One of the highlights of my trip to the UK last month, was my visit the Diageo Archives in Scotland, which contains the records of Tanqueray, Gordon’s and Boord’s gin, as well as Smirnoff, Johnny Walker and Baileys. It was undoubtedly one of my most thrilling experiences of my gin career so far!
I was welcomed to the archive by Joanne McKerchar, Diageo’s Senior Archivist responsible for the gin and malts. whose job I would give my right arm for. When I expressed my (not so mild) jealousy, she told me; “I know, I was lucky, wasn’t I? I didn’t quite know what to do after University where I studied history. I didn’t want to be a teacher, so I went to work at the national archives of Scotland for a year. I really enjoyed that. So I decided to do my Masters in Archives and Records Management in Liverpool and was appointed to this position on graduating.”
The site of the archive is a former whisky distillery which ceased production in 1925 and turned into a centre for producing and testing yeast. Labs were added and much of the innovation surrounding whisky comes from this centre. There is a wonderful family connection as Joanne’s grandfather worked here as a baker testing the yeast. While he is no longer alive and didn’t know of her role, Joanne said she feels a strong connection and sometimes comes across photos of him during her research.
The archive was established twenty years ago by Doctor Nick Morgan. Joanne explained that up until then, because of the various companies that had owned each brand there was material at lots of different sites around the UK.”Nick took upon himself to try and centralise all of the historically records in one place, which was a huge task”.
The archive was expanded about 2 years ago, with a £1.5 million investment in the archive this allowed them to add the Liquid Library.
The earliest records are for gin and go back to the 1740’s, with their earliest gin brand, Boord’s. The archives contain anything from minute books, letters, ledgers, old advertising, huge packaging collections, and recipe books. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to see some of these up close!
Joanne’s job doesn’t just entail looking after the historical items, but she is also responsible for gathering everything ongoing so that nothing is lost for the future. “We work in partnership with our teams, our global marketing teams, or in-market teams at the moment to make sure that receive everything they do, as well as keeping an eye on auction sites to see if anything unusual comes up that we might want to buy.”
The Liquid Library
The Liquid Library is a treasure trove of booze from some of the oldest to the latest launches, everything is here. Obviously, I was very keen to research the gin!
The role of the archive
The archive isn’t open to public, so is it simply a nice thing for the company to have? Joanne told me that, “For the business to support us we have to be commercially viable, and we are. We have to make sure that everything that we do delivers against the gin team agenda. For example, whatever our Tanqueray team is working on at the moment I have to think about how I can support them with the records, the information, and the knowledge that I have, to help them succeed in that project.”
Joanne responds to discussions with bartenders that the global team has to identify trends in the gin world. A good example is Old Tom gin. She turned to Charles Tanqueray’s recipe books (whose handwriting was in her words “horrendous”) and former master distiller, Tom Nichol relied on Joanne to translate and interpret the handwriting. She made me laugh with one story of Tom (who is known for his colourful language) returning something to her saying “Oh, Jo, for f*@%’s sake, it says a tub. How big is a tub?”. She patiently replied “Well, how big do you want the tub to be? Now go and interpret this recipe and make it into something special!”
According to Joanne, Charles Tanqueray’s recipe books offer a real insight into who he was. Each one has notes alongside saying things like “Not good. Don’t try that again.” as well as his workings rather than just finished recipes.
She explained, “It’s him experimenting to get to that perfected finished thing. The recipe books are massive because he’s just trying so many different things, it’s constant trial and error. He also gives really good details like, ‘You run the still for this long. You run it at this temperature’, so they’re very precise. He’s also using botanicals, fruits, anything that he can get his hands on from everywhere! And he’s not just making gin, he’s making fruit liquors, rums, brandies, he’s even got cocktail recipes in there. So it really is anything and everything. And then, because he’s a bit crazy and excentric, you’ll have things like a boot polish recipe. or pills to cure your horse when it has a sore stomach, and stuff like that. He was a chemist, very scientific, very factual. But he did have a bit of a twinkle.”
I spent hours at the archive, and barely scratched the surface! It was an extraordinary experience and I am very grateful to Joanne for her time and the entire Tanqueray team for making my visit happen.
A few weeks ago, Victor Fraile, one of the founders of Santamanía Urban Distillery in Madrid visited Melbourne to talk all things gin and discuss the latest addition to the range, Lola y Vera. I was fortunate enough to get the chance to interview him and find out more about Spain’s first urban distillery.
So it’s almost three years since Santamanía opened, how long did it take you to get to that point?
We started almost three and a half years beforehand, just developing recipes, doing paperwork, deciding whether or not to leave our jobs, and trying to convince our wives!
Ramon and Javier, who are the other two partners, were both working for a telecommunications company, and although I’m an agriculture engineer, at the time I was working in documentary production. In our spare time we started talking about distilling Javier challenged us by saying, “Do we have the balls to do this,” and, we thought, “Why not? Okay, why not?
We started making out own still in a small room in Javier’s house, and for three years we spend most of the weekends there, to the annoyance of our family, of course. In the end they said, “Look, if you are going to spend money, spend it on something profitable.” So from dark moonshiners, we came to the light and founded Santamanía Distillery.
How hard was it to open the first urban distillery in Spain?
Distillation in Spain had a long history. Traditionally, in the village people used the remaining grape harvest to make eau-de-vie, and make what we call it aguardiente. Most of the gin distilleries in Spain are on an industrial scale, small ones didn’t exist. We were the first and now there are three. But we are the only one in Madrid.
It was essentially three years of paperwork. Sanitary and industrial procedures and having to go through the three administrations (local town, state and federal) and repeat all of the same processes. I’ll tell you honestly, it was the part of the process that made us almost give up. We thought, “Look, this is not worth it.” But, we kept going even though we were talking with people who didn’t really care, who just wanted to say, ” Yes, no, yes, no.” and tick the right box.
Did you have the recipe ready to go?
Yeah, by that time we had come up with 36 drinkable formulas.
Yeah, 36 that you could drink straight-away. There were, I wouldn’t say thousands, but there were hundreds and some truly terrible things!
What was the most challenging thing about making the gin?
From the technical point of view, I think it was teaching ourselves. This kind of project wouldn’t have happened without the internet! Talking with friends like Cam from Four Pillars was great as we had the same still and were trying to figure it out at the same time.
