Charles Maxwell – Thames Distillery
To get a better idea of life behind the scenes and the people who are at the heart of our favourite spirits – we decided to launch a Meet the Maker micro series. For our final interview in the series, we caught up with Charles Maxwell. Having literally created hundreds of gins in his career at the helm of Thames Distillery, Charles is one of the few distillers in the world who only creates spirits for others and in doing so, is undeniably, one of the most experienced ginsmiths out there.
Gin Foundry – Hello Charles, thanks for agreeing to finish off the series with us. You come from a long line of distillers, but how long have you been distilling yourself and what made you choose it as a career?
Charles Maxwell – I joined the Finsbury Distillery Company ltd in 1976. That business had been my mother’s family firm, and my 8th great grandfather one George Bishop (Bishop being my mother’s maiden name) was apprenticed to a distiller in London in the 1680’s and from that day to this we have been distilling gin in London.
What is your favourite part of making gin?
Creating new gin recipes, learning the different taste profiles that are achieved and enjoying drinking the result!
Creatively, you must find it exciting to be able to work on the development of so many gins. Have any really stood out as a gin that you are particularly proud about above the others?
To single out any individual gin would be invidious. Several have won gold and silver medals at the IWSC competition over the years. Each one has proved exciting to be involved with in its development.
Cheeky asking which was the favourite child but it was worth a go…. As the distiller who is responsible for the taste of the gin and not in control of other aspects of a brand (for example the investment, the look and feel, the marketing and PR etc..) – how much do you think the other elements of gin matter to the success of a brand? You must have made some amazing gins that are not doing particularly well and vice versa, some decent gins that have bloomed because of clever positioning.
Launching a new gin onto any market requires a well thought out business plan if it is going to succeed commercially just like any other venture. While the quality and integrity of the liquid is an essential part, if clear marketing and commercial development plans are not drawn up the brand is unlikely to survive.
You have a while to go before retirement, but given you make so many different gins and that you have been such a huge figure in the world of distilling and gin – do you ever think about what legacy you will leave behind? If so, what do you think (or hope) that would be?
Not certain about the “huge figure” bit, unless that is my waist line! It is wonderful being part of the current gin revival. My legacy, if there is one, will be that we have established a specialist business that can go on giving a unique service to those who wish to enter the world of gin created and produced in London.
It’s that service that sets Thames apart. There are a lot of newbee distillers and new distilleries, many of which have small budgets and some without any formal training on apparatus. How tough is the learning curve to achieve consistency and how important are the base tools?
The new distillers who recognize they are on a steep learning curve, and understand how to inquire politely of those in the trade with the knowledge, find that they can make reasonably quick progress. It is a truism to say that each still has its own particular characteristics and who ever puts in a new one has to spend time learning how it will perform. As in any craft it is normally always worth investing in the best quality equipment you can afford.
Do you think many people underestimate what it takes to set up a distillery?
I am not certain people underestimate what it takes to set up a distillery, so much as underestimate the time, effort and expense involved in creating and building a brand. I use the analogy that in the same way people get carried away with the romantic idea of owning a country pub, some also approach the idea of owning a little distillery.
Some people get bizarrely snooty abut contract distilling. Why do you think people initially mistrust the authenticity of third party distilled gins when they are often better than gins made by less experienced distillers?
I would suggest that most of those who are being “snooty” are those who have invested in their own stills and are trying to create a point of difference in the market place. A contract distiller, like Thames, lives and dies on ensuring their clients get a quality product and that their recipes are kept exclusive. I would suggest that the smart parties are those who get their gins created and produced by a contract distiller and husband their resources for use in their marketing and sales drives.
In terms of distilling, so many brands hammer the message across that copper stills are best and the only way to make gin. As someone who uses two stills, neither made of copper, is there really a difference or is it just marketing?
As I have said earlier each still has its own characteristics and it is more important to understand them and the interaction of the various botanicals than to worry about the still being made of copper or stainless steel. Clearly copper stills are not “the only way to make gin”. I would however suggest that whichever metal you start with it probably makes sense to stick with, unless you are looking to create a different character in your gin.
Having been in high demand for your services, you will be able to gauge the future more than anyone so finger in the air times… Do you think the category will contract in the coming years?
What is certain is that gin plays in the international drinks market and that it will evolve from where it is now. In some markets due to its very success it will possibly contract as it comes under increasing competitive pressure from other spirits and alcoholic drinks. meanwhile it may well find markets in which gin will take a larger share of the cake. What I do believe is that the smaller “craft”, “artisanal”; or whatever title you like to give them; brands have a definite future as consumers look for points of difference which fortunately, gin can give them in the product and not just the packaging.
And lastly, what’s your favourite way to enjoy gin? Cocktail, neat, G&T – do you have a tipple of choice?
Wet and cold! A well made gin and tonic is a wonderful drink, but then so is a dry martini or a negroni let alone a tom collins. The real fun is enjoying the different flavours and styles that are now so much more readily available.
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