For some people, serving up the Queen of England a well-crafted cocktail might be a professional highlight. A winning square on the Bingo card of life, so to speak.
But if you’re William Lowe, the co-founder and master distiller of Cambridge Distillery, it’s just a small part of a lengthy list of badass accomplishments: Wine and Spirits Educator of the Year, one of British Airways’ 100 Modern Britons and the creator of the first Gin to use... ants as a flavor component (go ahead a re-read that one more time).
Because for William, the joy in distilling comes from innovating, experimentation and getting really geeky when it comes to flavor — in the best way possible. Even if it means creating individual bottles of Gin that’re crafted to each person’s individual tastes and preferences. “The final ingredient in any Gin that I create, is the person that drinks it,” said William. “And I want that person to have all of the faculties that they can possibly have to create the best flavor experience that they can access.”
High-minded stuff from a brilliant booze aficionado. But don’t take our word for it. We sat down with William to get the lowdown on Cambridge Distillery’s Gin, what it means to be a “Gin tailor” and how ants became the unwitting star of an off-the-wall bottle of Gin.
Tell us more about Cambridge Distillery, the company and the brand.William: The company started out as the smallest distillery in the United Kingdom. We launched on the 7th of April in 2012. Cambridge Distillery was founded on a couple of very simple principles. One: No two botanicals are the same. The other is that no two people are the same. And we took those two observations together and we launched our business as the world's first Gin tailor.
Gin tailoring is the process whereby we make the perfect Gin for each individual person. No two people are alike.
I want to say "our," referring to the other two co-founders — that’s my wife, Lucy Lowe, who is our brand director, and also our labrador, Darcy. That's a very important part of the team.
It seems like you have a strong passion for discovering flavors in liquids. Where does that passion come from?William: That's a great question. And it is not an overstatement to say that I've dedicated my entire adult life to the pursuit of excellence in alcohol.
I started working with Wines and Spirits when I turned 18. It was a very functional role — just some casual work in order to fund my studies through university. But I continued to do that through university and became smitten with the industry.
I was never the kind of guy that wanted to just turn up to work, do my job and clock out. I always wanted to get really, really good at whatever it was I was doing. So I pursued bartending with great enthusiasm and I started entering competitions. Some highlights include that I worked as a flair bartender and made it to the point where I qualified in second place at the World Open.
We've always been interested in pushing that envelope into better spaces that we believe people deserve to be able to see and access.
On the mixology side of things, I was winning national mixology competitions. I even served drinks for the Queen at the Ritz on the anniversary of her coronation. When I finished university, I finished my final exam and 24 hours later I was back working bars. That's sort of where I started the career of disappointing my father. So, I've worked in bars and restaurants. I've run bars and restaurants. I've trained other people who work in bars and restaurants. Worldwide, I've trained over 10,000 people now in formal qualifications in the Wine and Spirits trade.
I've also worked in companies that supply beyond trade. Immediately before I started Cambridge Distillery, I was working as an educator. It was my job to teach people about Wines and Spirits, particularly looking at things like their production methods, provenance, how we assess quality, I've also spent over a decade now working as an international judge for both Wines and Spirits. All of that culminates in the creation of Cambridge Distillery.
Can you talk to us a bit about some of the signature products that Cambridge Distillery has developed?William: Traditional Gin production goes in a still. You put Spirit in the pot. You have the juniper, you heat it holding up. You then cool it down again and Gin comes out. Done. That's Gin production.
That's how you make London Dry Gin universally acknowledged to be at the top of that. However, what makes London Dry Gin great is also a very restrictive feature. What makes it great is that you have to use natural rather than synthetic or artificial ingredients. And what makes it restrictive is that for this thing to work, you have to heat it to between 78 and 100 degrees Celsius. And at the risk of sounding like an idiot, that's quite hot.
Now there are lots of flavors that people really enjoy in Gin. Things like cucumber and basil, for example. But if you boil cucumber or basil, they taste horrific. So what people have done up to now is that they've substituted those in by distilling some of the flavor and then adding other synthetic flavors post distillation.
My theory is very simple. If you want a cucumber flavor in a Gin, surely the best source of a cucumber flavor is a cucumber. Nobody's gonna argue against that, right? But you can't use a cucumber because of this. That's not the cucumbers fault. That's this guy's fault. So rather than change our products to suit our production, we change the production to suit our product. And we did this initially on a really, really small scale.