I do remember having problems getting the right flavour from the juniper, because we weren’t using the right one at the beginning. For a month or so we didn’t know what was happening. We eventually came up with a solution, but it was all trial and error.
Another issue was deciding the right ABV for our gin. From an economical point of view, we thought we’d stick with 37.5% as we’d pay less tax. Went sent a bottle to Emile and Olivier at Gin Foundry and they wrote a fantastic article saying “This is wonderful. This is a great job these guys from Spain are doing, but, we couldn’t call it premium because it is 37.5.” In Spain we have no problem with that, because we just pour and pour and pour. It doesn’t matter. But, in England it matters. So we changed it to 41% straightway, even though it meant changing the bottle.
Did you always plan to use grape-based spirit?
When we were researching we saw that cereal (wheat or barley) was the most common, but we thought “Why?”. In Spain, we’ve been distilling from grapes since … forever. It’s far more expensive than the traditional base. Using Tempranillo was an obvious choice as it’s a very well-known grape in Spain. All the great wines come from Tempranillo.
Are your botanicals from Spain?
Most of them are. We tested several different juniper, and finally went with a Macedonian grower, a really nice person, also called Victor, whom we love. Our coriander, cardamom, angelica and orris root are all imported but everything else we source locally.
How did you come up with the design for the bottle?
I think that the bottle reflects the name, you know, “Santamanía.” It’s difficult to explain in English. Think about when you are a child, and your mother is showing you how to do something and saying, “No, do it just like this,” and then you keep doing the things in your own way, you mother used to say, “You have the Santamanía to do this in your way.” It’s like saying, “your bloody stubborn to do it this way”.
The bottle illustrates the mania of those three years. It’s a listing of the things that happened around all those three years, the music we were listening to, the name of our kids, our names, the names of our wives. Many things, most that only we understand.
Santamanía is known as Madrid Dry gin?
From a production point of view it’s a London Dry gin but in Spain nobody bloody knows what London Dry means. At Santamanía, all our merchandize and our publicity in Spain, is saying say, “Oh, we are Spanish, we are doing this from grape.” And, the people say, “If you are so Spanish, why does it say ‘London Dry?’
No-one knows there that if you are doing a London Dry Gin, that there are laws around production. So, we thought, “Okay, we changing to Madrid Dry Gin”. The thing is that now Madrid Dry gin is only in Australia and Japan, everywhere else gets London Dry gin, so maybe we’ll change it back!
How long after you launched did you decide to experiment with barrel ageing?
We did that one straight-away. Reserva is pretty much the in same formula that the original, but instead of lime, we use orange, and we don’t use rosemary. It goes into 4-year-old French oak barrels for 3-6 months. Judging by the response, we seemed to get lucky with it first time out.
Tell me about Lola y Vera
Santamanía is a premium gin in Spain, and as such is much more expensive than most of the industrial gins, so we needed something more accessible to everyone. Instead of using grape based spirit we are using traditional wheat based spirit. We macerate the spirit with green apple mash and this apple-infused spirit is then distilled with the other botanicals. The type of apples we use will vary due to the season. We’ve called it Lola and Vera after our two stills.
You’ve now got two stills?
Yes!. To keep up with demand! Lola, who came later, is much bigger. We can get around 1800 bottles every time. We could get only get 250 from Vera, and that was pushing it! Now Vera is more for small batches, and experimentations with restaurants or businesses.
What’s the best thing about your job?
The best thing is it is not a job. What’s the difference between work and leisure? If the necessity is not what really drives you to do what you are doing, it is more leisure than work. At the end of the day you have to eat and you have to pay your bills. But, if you are doing something that drives you out of the bed every morning happy, it’s hardly work!
Here I am in Australia talking about gin. I’m not sweating. I’m not digging. I’m talking about something I really love. It’s great.
What’s your favourite gin cocktail?
I like dry gin martini. A nice, well-measured gin tonic with Santamanía is good too!
What are your favourite bars in the world?
I don’t have specific bars. I mean, my favourite bar experience is Japan. It’s not just the drink, it’s the service. I like some English pubs for their atmosphere.
What are your plans next? What’s next?
What’s coming for Santamanía? I can’t give too many details, but we are trying to make something based on the same formula, but maybe with more strength.
A Navy Strength?
Navy-Strength might be too much for the Spanish market, but going over 41%? Yes!
My thanks to Victor and Bibendum for setting up this interview.
The chance to meet and interview Charlotte Voisey at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail was an opportunity too good to pass up. Charlotte has long been an inspiration to me as one of the leading female figures in the liquor industry.
How did you start out in the business?
I studied hospitality at university and the course I chose had a one year in-industry work experience. During that year I joined ‘My Kinda Town Restaurant Group’ and worked for 6 months in London at the Chicago Rib Shack and then went over to Spain with as part of their restaurant management training program. You spent 6 months training and then you work as a manager with one of their units anywhere in the world. I wanted to learn Spanish so I went to Barcelona to run one of their restaurants.
When I graduated I loved the experience I had and I quickly found from my peers that the company offered me way more training than any of their jobs, so I went back to them and headed off to Argentina for 2 years and ran restaurants for them out there. Then I got the call to say, “We want to open a cocktail bar. It’s the first one really for the group. Do you want to come back and run it?. That was how I opened Apartment 195.
Had you had much cocktail experience while you were running the restaurants?
I’d had some cocktail experience, but it was long island iced teas, pina coladas. It was still very worthwhile, but more about speed and fun than classic cocktails.
So after 4 or 5 years at Apartment 195 you went to William Grant?
Yes, they offered me the chance to travel, move to America and be an ambassador with them.
Wow! How long did that decision take to make?
It actually took me a couple of months! I had also been offered a global position with another company. I had these two amazing opportunities, but I came to the conclusion that as amazing as travelling the world sounded, I wanted to be a bit more grounded. The chance to live in New York and have a new home base was more attractive to me. Plus I had already fell in love with Hendrick’s Gin by then! I’ve been in New York for 10 years now.
So what does being Director of Brand Advocacy involve?
My role has 3 components. The first, and the part that I enjoy most, is leading the Brand Ambassador Group that we have. We have 26 full-time ambassadors in the US across all of our brands. They report into their brand managers, but I’m like the mentor, the big sister, whatever you want to call it, that just supports and advises them. I also advise their managers how to get the most from them because I’ve been there and done that, and not a lot of marketing people have.
