Please tell me a bit about your background
I grew up in Aberdeen then joined the oil industry as an engineer but quickly discovered it wasn't for me, so after a few years between the office and the rigs, I escaped to New York for some soul-searching and started bartending at a whisky bar in Manhattan to make ends meet. That’s where whisky first turned from a hobby to my livelihood and a love affair began. Given my technical background, it very quickly made sense to move upstream into distilling.
What prompted your interest in this area?
I'm a huge geek at heart so I was sold on the science of distilling - that blend of science and applied art - and that's what hooked me. There's an irresistible alchemy to fermentation and distillation that I was struggling to find in anything else.
How did you link up with Darren Rook and The London Distillery Company?
Darren and I met through a mutual friend and he asked me to come down to the site in London to have a chat about his project and his aspirations for it. It wasn't a job interview per se, and the 'distillery' was nothing more than a big white box at the time, but I left that day feeling more inspired than I had in a while. Let's just say it wasn't a difficult decision when he asked me to join the team.
Tell me about the distillery
The distillery was conceived three years ago by Nick Taylor and Darren Rook. We’ve been building in Battersea since September 2012 and it hasn’t been easy. To my knowledge, no-one in England has done anything on this small a scale before, and certainly not in the middle of London! But we’re just about there now. We have two German copper stills, Matilda and Christina; a rotary evaporator, which we’ve incorporated into our gin production to retain the more delicate aromas; and two 2.2hl fermenters, which means we’ll only produce two to three casks per week, making us truly ‘small batch’. We’re also looking to take advantage of London’s rich brewing heritage by experimenting with historical brewer’s yeast strains in the search for a distinct malt spirit.
Are there any people, places or products which have had a special influence on you?
I'm a Scot, so naturally the motherland has shaped me somewhat, although it took some time away to truly appreciate it. Outside of that, living in Brooklyn redefined my idea of craft and demonstrated that someone could actually make a living doing something they love. Ironically, there's also a whisky-drinking culture in New York that wasn't accessible to me when I lived in Scotland. Sharing that passion with others really reinforced the emotion and ultimately drove me back home to become a distiller.
How would you define craft distilling and what does it mean to you?
Sometimes people confuse 'craft' with 'handmade', but craftsmanship is about so much more than performing the work by hand - it's really about dedication and doing something well for the sake of doing it well. That way, the product becomes much bigger than itself: it's no longer simply about what's inside the bottle but the people who make it, the place where it's made and the processes used. In my experience, both as a distiller and a consumer, this helps build a connection between the drinker and the drink.
What are your aims and ambitions?
My ambition for the company is to become the standard by which all other craft distilleries in the United Kingdom are judged and held accountable. We've set a precedent by building a distillery on this scale, and no one can ever take that away from us, but to set a precedent in terms of product quality is my ultimate goal. On a personal level, my own ambition is fairly grand but simple: to master the art of distillation within my lifetime.
What can boutique distilleries contribute to the future?
If nothing else, boutique distilleries will keep the ‘big boys’ on their toes. While the large-scale producers won’t be concerned about us stealing much of their market share, smaller, accessible distilleries will affect perceptions of consumers as they begin to expect more from their products. We’ve seen this trend in other food and drink sectors – just look at coffee – where consumers are becoming more concerned with tracing the product back to its source. Education is such a huge part of craft distilling that the emergence of small distilleries will accelerate this trend in spirits and that means we all need to be constantly revaluating what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Otherwise, we risk getting left behind, regardless of scale.
Do you have any concerns about any aspect of the drinks industry?
Not at this stage. I suppose the market is becoming saturated with new products - look at the recent boom of new gin brands - but that doesn't concern me because consumers are much more informed than they were ten years ago and they can spot the pretenders. They also have ready access to information, via the internet, so the industry is becoming transparent whether producers like it or not. Anyone cutting corners or pulling wool over eyes will quickly get found out. At TLDC, we're very open about what we do and why we do it, so I don't predict any problems for us moving forward.
Do you see any parallels with America?
Like any 'craft' movement, quality endures and the rest disappear. It happened in the States with craft breweries, it'll happen again with distilleries, and then we’ll see more of the same over here. The Americans have their moonshine culture and that gives them a romantic excuse for taking shortcuts. However, with the historical weight of whisky in Scotland and gin in England, British craft distillers will surely be judged to a higher standard.
What does the future hold in terms of innovation, new drinks categories and so on?
Craft distillers must respect the rules set forth by tradition, but at the same time I believe that innovation is inherently built into the definition of 'craft'. By that I mean the craftsman should and will continuously seek to improve his or her process to perfect the outcome. So innovation should not just be allowed but should be expected on our scale. When we designed Dodd's Gin, we started with a concept for a premium spirit and found that the only way to achieve that was to use a combination of both hot and cold distillation techniques. There's no commercial agenda or gimmickry involved. We designed the process out of necessity and hopefully that will excite people.