You’ve never probably eaten a boiled cucumber. And if you have, you would have done it exactly one time. There's no way you can eat a boiled thing. But you've eaten a cucumber and cucumber is great. What we've found is a way that we can just lift the flavor off of things instead of boiling them out. We developed a method of doing each flavor individually. And then it's my job to blend those back together to make a Gin.
1. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I'd like to be able to pause time.
2. How would you describe Cambridge Distillery in three words?
Excellence. Innovative. Educational.
3. What is your favorite music and what drink goes with it?
William: Nineties hip hop. Negroni.
4. What would you eat and drink for your last supper?
I'm more concerned about who I ate with. I'd want my last dinner to be with my family. I'd have fish and chips with my family. The drink would be a martini.
5. Assuming the Gin made at Cambridge Distillery is your favorite, what's your second favorite Gin?
Your second favorite Gin is Whiskey?
And if I start walking you through our portfolio, we’ll start with our premium collection, which is actually our entry tier, Cambridge Dry Gin. And the thinking behind Cambridge Dry Gin was really simple.
Now what struck me as really quite peculiar is that, in craft Gins, whilst we're all passionate about craft, artisan and local Gins with provenance, what's happening with the production of most of them is that people are importing almost exactly the same recipes as one another. If you think of any London Dry Gin — any at all that was made by anyone except for me — I can tell you the ingredients. This is my party trick. The ingredients are juniper, coriander, angelica, licorice, aurelis and a citrus. And if that product is less than 10 years old, there's probably also a leaf from their grandmother's back garden so that they can tell you it's local or foraged.
I had this breakthrough moment that I could create the world's first Gin with true provenance — something that tastes of the place that it came. So we're not just importing things and assembling them here, we're growing them. Cambridge Dry Gin is literally a taste of the English countryside. On the nose, it smells like an English country garden in the summer. But we can be even more specific than that. It tastes like my garden in the summer. Because when we first started making Cambridge Dry Gin, my wife and I literally grew all of the botanicals here ourselves.
Tell us a bit more about the product development process. What does that look like?William: Well, if we look at something like Anty Gin, that's a product with a really clear brief, where it's a question of narrowing down the possibilities of what does and doesn't work.
The brief with Anty Gin was really simple. I received a call from Benedict Reed, who at the time was head of development for Nordic Food Lab. And Nordic Food Lab was set up as a not-for-profit gastronomic experimental company by Klaus Mayer and Rene Redzepi. They are the same guys who set up Noma in Copenhagen, the number one restaurant in the world. Ben phoned me up and said, "Okay, here's an easy one. All Gins have a citrus flavor. Yes?" And I said, "I agree." Then he said, "Did you know some ants taste like citrus?" And I said, "I did not." And he said, "Well, what do you think about that?" And that was the beginning of a wonderful adventure.
Cambridge Dry Gin is literally a taste of the English countryside.
Anty Gin was a really interesting project. It's probably one of my favorite product development stories. We discovered that the elements within some ants that give them this kind of citrus flavor is a substance called formic acid. Now, formic acid is soluble in water and it's soluble in alcohol. It's a great start, has a boiling point of 100.3 degrees Celsius. We thought, well, this is something that clearly can be distilled. And in fact, formic acid is a really common thing that's found in loads and loads of foodstuffs. I'm not the first guy to distill ants, but I'm definitely the first person to do it to create Gin.
We had some ants sent over to us, and then we had to funnel them into a 70% ethanol solution. And just the act of figuring out how to get a botanical that both runs and can bite you into ethanol, that was a learning curve I can tell you. After we did it, I was bitten from fingers to elbows on both hands. And those bites, they last for days. But I did get my revenge. It's not something that the vegans like to hear me talk about.
I spend around 30% of my time in research and development.
But we got them into ethanol, and they die immediately — very clean. And then we let them macerate for a little while, so that I can extract all of the formic acid from inside them. And we then take them through to a very slow, very gentle distillation. Once we did that, we isolated the ant distillate, which was a pure taste event. I can verify that it was because whilst they were busy biting me, I thought I should bite some of them and show them who's boss, but also familiarize myself with the flavor.