Then I oversee all of the PR for the company which is quite big part of my job. I work with a PR manager and the agencies. It’s nice to get my teeth into something a bit new.
The third part is advocacy which is a word people throw around and it means different things to different people, but it ultimately it’s about getting influential people to fall in love with your brands.
What’s the best thing about your job?
The events. The William Grant party for Tales of the Cocktail is still my baby and we start planning that in January. Putting those elements together and then watching it happen and seeing people’s reactions is so great. I guess it goes back to bartending days and that enjoyment of handing a drink over to somebody and seeing them go, “Oh my goodness. That’s really delicious.” It’s still wanting that feedback. You get this amazing, instant satisfaction which you don’t get by sitting in an office and planning.
What’s your proudest achievement so far?
I think the two things I’m most proud of having a hand in, would be what we do at Tales every year because William Grant is such a small company. Obviously, we are seen as a big business but William Grant has only 1% of the spirits business in the US. At Tales, through the relationship that I built early and well with Anne (Tuennerman), and the attitude that we have to this event, we’ve been able to stand up with Bacardi, and the other big groups as equal players. I’m quite proud that we’ve managed to hold our own against companies with larger budgets or bigger ideas. I think it’s down to the personal touch.
The second is our Brand Ambassador Program. I’m quite proud of the way I’ve been able to keep it non-corporate in a corporate world.
What inspires you?
I spend the year traveling and being amazed by the creativity and talent that there is all around America. When I first got here I felt like I had a bit more of an educating role because I came from London where the cocktails scene at the time was better than America. I felt like I had a bit of duty to impart knowledge and share and show. Now I feel like I can sit back a little and be inspired by them. What people are doing in cocktail bars all over America makes me think, “Right. It’s my turn to thank them. I’ve got to up my game because they deserve to be surprise and delighted like I am when I go to their bars.” I think that’s what it is. It’s being inspired to stand up and give people what they deserve.
The Proper Pour is fantastic resource for me, I’m amazed at how you do it. What’s the most challenging part of making cocktails on camera ? Do you do it in one take?
I do! We film about 10 episodes in a day. Honestly, it’s the easiest thing I do. First of all I don’t over think it. I wanted the show just to be me doing my style. I’m not trying to be an expert. I’m not trying to be the best. It’s just me just making drinks the way I make them and talking about them in a way that I think is interesting and succinct. It’s all very natural. I don’t have a script. I have a couple of things that I want to include and we just get to the recipe, hat way there’s nothing I say wrong because there’s nothing … there’s no script. I find it very natural and easy.
What’s your favorite gin cocktail and why?
I go back and forth. It’s between the White Lady and the French 75. The White Lady is exactly the type of cocktail I like the most, shaken, delicate, so you can taste the botanicals of the gin. It works very well with Hendricks because the floral components come through. I’m more of a fan of that style of cocktail than stirred drinks like martinis, as I have a low tolerance and I find them too strong.
The French 75 is probably my other go to. It always feels right. It’s an elegant cocktail, looks beautiful and most bars can make it if you think about it. It’s really just gin, lemon and maybe a bit of sugar and some lime as well in mine. It’s one that you can probably fall back on quite a bit.
What do you see as the next cocktail trend?
As the industry quickly gets more advanced everywhere you’re seeing lots of trends pop up. I just came from Tim Hurley’s seminar and they were talking about the use of aquafaba, a vegan substitute for egg white. Really interesting.
What are your favourite bars?
Tough question! I was very impressed when I went to Australia last year. I’d previously own been to Sydney on holiday and it was my first time to Melbourne. I was just blown away by the attention to detail, the excellence and of course the service. They were so happy to have us there and not just because it was me. You saw it everywhere.
In addition, I enjoy the Tiki bars in Chicago. They’re doing really well. I love Broken Shaker here in Miami. In London, The Savoy is still such a treat. Dandelyan is awesome, they are doing some great things. I’ve only been to Night Jar once, but when I went in there it was possibly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in a bar.
What do you think makes a great bar?
It’s when you walk in and it feels like you should be there and that you are welcome. That comes from the energy, mainly from service and the bartenders, how they are behaving and whether they are smiling or not. Personally, I prize beautiful décor, service, and energy as the most important things. When it’s grumpy or feels negative, I really don’t like that.
One thing that I’ve really noticed from the American bar scene is that women seem to be much more prominent and at a higher level in the industry compared to other countries. What do you think it is about the bar scene in America that fosters that?
I think it’s two things. First, you have people like Julie (Reiner) and Audrey (Saunders) who have been doing this long enough to have risen up and be mentor quality so that others can be like, “Oh, I want to be like them.” Until you have those aspirational figures, there’s nothing to look up to.
The second thing here, is Speedrack. Lynnette (Marrero) and Ivy (Mix) have done an amazing job pulling women together and giving them an amazing confidence boost and letting them shine.
Finally, do you see there being brand extensions for Hendricks, like a Navy Strength or a Barrel-Aged version?
I couldn’t say yes or no to that. I think there will always be experimentation. Hendricks, by very definition is so unique and very particular. Leslie is an amazing talent and having that level of creativity, if Hendricks were to do a line extension, how exciting would that be? I think everyone would trust that it would be pretty awesome!
Myriam Hendrickx is at the helm of Rutte in the Netherlands, a 7th generation genever distillery that has been causing a stir with its Celery Gin which was shortlisted for Best New Spirit of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail 2016.
How did you start out in the business?
I’m a food engineer and I decided to specialise dairy, which as you can imagine is a big thing in Holland! Cheese really fascinated me. I then moved into consultancy and training which I did for a very long time. During that part of my career I got to see was the spirits industry and it caught my attention and I thought it more magical than cheese! In Holland we know so much about cheese, everyone is very open about what they are doing, how they are doing it and the machinery they are using. There’s no mystery, unlike the spirits industry which is full of it! Using ancient ingredients and recipes really ignited my passion.
I became a distiller when I joined Rutte. Initially they wanted someone who knew about genever. After I met them I liked the company so much I cheekily asked them if they would hire me. It’s a really small distillery, so when I joined I was PR, marketing and technology manager. John Rutte (the last of the Rutte family) was still alive and in his 70s so I started learning from him but unfortunately he died a month after started.
All his knowledge was in John’s head, so after he died we started sorting out the recipes and the archives. Then a couple of years later I was asked to run the distillery.
Rutte is well-known for it’s Genever. Did they have gin in their portfolio?
