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.