Then we had this extract, this essence of ant that was just absolutely perfect, beautiful flavor. The most similar flavor for most humans that haven't eaten ants before would be an earthy, almost oxidized, lemongrass flavor. But of course it is unique. It tastes of ants. That's the easiest way to explain it. Once we had that, the temptation was to just make a normal Gin, take the citrus out and put the ant in. But that just didn't seem to do justice to the flavor profile that we created.
Lucy and I got on an airplane and we flew over to Copenhagen. And there, along with the team for Nordic Food Lab, we started exploring other flavors from the ecosystem that the ants had come from. That's when we started bringing in other flavors that had never been used before in Gin. So we used things like wood avens root, Alexander seed, stinging nettle and part of the sting of a stinging nettle as well, that's all also formic acid. So it enabled us to create this almost sort of hyper local Gin that was a really true expression of a very, very particular ecosystem.
Education is an important part of what you do as a company. Tell me more about that aspect of Cambridge Distillery.William: Yeah, there’s a classic quote, “the more I learn, the less I know.” And I think that's really relevant here. By taking such a focused academic approach to our industry, we've been able to really shine a light on where the gaps are. That's not to say that we seek out niches. What we do is look for things that can or should be improved. We've always been interested in pushing that envelope into better spaces that we believe people deserve to be able to see and access.
I think art is an interesting parallel here. People have to go to university and study for years to truly appreciate what is great about the work of the masters. And it became really obvious to me very early on, not least because I was coming from an education background, but if you're going to make something great, and it's a product intended for consumption, then you are fundamentally failing if the person who consumes it doesn't understand its greatness.
I had this breakthrough moment that I could create the world's first Gin with true provenance — something that tastes of the place that it came.
So we set about educating people. Very early on in the life of Cambridge Distillery, we set up an entire classroom in the center of Cambridge, dedicated entirely to teaching people about Gin. And people thought that was mad as well. There'd never be any demand for it. We now employ over 40 people in our company. Cambridge Gin Laboratory is the number one ranked thing to do on TripAdvisor in Cambridge. It's better than even going to university here. We teach people how to appreciate Gin seven days a week.
They enable people to appreciate quality and to make better purchasing decisions. So they're buying products made with a higher quality, rather than brands with great marketing campaigns behind them.
What is Gin tailoring? How did you come up with it?William: Gin tailoring is the process whereby we make the perfect Gin for each individual person. No two people are alike. Our sense of taste, flavor and our appreciation thereof is informed both by our genetics and by our experience, so even two identical twins won't have identical taste.
I first noticed that whilst I was teaching and educating. And we go through this process of calibrating what is clearly a very subjective experience, and making people be able to refer to it objectively. So I developed a process. Instead of having people continue to shop around and buy random things off of a shelf in search of the perfect Gin, I would do it for them.
The process involves a series of blind taste tests which are held one-on-one, or one-on-two for couples. Those taste tests are used to determine your palate sensitivities and preferences. Once I’ve taken your input for the ingredient selection, I combine those preferences with my experience of blending, and use that to create one unique Gin that is tailored specifically for you. That's a process that we enlist for both individual and corporate clients. For example, the Gin that's made exclusively for the House of Lords is made in here, as is the Gin that's available exclusively in the Concorde lounge for British Airways.
Does Cambridge Distillery have any new projects on the horizon?William: The thirst for what's next, what's going to happen, what's around the corner — that's what keeps us going. I think it's probably fair to say that I spend around 30% of my time in research and development. We're always looking at what improvements we can make to the next thing.
You can't make a great martini from a bad Gin. It's just not possible.
The newest product of ours is a seasonal Gin called Spring Summer. Spring Summer uses the same philosophy I used with dry Gin, which is using all of the botanicals that are around here. We can grow them and collect them locally. I'm showcasing all of the citrus that doesn't come from citrus fruit. We've used things like lemon verbena, lemon balm, lemon lavender — all of these things that we grow as herbs.
We also have a product that we're looking to launch in the run up to Christmas. I've created that as an absolute go-to for martini drinking. It has all those layers of built-in complexity. For my mind, a martini can and should be the simplest drink in the world to prepare. And yet I find myself so frequently disappointed by it. So I wanted to make a martini.
I'm not the first guy to distill ants, but I'm definitely the first person to do it to create Gin.
The agenda is absolutely foolproof for a martini, so whatever you do with it, it's just going to sing right out of the glass. And for me, a martini is how a Gin should be consumed. There's nowhere to hide, right? You can't make a great martini from a bad Gin. It's just not possible.