Yes, they did, but it was a very small product line and there wasn’t really a focus on it. We made it everyone now and again. There are old recipes from the ‘30s and prices lists featuring gin and bottled cocktails including martinis.
Gin was so small when I started that I just used to play around with it as a side project, but then this whole gin craze thing happened and then De Kuyper (of which we are a part) , were like “Hey, how about it?” The old gin recipe we found had celery in it and it was funny as De Kuyper were asking for something that bartenders could use in Red Snapper and I said – “we already have something!”. We updated the recipe and here we are!
What did you do to update the recipe?
The recipe in the archive was very, very complex featuring 40 botanicals. Celery gin is a much more straightforward and has only 6. We wanted to highlight the celery and lifted it with cardamom,there is also juniper, angelica, coriander, and sweet orange peel.
How long did it take to perfect the recipe?
It’s difficult to say as I wasn’t working on it for 8 hours a day every day, but it was certainly a few months.
So what’s the most challenging thing about distilling gin?
I think putting the recipe together and making it balance. How you use the natural ingredients together and creating top notes and heart notes and base notes. After you have created the recipe it’s about maintaining the consistency and as a small distillery that is sometimes difficult as some of our ingredients are seasonal.
For example, once a year we drive to the sea coast to collect these fresh berries from our genever and have to put them in alcohol to preserve them.
That said, it’s great fun! This whole search for botanicals, picking and foraging in the wild is wonderful.
How do you choose which botanicals to use?
The great thing about Rutte is that it’s almost 150 years old and we have this amazing treasure trove of old recipes. They were stubborn and didn’t want to modernize unlike other distilleries. In 2003, Rutte was still using copper scales with weights and only had one computer. In some ways it needed a little renovating but the recipes had remained unchanged and there was this fantastic archive. So every time we do something, we take out the old recipe books and have a look and talk about what they meant and what they used. And we’ve build from there.
I’m working in 2016, but I still feel like I’m working alongside the generations before me.
What is the best things about your job?
I love the smelling and tasting, putting my nose in everything! I love sharing the story of Rutte and my passion. I think also taking our ancient recipes out into the world and showing them to modern bartenders.
Who or what inspires you?
I really like nature. I like to see how things grow. The first time I visited the tropics I wanted to see how cacao and pepper grow. I’m fascinated by plants and the smells and flavours they give. What amazes me is that if you speak to a chemist and talk about the aroma of orange they explain that there are hundreds of compounds in the orange group, all offering different flavours.
We had our gins and genevers tasted and tested to analyse their molecular structure. The researcher came back said he found popcorn molecule, which he had never found in a gin! We discovered it was the walnuts and hazelnuts that we roast. One of our genevers had lots of woody notes even though it’s unaged. The woody flavour was coming from the angelica.
I am also inspired by perfume. I went to Grasse recently and I loved seeing how they work. There are so many similarities with what I do, even using some of the same ingredients like orris root.
We work closely with Drs in Rotterdam, which is great. The Dutch aren’t really into cocktails, we tend to drink things straight up ~ Beer, wine, genever.We do have some good bars in Rotterdam and Amsterdam though, and the cocktail culture is slowly emerging. Gin and Tonic is now a super-hip thing there!
Any future plans?
If it was up to me I would make something new every day! But really it’s lots more experimenting like comparing results of distilling on big stills and small stills. At the moment we’re trialling distilling botanicals separately and together and comparing the difference in flavors. It’s fascinating.
They say you should never meet your heroes because you’ll come away disappointed, but when the opportunity arose to meet and interview Desmond Payne, Master Distiller of Beefeater Gin, I couldn’t resist.
The word ‘Legend’ in relation to people is overused in my opinion, but Desmond is the real deal and revered in the industry by bartenders and distillers alike. It’s easier to see why. Jolly, intelligent and eager to share his knowledge, it was an absolute pleasure to meet him.
How long have you been in the industry?
I started making gin in London in 1967. I was in the wine trade and I joined a company who were a wine and spirit merchant. They had a gin distillery called Seagar Evans and I became a trainee. I found it fascinating. They also owned Plymouth gin so I then spent quite a lot of time down there, about 25 years. After which I moved to Beefeater where I’ve been for the past 20 years.
How much has the industry changed?
If you went into a bar, there’d be three whiskies and probably one gin, Now, I was in a bar in Valencia, Spain, about 10 months ago, and they had 624 brands of gin. That’s what’s changed. It’s a great time for gin. The consumers are better informed, everyone’s reading back labels. They want to know what’s in things that they’re consuming.
People are much more inquisitive. They want to know about things that they’re eating, drinking, what clothes are made of, where they come from.
Do you feel like you have to defend Beefeater, because the perception is it’s not made in the same way as ‘craft’ gin?
It’s funny that somehow, gin got a reputation for being slightly industrial like vodka. Gin comes out of a big factory somewhere. It’s absolutely not true. We do everything. We weigh things by hand and we do exactly what they (‘craft’ distillers) do but on a larger scale.
Craft is not enough. You actually need a combination of craft and skill and various other things. It’s about how you do things and how all the decisions are made by people and not machines. We use computers, of course, (they send us damn emails!) but the decisions are made with the nose and palate. When we look at our juniper crop each year, we’re looking at something like 200 samples of juniper berries from each year’s crop. Consistency is something that’s much easier to achieve on larger scale.
What is the best thing about your job?
It’s the sheer variety. I’m very lucky in that I’ve pretty much always been in a situation where I’m involved in everything from buying the juniper berries and assessing the quality of the botanicals, right through to distillation and lately a lot of new product development. Gin is on a roll! I’ve made six new gins over the last six years. In the previous forty, none!
How do you feel about that there are some gins having only four botanicals and others so many it’s difficult to remember them all?
I think honestly it doesn’t matter. There’s one gin we all know with four botanicals, it’s good gin. It’s how they complement each other and how they balance, and how work in the simplest gin and tonic. Not all gins work perfectly in all cocktails.
You know, a good gin should be versatile, but it should have enough integrity to work on its own. Which is why the Burrough’s Reserve is a sipping gin. It’s pure gin. You don’t have to do anything with it.
Do you welcome that kind of innovation?
Yes, but be careful. I think some of the new gins are trying almost too hard. When I talk to the botanical suppliers they say, oh I’m getting people phoning all the time saying, “What have you got that nobody else is using?”, which is fine, but what impact does it make on the flavour? The thing I’ve really learned over the mistakes I’ve made in the last 45 years, is it’s a gentle touch.
