How often do you get the chance to talk to someone who is responsible for one of the world’s most popular brands? Not often. That’s why we are very lucky to have been able to catch an interview with Tom Nichol, the man behind the legendary Tanqueray 10 gin. He’s a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of distilling, botanicals and flavour. Tom was kind enough to agree to an interview and spoke at length to Phil. It was highly entertaining and informative throughout!
How did your career in the drinks industry and distilling start?
I was brought up in Alloa and lived near the distillery that my father worked at. When a job came up at the distillery I got it, even though I had wanted to be a motor mechanic!
What jobs did you do at the distillery you first worked at and what was the most enjoyable part of the job for you?
I handled empty whisky casks. It was very manual labour, which I enjoyed. I also painted the ends of ‘yanks’ which is what we called the first-use bourbon casks.
I then progressed onto the cattle feed area – organising the spent grain to be used as feed. The theory is that for every unit of grain, a third is converted into spirit, a third into carbon dioxide and a third is used as cattle feed. The carbon dioxide can be bottled and used in many different ways, including cooling beer.
I loved the technical side of any process around the distilleries and I stayed in carbon dioxide capture for a while until the bottom dropped out of the market, and I progressed to gin production.
I had a good understanding of neutral spirit, so moving into gin was amazing, using aromatic botanicals from around the world. You use all of your senses when you make gin: smell of the botanicals, feel of the liquid, sound of the still. It’s totally absorbing and could be by myself making gin for long periods of time, eight hours or more.
What projects are you currently involved in?
I’ve a few that I’m not allowed to talk about as I’m under NDAs, but I’m planning to go to Kansas City as soon as I can to see the project that I’m involved with over there. Nearer to home I’ve got Harrogate Tipple that I’m still involved in. Steve and Sally approached me right at the start of their project and I was able to help pull all of their recipes together and coach their distiller.
I’ll give my opinion to anyone who asks – within reason – and I’m often asked by people for advice on their gins. The first thing I ask is to look at their recipe and I can tell if they are on the right track straight away. I love this industry and I like to help where I can.
What annoys you most/what pitfalls do new gin distilleries fall into when creating a new product and trying to take it to market?
I see many gins which are just ‘stories’, without substance, and with subpar liquid. A story is nothing without good liquid. You need to get the gin right and then build from there.
I can tell straight away by smelling a gin what is in it and whether it’s good or not.
What would be your one piece of advice to new distilleries creating new gins?
Get in touch with the experts! If you have gaps in your knowledge or skill-set, find people who can fill those gaps. Steve and Sally from Harrogate Tipple weren’t from a distilling background and when they set up the distillery they got in touch with me to help them.
It’s pointless thinking you can do everything yourself. You might be good at the production side of things, but have a blank when it comes to branding or marketing, find the people who are the experts and get them involved. Even if it’s more expensive in the short term, the investment will be worth it in the longer term.
What do you make of the challenges facing the industry due to the pandemic and how do you think brands/retailers/bars will have to adapt to overcome them and flourish?
I’m not involved in the day to day production side of things, but I’m sure that for the smaller producers there must be problems sourcing raw ingredients such as botanicals. When I was at Diageo we were incredibly lucky with the supply chains. The quality of the botanicals was amazing, we would discard 95% of the samples which came to us and only had the best of the best.
With Covid and Brexit I’m sure it’s tough for the smaller guys to get good ingredients consistently, but that won’t be forever.
The on trade will come back strong, I’m sure. I can’t wait to have some good beer inside a pub!
I also think that bottled cocktails are a great idea for both the on trade and off trade. You can get great and consistent products in either a can or a bottle, easy to crack open in the house and enjoy.
What are you enjoying most about (semi)retirement?
I’ve kept busy since retiring, but the last year has been painful not being able to travel and do the things we enjoy. In general I’ve enjoyed the freedom to do what I want and travel when I want to, rather having to do it for the job.
It was great speaking to Tom and we certainly had a lot in common with our views on brands, gins and our love of beer. For someone who’s frankly a bit of a legend in our industry developing some of the most famous gins in the world, he’s incredibly approachable and easy to speak to.
It’s clear he has a passion for the whole drinks industry and loves the people involved at every level. By the end of the interview – which was quite long as I’ve had to edit a lot – we agreed we should meet up for a drink next time he’s headed south.