We were recently visited by Richard Piper, food and drink blogger, writer and magazine editor. He was rather fond of our distillery and was kind enough to write a few words about his experience. His review follows below, and can also be found on his own website here.
I visit Will Lowe, Master Distiller at The Cambridge Distillery, to learn about his unique gin concept
As we drive from Cambridge station to the distillery, a short journey into a pretty village on the outskirts of the City, it becomes clear as we speak that Will Lowe is not a man with a lot of time on his hands.
This is not to say that I’ve turned up unannounced and forced him to be interviewed – I’ve not had to resort to such measures just yet! It is only to say that he is a difficult man to pin down.
To explain, Lowe is a recognised Wine and Spirit Educator in the industry, and is therefore often to be found travelling the country spreading the good word via lectures and teaching sessions – a job that can take up a good deal of time, especially when there’s distilling to be done.
And yet, despite his already hectic schedule, he always has the time to produce remarkable bottles of the age old spirit, along with his wife and business partner Lucy and the increasingly famous ‘Distillery Dog’ – the couple’s pampered but well exercised black Labrador, who also forms part of the company’s logo.
‘Distillery Dog’ no doubt foraging for botanicals
What strikes me first as we walk in is the size of the still. I had envisaged a mini industrial sized arrangement in an outbuilding or garage, but the still fits comfortably onto a sideboard in the front room of Lowe’s house.
Despite its size, however, this particular still is capable of producing approximately 12 bottles per week – “That is if I don’t sleep!” says Lowe – which may seem on the low side to those not familiar with the process at The Cambridge Distillery, but let me tell you – having been through the process in detail, this yield represents a great deal of work.
“Each distillate produces around 600ml and takes three hours, so an average (six botanical) bottle represents about 18 hours of distilling.”
To nutshell the process as much as I can, traditional gin is made by taking neutral alcohol and a selection of botanicals and putting them into a pot (botanicals are the flavouring aspect of your gin, and can be described as roots, fruits, herbs and flowers. Juniper is ubiquitous of course, but there are few limitations as to what you can use within your recipe). You then heat these ingredients causing the ethanol to boil off at 78.3 degrees Celsius, leaving the water behind. The vapours then go through a condensing column, which condenses them back into a liquid. This liquid is your gin.
The Still – small but perfectly formed
Lowe could easily employ this method to his own spirit, but has instead decided to break with tradition and follow his own path.
“There are two main differences between the normal way of making gin and the way I make it, he says. “The first is that I steep each botanical individually. Instead of just putting them in the still straight away, each botanical will steep for a period of between two to 12 weeks, depending on what they are. Rose petals will steep for less time than Rosemary for example. Essentially, the harder the husk the longer it will stay.”
Wherever possible, Lowe sources his botanicals from his own garden, or by foraging in local fields and hedgerows. Rosemary and thyme for example are visible from the kitchen window, whereas his elderflower is collected from a field not 50 yards from where we stand.
“Wherever I can’t source ingredients locally, i.e. things that have to come from abroad, I always insist on organic botanical suppliers. If I can’t see where it’s been I want a complete tracing route.”
These steeped ingredients he then distils individually, as opposed to combining several at the same time, using a vacuum method. The vacuum method allows him to distil each one at a much lower temperature, which, he tells me, enables him to capture the natural, raw flavour of each botanical – something which is easily lost by using a higher heat method such as vapour infusion.
Botanicals steeping individually at The Cambridge Distillery
The second difference is where the fun really begins. The whole raison d’être of The Cambridge Distillery is their ability to tailor make each bottle of spirit based on a clients’ personal likes and dislikes.
“When I first started distilling, my dad asked me if I could make a gin that was ‘raspingly dry’, as he had never been able to find something that quite met his requirements, and it suddenly struck me that there is this market for gins that taste exactly how you want them to. Imagine, as an example, you’re eating a dish that contains mushrooms. If you’re not keen on the mushrooms, the next time you eat it you can simply leave them out and you will inevitably then prefer this version. You can’t do that with botanicals in gin – until now.”
What follows involves my good self being taken through the process. An extremely pleasant experience provided that a: you do not have the car outside, and b: you do not plan to engage in any public speaking activities that day.
I start by tasting 14 different distillates, and I taste them blind. This, Lowe informs me, is to distinguish what I ‘actually’ like, as opposed to what I ‘think’ I like. “There is a huge difference,” he says. “I have done a lot of work on the psychology of taste perception and the way that language can influence your perception, and also branding. Whilst I was researching the flavours that people actually like, not what they think they like, in gin [Lowe did a host of tastings with hundreds of people] I noted, to my surprise, that when you hear people saying the words ‘I only drink brand X because that’s what I like, that’s my favourite’, they almost always place that particular product at the bottom of the list, if not close to it.
“This got me thinking, why are people drinking stuff that they ostensibly do not like? They would actually say ‘oh no that one’s rubbish’ and I would inform them that, actually, ‘that’s your brand – that’s what you drink’. And I’ve no doubt that they continue to drink these brands after that experience, because it’s easier for them to think that I’m wrong than it is for them to change their whole world view.”
Blind or not, I have to say the majority of the distillates are amazing. I say the majority because inevitably I cannot like them all – it is of course completely subjective. I taste 14 in all, from the familiar juniper to the bergamot orange, and among my favourites are lemon peel, earl grey tea and cucumber (yes, cucumber distillate is possible to produce and it is now counted among the most delicious beverages that has ever passed my lips).
Cucumber was among my favourite distillates
It turns out that I’m a ‘herby guy’. Lowe tells me that within the first two distillates that I tasted he pretty much knew the profile we’d end up with. “Juniper and coriander, big hitting, full mid-palate, really long drawn out finish, that’s what the herby guys go for.”
And believe me, I intend to. After a good 15 minutes of tweaking my final blend, Lowe, like an alchemist before me, has mixed what I can only describe as the most magical liquid I have ever tasted – even surpassing a particularly special bottle of Pauillac I was once fortunate enough to partake in – and I place an order for my first bottle there and then.
In addition, being that this is now my own personal recipe, I am allowed to name my very own bottle. Thus, ‘Piper’s Finest Kind’ is born.
‘Piper’s Finest Kind’ – a finer gin I do not expect to find
It is a unique experience, and the passion Lowe has for satisfying his customers is evident throughout every stage of the process.
“This method ensures that people will get exactly what they want, because I don’t let people leave until they say ‘that’s the best gin I’ve ever tasted’. That’s the first mark and I’m not happy there yet. I’m happy when they say ‘I cannot imagine that being any better’. If there’s no way that it can be improved, that’s when we bottle it and that’s when we’ve got the recipe.”
My own recipe, in my opinion, is perfect – which is exactly what it’s designed to be – and when it comes to bespoke gin, Lowe is a better man than most Gunga Din!*
*This reference, and indeed the title of this piece, was inspired by the 1892 Rudyard Kipling poem Gunga Din.