With Beefeater 24, what I had to do was to create a new balance but in a different place, but it still has to be balanced. It has to have its own integrity. It’s like making a cocktail, that extra drop of lemon juice or whatever would just change the character. There’s always a tipping point of which, “whoops, gone too far”. There’s no way back. It’s about balance.
What is the most challenging thing about distilling gin?
It’s finding a balance, in creating a gin, and maintaining that gin as being consistent. I’m very aware as a gin distiller that I make is not what anybody drinks, hardly ever. There’s always something else done to it, I’m kind of halfway. My job as a distiller is to produce something that is well balanced and has that potential and the ability to work in many directions in the hands of a good bartender. Whichever way he or she wants to take it.
Are you going to be doing more new gins?
I’m sure I haven’t finished. I was fortunate enough to receive a life-time achievement award the other day. I said, “Thank you very much, I’ve very pleased to have it, but actually, I haven’t finished yet.”
How did you go about selecting which additional botanicals or what flavors to use when you made your new gins?
Beefeater 24 was my first, and it took a while. A year and a half!
The marketing guys are saying, “Come Desmond, we’ve got the packaging done, and the launch party, we’ve got a date. How’s the gin coming on?” and I’m saying “I’m not ready yet!”.
You kind of wait for inspiration. There are two things that make all these gins different. One is, what botanicals? That’s where the flavour comes from. The other is how you make it. The rest is marketing, equally important. It’s about putting packaging and everything else on a bottle. What I didn’t want to change with making Beefeater 24 was the ‘how’. That 24 hour steeping period that comes from the name. I try to tell people it’s my age, but obviously it doesn’t work! That 24 hour steeping period is so important in integrating all these flavours. I didn’t want to change that, so I changed the botanicals.
Beefeater’s a great, well balanced recipe and James Burrough’s picture’s in my office watching me to make sure that I don’t change his gin! That’s why I’m the custodian of that. The inspiration came to use tea in Beefeater 24 because I had been in Japan about a year beforehand. You work quite hard in when you’re in Japan and I’m ready for my gin and tonic at the end of the day and Beefeater’s number 1 everywhere, but Japanese tonic water is different or was then. They weren’t allowed to use quinine as it’s considered a medicinal drug, and you can’t put drugs in food stuffs (although I think they can do it now). So the Japanese tonic was different, so my gin and tonic is different. I’m not really happy, so what to drink?
What sort of things were around? Tea, Iced lemon tea, green tea, and I thought ‘will that that work?’. And wow, yes it does. The molecular structure of tea means it works very successfully with other flavours. I thought, okay, tea works as a mixer. How would it work in distillation? I started experimenting with different teas. That’s how I started. It’s just that light bulb moment when you think, ah, that’s something worth pursuing.
What about the Garden gin?
There is a wonderful garden in London, the Chelsea Physic Gardens. Which was planted, I don’t know 300 years ago. It’s filled with medicinal herbs for apothecaries and with James Burrough starting life as pharmacist in Chelsea I thought it would be a fascinating place to visit. I saw this lemon verbena there, and I thought, I love citrus notes, and I love to use citrus in a different way. I used the kaffir lime leaves in another gin and the summer gin I made was more floral, with hibiscus and black currant leaves while the winter gin I made more spicy. I hadn’t really looked at herbaceaous flavours so I went with adding thyme and lemon verbena to the nine Beefeater botanicals because that is always my starting point.
Do you think there are too many gins on the market?
You know, they won’t all survive I’m afraid. It’s not easy to get something off the ground and then on somebody’s shelf. I kind of have a suspicion that when that happens people will come back to the classics. Classic, to me means something that’s been around for a while. Why has it been around for a while? Because it works, because it’s good.
It’s really fascinating. I do see, now, a lot of gins, using local botanicals. In Australia, South Africa, and all over the place, which is really nice to see. But don’t do it just because it’s local, do it, number one, because it works. That’s the whole thing about gin. English gin, London gin, none of the botanicals come from London, the art is the skill of putting it together. It’s what we do well in England. We bring things in from the world and turn them into something else and send them back again. Like marmalade.
Who/what inspires you?
I travel a lot these days. Which is great. You pick up inspiration everywhere you go. I think this generation of bartenders, and I’m not saying this because we’re sitting in the middle of Tales of the Cocktail, are better at their game than the ones we all give reverence to, Harry Craddock and the rest of them. I think this generation are better than them. They are so creative.
They understand their art and they’re passionate about what they do. They’re producing great things. They’re a great inspiration to me. The thing that persuaded me to do Burrough’s Reserve as an aged gin was having an aged negroni in Clyde Common in Portland Oregon. What a difference that made!
Your favourite gin cocktail and why?
Oh, there’s so many. I’m a negroni fan, but I discovered about a year ago I’m diabetic so I’m watching the sugar. I’m kind of back on dry martinis. It’s gin. It’s what I’m saying about balance, not overdoing things. It’s that little bit of vermouth, and good gin. It’s that combination that just changes that balance. When you have a twist or olive, or the thing I love, is onion.
Which are your favourite bars (anywhere in the world)
Oh my goodness. Every time I go somewhere I find new ones.
In London, classic Dukes Hotel, their martinis and that mad Italian bartender.
LA, I’d never been there before, and I went to a bar there a couple months ago called Melrose Umbrella Company, which was great.
What was it that you liked about them? What sort of makes a good bar for you?
You can see that they love and they’re passionate about what they’re doing. It’s like any great restaurant seeing the chef working. It’s a passion you see that really makes it work. In Barcelona, there’s a bar called Boadas. Just off the Ramblas. It’s been there forever and they have making been making these cocktails forever. The Elderly bartenders do it the way they’ve always done it and they throw the drinks. It is just magnificent. I’d say I’d want to die there.
What’s next? Any future plans?
We’re bringing back Crown Jewel. It was originally made for duty free but when we launched Beefeater 24, we stopped Crown Jewel. Every time I speak to bartenders, somebody says, “I’ve got a question, why did you stop Crown Jewel?” I said, “Look, it’s finished, get over it.” But, last year we brought it back, as a thank you to the bartenders.
