 16,000 bottles and Peter is on the cusp of signing an exclusive deal with supermarket Sainsbury’s to stock both Besos De Oro and a chocolate version of the drink, Besos De Chocolate, in stores nationwide, in a move worth at least £1.2m to the company.

“Sainsbury’s has asked for exclusivity for the first year, but once that is over you can guarantee that the other five major supermarkets will come on board and then we are looking at £5m worth of business at the very least on liqueur sales alone,” he says.

Aside from the alcohol and chocolate, Besos also sells cartons of tiger nut drink as a milk alternative and recently launched packed-lunch sized cartons of “chocolate sticky bun” flavoured tiger nut milk, emulating the taste of a popular Spanish delicacy - an iced, sweet pastry bun often dipped in horchata.

Peter says growth in sales and new product development meant Besos had to relocate. “We desperately needed to move to bigger premises with storage space, but when you’re a small business it can be really tough,” he says. “We found Dabble Duck and Business Durham has bent over backwards to help us get in. As a small business that’s growing any help is so valuable and the support has been a major boost for Besos.”

Welcoming the company to the Dabble Duck site, Business Durham managing director Brian Archer says: “Besos looks set to not only become a well-known brand, but also to be responsible for introducing the extraordinary tiger nut to the masses – not just vegans - here in the UK and beyond.”

What are Tiger Nuts?

In Spain, the ‘Cyperus Esculentus’ plant – also referred to as the Tiger Nut Sedge - is cultivated for its edible tiger nuts.

Despite its name and appearance, which isn’t dissimilar to a peanut, the tiger nut is not a nut but a plant-based edible ‘tuber’.

Tiger nuts are harvested from the ground and then dried in the sun for three months, being turned daily to ensure the uniform drying.

In Spain, the naturally-sweet tiger nuts are used to make the milk-like horchata drink.

Tiger nuts are classed as a superfood and have been reported to help prevent heart disease and thrombosis, while also activating blood circulation and reducing the risk of colon cancer.