By Harpers Editorial
Published: 15 March, 2021
Harpers spoke to William Lowe MW, owner and master distiller, Cambridge Distillery.
How did you first fall into the world of drink?
I started aged 18 to fund my studies. I became smitten with the industry and kept coming back to it, from bartending to running restaurants and working for industry suppliers. Before we started Cambridge Distillery, I worked as an industry educator and have now been an international judge for both wines and spirits for over 10 years. My proudest achievement came recently, though, when I became the first ever Master Distiller to become a Master of Wine.
MW and Master Distiller is an unusual blend – what benefits or cross-fertilisation does the one bring to the other?
Funny you should ask – that’s precisely the subject of my research paper! I was able to demonstrate, empirically, my long-held belief that improving a person’s ability in wine tasting benefits their ability to taste spirits. In short, I studied wine to improve my understanding of spirits. It worked, and I have shown it can work for others, too. I’m a better taster, a more informed producer and a more appreciative consumer.
Could you explain your approach for distilling individual botanicals and how this makes a difference?
We founded Cambridge Distillery on the principal that no two botanicals are identical. While we are by no means the only people using a low-pressure approach, our unique novo-dimensional vacuum distillation allows us to tailor temperature and pressure along with seven other parameters. This means we can use the most delicate botanicals and it gives us a level of precision vastly beyond that of traditional distillation. As such, we’ve been recognised three times as the most innovative distillery in the world.
Why have you chosen to work with highly individual ingredients such as redwood ants, truffles, Japanese botanicals and what do such world first additions bring to the mix?
We focus our effort on products which have never been done before or where we see an opportunity to greatly improve the quality of what is available. That’s part of the reason every gin we have released has won at least a gold medal at international competition. These new ingredients not only enrich our flavour palette (for example, using ants for citrus-like notes, truffle for earth complexity), they also have a tangible impact on the trade, influencing consumers, bartenders and producers around the world. The current scale of the gin industry in Japan demonstrates what can happen when we start working with a new range of botanicals.
What of the subsequent blending – art or science? And how do you draw on learnings from the wine world?
Art and science are not mutually exclusive. They inform each other, allowing us to make methodical advances ahead of the curve and apply them to create flavours of stunning nuance. What I draw from the world of wine is a direct parallel of regional expression – that which makes the wines from one grand cru tangibly different from another – along with vintage variation. Our seasonal gins are the embodiment of this: a hyper-local approach using fresh botanicals combined with a pioneering approach to distillation and blending. We preserve and bottle flavours and fragrances with true provenance, reflective of a time and a place.
What are you looking to achieve or convey with the new rebranding?
We’re highlighting what makes our gins so special: freshest botanicals, their provenance, and our unique savoir faire. Each range has its own identity. The English Herbarium is an homage to our Cambridge origins focusing on fresh, local botanicals from the English country garden. The Cambridge Distillery Collection is a journey through the world’s most extraordinary ingredients and a range of world firsts such as Anty Gin, Japanese Gin or Truffle Gin. Lastly, Watenshi, the world’s most exclusive gin, now has an image befitting such a show-stopping liquid.
The gin market continues to see innovation and growth – what do you think the next trends to stick will be?
Innovation is where experimentation meets with success. Combining ever-weirder artificial flavours with packaging gimmickry (gold flakes, I’m looking at you) will, I hope, be a passing fad. True quality, led by well-balanced spirits made with attention to detail, has a much brighter future ahead.
What, in a few sentences, makes a great gin?
Strangely, the first half of this sounds very simple: being free from faults. It seems obvious, and yet in my role as a spirits judge I keep seeing poorly distilled products made with sub-par base spirits, cloudiness in the glass masquerading as ‘non-chill filtered’ (properly distilled products should always be crystal clear), and sweetening/flavouring being used in totally inappropriate ways. That’s really a minimum level. Thereafter, the important elements are: balance of the aromatics, structure to create great mouthfeel and a level of complexity which can allow the gin to develop in the glass. That’s what keeps you coming back for another sip.