There’s always something about their mind bubbling away. Whether it ever ends up being a new gin or not I don’t know. I’m working with this David Munoz at DiverXO in Madrid to produce a gin for and with him. That’s an interesting experience. He’s an incredible guy. I have so much admiration for these people. It really stretches the brain. I see bartenders at the top of their game. They love to show you want they’re doing. “Oh try this, try this.” You think, wow, the care you go to do these things. It’s great.
The latest interview in my ‘Meet the Distiller’ series is William McHenry, Master Distiller of McHenry’s, one of Australia’s most awarded gins. His story is a fascinating one, involving a complete career change, as well as a move interstate, creating a very different life for himself and his family in the process.
How long have you been a distiller?
We are now in our 6th year. I moved from Sydney to Tasmania in 2010.
How did you become a distiller?
In around 2005/6 things weren’t going well at work. I was travelling between Perth and Sydney every week, working for a company that was in trouble, and as they usually are when things are bad, the atmosphere was terrible. I missed my wife and kids and knew that there had to be something else other than the life I was in. The trouble was, I’d worked in the pharma industry for so long, that I couldn’t see what other opportunities there could be for me.
Over a few glasses of Shiraz with a neighbour one night he says “well, with a name like William McHenry, I think you should be making whisky”. A lightbulb went on. Between 2006 and 2010 I spent most of the time doing research and educating myself. Oh and convincing the family that the move was a good idea!
So you originally set out to make whisky?
Yes, that was the plan. But I was pragmatic enough to know that for the business to work, I’d need cash flow and gin was a way of achieving that as it’s so much quicker to produce (aside from our Barrel-aged and Sloe gin which take 12-18 months). Protecting the business through diversification was also a key objective.
(note: William released his 10 year old Three Capes whisky to great acclaim this year.)
What is the most challenging thing about making gin?
I think the biggest challenge in the beginning was getting the recipe right. I continually bounced ideas off my wife, Ali, who has a very different palate to me. Every time I presented her with what I thought was the winning recipe, she didn’t like it. We just couldn’t agree. It was extremely frustrating, but I think in the end, having the combination of two contrasting tasters like ourselves meant we created a gin with a much broader appeal than if I had just gone with what I wanted. The gin is all the better for both our inputs.
How did you choose which botanicals to use?
You have to remember that back when I started the gin landscape was dominated by imported gins. There wasn’t the support for Australian gins as there is today, so I wanted to create a classic gin that could stand up to the international competition and hold its own.
I remember watching a booze program with James May and Oz Clarke where they visited Plymouth distillery and were talking about cardamom. I hadn’t seen much of it in gin, so I started with that. I also knew I wanted to use star anise, as I like the flavour. Then I added coriander, juniper (obviously) and orris root to the list. Our citrus comes from Valencia oranges that we peel and dry ourselves.
What the best thing about your job?
Two things really. Meeting people who love gin. I’m a natural extrovert, so I really enjoy it when people drop in to find out more about what we do, as well as converting those who don’t see themselves as gin drinkers.
The other thing is the sheer joy of making something that people like to drink!
Who or what inspires you?
My family. When I set the distillery up, it was with a simple purpose, to eventually gift the business to my three children. I would like to think that McHenry distillery will be passed on through the generations and that in 2090 that my children’s children will still be working in the business. I’d like to leave a legacy.
What is you favourite gin cocktail and why?
My two favourite drinks would have to be a G&T and a Negroni. Nothing beats a G&T on a hot summer day, I’ll always choose that over a glass of white wine. As for Negroni, that’s my drink. I love the combination of bitter, sweet and orange.
Which are your favourite bars (anywhere in the world)?
Oh that’s a difficult one. I think I’d have to go with Bad Frankie in Fitzroy, Melbourne because they have my picture on the wall! Seriously though, Seb has been a great supporter of the Australian distilling industry and it’s a great bar.
The other is the The Henry Jones Art Hotel in Tasmania. Anthony has been amazingly supportive of what we do. If you come to one of my “Make your own gin” workshops, and then take your bottle to him, he will design you a bespoke cocktail using your gin for $10 or for free if you are staying at the hotel.
What’s next? Any future plans?
So many! It’s a really excited time for us as we move into the next stage of the business. We’re about to take delivery of a new 1500l still and we’re redeveloping the cellar door area. There is a new a pavilion being built specifically to host the gin-making workshops and some additional bothys for so people to stay at the distillery. Plus we’re realigning a road on the property in order to build a tunnel, which will be used to mature our whisky.
On top of that I’m working on some exciting new gin projects, but I’ll keep that under my hat for now!
If you’d like to meet William yourself, he will be at the Australian Drinks Festival (order your tickets with promo code QUEEN10 for get $10 discount) on the 16th and 17th July, where he will be running his “Make your own gin” workshops. Book here.
Unbelievebly, even though Four Plllars was one of the first distilleries I visited when I first started this blog, and I’ve met and chatted with him many times, I’ve never interviewed Cameron Mackenzie before!
Thanks to Cam and the team at Four Pillars for finally making this happen, even if I did forget to get Cam to tell me how he came to represent Australia at the Atlanta Olympics (true story).
How did you become a distiller?
Wow, we’re going right back! I guess it must have been 5 or 6 years ago that Stu (Gregor, one of the 3 partners in Four Pillars Gin) and I started taking about a project outside of the wine industry. Obviously he and I have been great mates for many years, having started out together in wine.I started out in production before moving into communications, sales and marketing. Although, I’ve always liked to get my hands dirty whenever I worked at wineries.
Stu and I came up with the bright idea to make tonic water. Remember, at the time there was no Capi or Fever-tree, only Schweppes and post-mix tonic. It was while we were at the Grand Hyatt that I ordered at Tanqueray 10 and saw it get blasted with post-mix that we started talking about producing a tonic water. I had some good ideas and spoke to a few food science guys who said it was relatively easy to come up with something unique, but it became obvious early on that to do it profitably you’d have to make about a billion litres. It’s a volume game. That in itself didn’t worry me, but we realised it meant we’d have to make it under contract and I really didn’t want to do that. It defeated the object, I wanted to make something myself.
We walked away from the idea for a few weeks and started to think more about gin. At about 3am one morning I got a text from Stu saying “Let’s make gin”. I think he might have had one or two!
Why not whisky or rum?
We’ve always been gin drinkers. I also think of gin as a wine-makers spirit. Vodka didn’t interest me at all – from a wine-maker and consumer perspective the lack of aromatics, flavour and texture, although technically it’s very clever to pull off a spirit that tastes of nothing!
