On 17 June 2010, Stephen Sparrow found himself two metres from a snow leopard at a fresh ibex kill in Mongolia — a moment so rare some people might disbelieve it had he not captured it on a handheld camera without a zoom lens.
A keen philanthropist, wildlife enthusiast, businessman and lawyer, Sparrow is also a skilled storyteller. Mongolia is home to the largest population of snow leopards after China, he explains, and his excitement about this encounter with the ‘ghost of the mountain’ is still palpable.
Known to the community as the ‘Man from far far Away’, Sparrow remembers an old Mongolian shepherd asking his guide why he was smiling soon after that experience. Sparrow’s animated description of the snow leopard sighting was duly dismissed. "The shepherd took a long draw on his pipe and said to the guide, 'No. He didn’t see a snow leopard. The snow leopard came to pay its respects.'"
Sparrow’s passion for shielding these cats against poachers’ greed and farmers’ retribution killings was triggered in 2005 during a year when he had granted himself the time to do the things he had always wanted to do. This included living in Argentina (where he also learnt the nuances of the tango) and hiking in the Himalayas where he discovered the snow leopard. While no-one is sure how many snow leopards exist — scientists estimate between 3920 and 6390 — as a keystone species in their rugged central Asian habitat their protection is vital. The goal? To get them off the endangered species list within a generation.
To give his affinity for wildlife some context, Sparrow says it began with a visit to the African bush in 1990 where he saw the elusive leopard on his first night. That year served as a post-Oxford University gap year during which he played rugby and taught at St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown. One outcome was his foundation of the Harry Birrell Scholarship Trust, which provides the means for quality education for promising students in the area.
Sparrow worked as a safari guide in East Africa during study holidays and co-led the first cross-Africa commercial mountain bike trip in 1994.
His office time as a qualified lawyer was short-lived — he "hated it with a passion" — but his knowledge, together with the business savvy gained through working with Jaguar Racing (ultimately the Red Bull Formula One team) and in the spirits industry with Allied Domecq, has proved invaluable in the development of his luxury alcohol brand, which contributes 15% of its sales to the Snow Leopard Trust, an NGO headquartered in Washington.
"I knew that if I could trademark the name, Snow Leopard Vodka, make a knockout liquid worthy of it, and get enough people to drink it, it could make a massive contribution to saving the snow leopards," says Sparrow. "And we do that by helping the local communities — providing spinning wheels for wool to be spun into more valuable yarn and teachers to educate the children in summer. We pay anti-poaching rewards if a snow leopard has not been killed in 12 months, set up livestock insurance for the herders to manage stock loss through retribution killings and predator-proof the corrals."
A letter to Sparrow by a Mongolian woman says it all. She thanked him for replacing her livestock that had become snow leopard prey, "but that is not the main thing. The greater gift is the fact that somebody from so far away cared".
The Conservation Martini
To get the depth of flavour and optimal viscosity Sparrow was after for Snow Leopard Vodka, he chose flavourful spelt grain as the key ingredient. The vodka is six times distilled in copper columns with spring water drawn from an artesian well, under the supervision of award-winning master distiller Joanna Dawidowicz at a Polish distillery, which is over a century old. "Unusually for vodka, it does have a floral nose and you’ll pick up hints of vanilla and a light, nutty taste," says Sparrow. "It makes a great martini with a lovely soft mouth feel."
Fill a glass with crushed ice and drain off excess water.
Add 5ml extra-dry Vermouth.
Add 75ml Snow Leopard vodka.
Give it a good stir.
Garnish with a sprig of rosemary.