Gin, however, has all the same things we look for in wine with the exception of sugar and acid. We’re looking for balance, texture, weight, flavour. That resonated with us and it wasn’t a hard step to go from wine to gin.
So you got Stu’s text…
Yeah, I became quite obsessed with the idea. Stu was obviously running his business, but I wanted to make a change so focussed on how we could make this happen. What style we could make, what still we could get, the legalities, the red tape. I fed all the information back to Stu who was a fantastic sounding board.
We then decided that if we were really serious then we had to do a road trip to the US, which at the time was more progressive than the UK. The UK had some interesting small players, but everything was still skewed towards London dry style and the one thing we were adamant about was not producing a London Dry. Nothing against London Dry gins but we wanted to do something different.
While we were in the US we reaffirmed our desire to just be a gin distillery. Few distilleries that we came across seemed to cross the stream very well. There were some great cottage producers making a vodka, a rye, a whisky, a gin, a rum and they have some wonderful products but they rarely left the state. The market is so large that they can afford to do that, whereas we wanted to be a craft distillery that could have some scale and we felt gin was our thing. That trip gave us the confidence that we could be a contemporary business when it came to gin. That we could use juniper as a canvas and paint interesting stuff over the top of it with other ingredients.
We also wanted to be a craft business. No cutting corners, No tricking up gins, no making cordials and diluting with ethanol. For us as a business we wanted to make a product. We future-proofed ourselves with this building to have 4 or 5 of these stills if we really want to. We’d rather have more stills than just triple our botancals and water it down with ethanol.
That’s when we decided on a Carl still. Everywhere we went in the US, there they were. We loved the spirits made on Carl stills. It didn’t matter if it was vodka , gin, rye or whisky there was just (maybe subliminal) a purity of spirit from those stills. Being copper was a big deal and they are beautifully engineered. The guys from Dry Fly in Washington kindly let us play on their Carl stills for a few days and I found them really manageable. I knew that if I could get my head around using one then I could train a couple of people as we grew.
So you knew you wanted to make gin, you knew you had to have a Carl still, what happened next?
Well, we had to sit out on the sidelines for 12 months while Wilma (their first Carl still) was being built. As it turns out, that was a great 12 months, frustrating as it was seeing the industry evolving around us, not so much in Australia but overseas. We were sitting there chomping at the bit to get going! That year (fondly remembered as their “Breaking Bad’ phase) was a tremendous amount of fun and a brilliant learning curve. I played with as many different botanicals that we could get our hands on. I think we covered 90 odd using a little lab-ware glass still. We distilled them over and over and over, all the while looking at ‘Modern Australian Gin’ as a style we wanted and referring back to that. By the time Wilma arrived I think we’d whittled it down to a dozen botanicals that worked well together. I then spent 3-4 months dialling those ingredients up and down to get the balance right and eliminated a couple to get the final 10 to make Rare Dry Gin as we know it today.
I don’t think we realised what a head start we had from a flavour, aroma and consistency perspective. Our background in wine certainly helped us when deciding when to make the cut during distillation.
So how long from that text message?
I think it was about 2 and a half – 3 years from Stu’s text message to launch date.
Is it/was it difficult getting consistency in the botanicals, particularly the native ingredients?
Aromatically botanicals can change with age and supplier and I’m pretty ruthless. In our first year I probably rejected as much as I accepted. The great thing about my small lab-ware still is that I can use it to distill botanicals and create benchmarks which we can check against new suppliers and make adjustments accordingly. Saying that though it’s never more than about 10% that needs changing. As soon as Eileen (their newest still) is up and running I’ll be using her to create new benchmarks.
After a while as a distiller though, you do pick up inconsistencies with botanicals. It’s like being a winemaker and walking out to a vineyard and tasting fruit. You just know when it will be ripe, without testing the sugar.
Can I ask you about using copper in distillation? Does it make a difference?
Copper is very important in distillation. Even home distillers pack with copper wire. Copper reacts with the spirit as it passes through and removes sulphites. I personally don’t think you get as clean a spirit from a stainless steel still as you do copper. I think you always need to a copper surface to condense onto.
What’s the best thing about your job?
90% of the time I’m working on Rare Dry Gin which I love, but the other 10% is when I get to play, either making Navy Strength or making up small batches of things. It’s a bit like cooking!
I think working for ourselves is great. Working with Stu and Matt is amazing, we communicate really well and we’re good mates. We have 3 distinct parts to the team. Stu is a born connector, while Matt has the most amazing strategic mind. It’s been bloody hard work for all of us, especially with Matt and Stu having their own businesses and still putting so much effort into Four Pillars. There is so much sweat equity in this business! I do smile when I see people come in and see how busy we are and how easy it looks, forgetting that all of us have our houses on the line!
What’s the hardest thing about being a distiller?
I’m the first to admit I’m not the best time manager. You know that guy on the tv that spins plates and every now and again one starts to wobble? I feel like that sometimes! But it drives you. We say here that “we have no bad problems. We have good problems”. We have growing pains like all new businesses. Nothing major, just day-to-day stuff, and we probably underestimated our growth, particularly overseas.
That is something that sets you apart from other Australian gin brands, your profile overseas…
Yes, within 6 months of launching we had little spots here and there.
Was it as a result of a developed export strategy or responding to requests?
We didn’t start out with an export strategy but we have one now! I think when we won our first gold in San Francisco, was when we started to get onto people’s radar. Getting into London was relatively easy as we had contacts through the wine industry.
At the moment export is a small part of our business that is certainly growing. We’re actively targeting the UK and the US with China and Asia certainly on our list of priorities. China is developing an amazing bar scene which Stu and I saw first-hand on our recent trip.
It would be great if there was more support for Australian distilling by way of tax breaks.
Absolutely! That said, one of the only good things about our ridiculous taxation laws is that we haven’t been plundered by people looking to make a quick dollar, unlike the wine industry where everyone is living off the WET rebate. I think it’s really important that when those laws are changed, they should encourage investment in the industry not just people having spirits made under contract.
From Friday 1st April 2016 you can meet Cam at one of Four Pillars’ TGIF (Thank Gin It’s Friday) Masterclasses. More info here.
Anne Brock, Master Distiller at Jensen’s Gin is one of only a handful of female gin distillers. I am delighted that she agreed to be interviewed!
How long have you been a distiller?
I have been distilling totally undrinkable and most probably highly toxic liquids for a while in chemistry labs, but I became a gin distiller in January 2013 when I joined the Jensen’s team, so just over three years now.
Did you always want to work in distilling?
No, but when I realised that I could become one it was as if everything fell into place. If you have a science degree there are so many careers you can aim for but none of them appealed to me. Becoming a distiller was casually suggested by a friend and I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t thought of it before.
How did you become a distiller?
Partly serendipity and partly hard work. I studied chemistry for a number of years and when I moved to London after the completion of my PhD. I contacted gin companies who might have distillery work available so that I could get some experience. I didn’t expect to land a job as a distiller straight away but was lucky enough to contact Christian Jensen just as he was starting to put plans in place for a distillery. I came on board to build (and then run) it for him.
What is the best thing about your job?
The people I work with at Jensen’s and being able to go into some of the best bars in the world and have a cocktail made with our gin. What is the most challenging thing about distilling gin? Creating a stable, reproducible and well-balanced recipe. I was lucky to inherit two time-tested recipes which makes my job a lot easier than it could have been.
How do you choose which botanicals to use?
At Jensen’s we make very traditional gins so we use dried botanicals and only those which would have been available to distillers back in time.
Who/what inspires you?
Attending craft distilling expos in the UK and the US and speaking to other distillers are big sources of inspiration. I love hearing what other people are doing and trying new products.
What is your favourite gin cocktail and why?
It generally depends on the time of day, the weather, and where I am. Having a Jensen’s martini in Duke’s is a special treat that I will never tire of and will always say yes to! Otherwise I love it when Hannah, Jensen’s Brand Ambassador, creates a bespoke cocktail in the distillery. I’m always the guinea pig and she always makes beautiful drinks.
Which are your favourite bars? (anywhere in the world)
I have just made the first small (very, very small!) batch of old orange bitters. They are a blend of macerated spirit and distillate and are delicious. At the moment they are being shipped to some lucky bartenders to get their feedback. There is no point making a commercial product that they won’t use, so if we get the thumbs up perhaps we’ll look at making them more widely available – so far it’s looking good!’
Since I launched The Gin Queen a little over two years ago, I’ve been very fortunate to meet many of the local Australian distilling talent. One of the very first distillers I met was Mark Watkins, Master Distiller of Botanic Australis. Mark has been a fantastic supporter of my events and when Tourism Queensland helped me with a visit to Far North Queensland to visit the distillery, it was the perfect opportunity to sit down and chat properly with Mark and find out more about his path to creating one of the most awarded Australian Gins.
How long have you been distilling?
Since I was 16 when I made vodka in my cubby house. I naively thought vodka was made from potatoes and as my mate was a potato farmer we thought we’d give it a go. We ended up making something that can only be described as repugnant.
I went off to Uni to study environmental science because I wanted to save the dolphins and turtles but by the time I got to the end of my degree, I knew I didn’t want to pursue a career in that field. I got into wine science but I couldn’t handle the cold climate down south. I dry out like a lizard!
I came back to Queensland and built a 50litre stainless steel still then a 100 litre, before choosing a Holstein copper still, called Helga. Copper makes a massive difference in the flavour profile of spirits, it adds a smoothness that isn’t there when using stainless steel.
So what did you begin making?
I started out making fruit liqueurs while the rum was ageing, before finding this old recipe for London Dry gin and thought I’d have a go.
Why did you decide to take the recipe and replace all the ingredients with Aussie natives?
Obviously, I could I wanted to make a quintessentially Australian gin. I imagined a settler arriving on the first fleet, wanting gin but not being able to find the traditional ingredients and having to use bush foods instead of traditional gin botanicals.
How long did it take to decide which native botanicals would work?
It was no easy task. Aussie natives are so strong – so “bush-ey” that it took about 2 years to refine the recipe, using lab wear before approaching a still. I did a bit of botany at Uni and was keen to use as much local produce as possible. River mint and ginger grow like weeds around here and lemon scented gum and anise myrtle are readily available.
Once I had a feel for the potency for each of the botanicals I opted for cold maceration technique where the botanicals are agitated in alcohol for 48 hours before being removed. The remaining liquid is then run through the still. There is a lot of finesse involved in the process to make sure we get the flavours without the roughness of the bush. Olida (strawberry gum leaf) is really strong, in 1200 litres of alcohol we only use 400g!
London Dry usually has between 5 and 12 ingredients, Botanic Australis has 14 how did that happen?
The recipe I worked from has around 11 or 12 ingredients. While some natives could be swapped fairly easily, – bunya nut replaced bitter almond for instance, some botanicals needed two natives. For the lemon component, I’ve used lemon scented gum and lemon myrte. Lemon myrtle can be very overpowering so I balanced it with the lemon scented gum. For the mint we used River mint and Peppermint gum, both of which have a bad back taste, but together give a freshness, which is also achieved by cutting at the right time. I love working with wild ingredients but it is tricky. There was no Maggie Beer book to help!
So what’s next for Mount Uncle Distillery, are there any new gins in the pipeline?
We’re planning a Botanic Australis Navy Strength and I have another idea but that’s top secret for now!
Botanic Australis gin can be purchased direct from Mount Uncle Distillery. Click here for more information.
Long time readers will know about my love for Negroni, in all it’s forms. Bitter, sweet and utterly delicious, Negroni is the perfect sipping cocktail and having bottled versions available is both a blessing and a curse. It’s difficult to deny oneself when all you have to do is open one bottle. Yup, I am THAT lazy.
One of my great finds last year was The Negroni Project Barrel-Aged Negroni, made with Melbourne Gin Company gin. You and read more about bottled Negroni here.
A couple of weeks ago, Matt and Jesse, two of the Negroni Project team members, invited me to taste test the contents of this year’s barrels.
How could I refuse?
First we tasted to see how the mixture had developed, before deciding to add fresh vermouth to lift the drink prior to bottling. Very handy that Matt is one of the best sommeliers around!
I love the oaky notes that the barrel-aging process imparts. It’s not a bitter-sweet Negroni but rather more mellow making it an approachable option for those Campari haters.
The added bonus with buying a bottle of the The Negroni Project is all the profits go to Movember, the men’s health charity. Last year they raised over $4,500 and are hoping to top that this year.
Enjoy a delicious, ready-made Negroni AND support a good cause? Win/win.