Archiving Gin

We, along with countless other drinks enthusiasts all over the world, love hearing about cocktail history, drinks heritage and the stories behind some of the most iconic brands of all time. It’s just amazing to hear how some began their journey and how much cultural impact spirits and the people who make them have had on society. This is particularly true for gin - just think about the impact of the London Gin Craze for example or how Prohibition was (and still is) a huge part of the US drinking heritage.

But who keeps these records? Who’s responsible for archiving this information in a truthful manner? Who do we entrust to record legacies and ensure future generations of discerning drinkers can see what happened when facts get forgotten to time?

We’ve all considered ourselves gin archivists at some point, tucking away another cheeky G&T on a Saturday night - but there is in fact a few people who are the real deal. They are the custodians of gin’s ever growing heritage.

Based on the simple fact that it sounded like the coolest job on the planet, we decided to contact Joanne McKerchar, Diageo’s Senior Archivist, to find out just what being a Gin Archivist really means in today’s world. We must admit we also wanted to see if we could unearth some little forgotten facts about two of the most iconic brands in the category - Tanqueray and Gordon’s Gin. Rather unsurprisingly, we all got very excited and the conversation turned very geeky very quickly and so, we’ve decided to bring this interview to you in two parts to fully digest the contents of this fascinating aspect of the business.

Being a Gin Archivist part one… the job.

Gin Foundry: Hi Jo, thanks for taking the time to talk to us! To begin, could you explain what you do and how long you have been doing it? Being a Gin Archivist sounds like a cross over between a librarian and an art collector - where did it all start for you?

Joanne McKerchar: I was fascinated by history growing up, and having studied History at Aberdeen University and a Masters in Archives and Records Management at the University of Liverpool, I was delighted to find a job that allowed me to pursue my passions. I joined the Diageo Archive in 2005 and I’ve never looked back. The job is challenging, and extremely fast paced. These descriptors don’t often come to mind when you think of an Archive, but a business Archive is quite different to those run by local authorities. We exist to support the business and help Diageo achieve commercial success. As a result, our workload will directly correlate with the business objectives for the brands we work on. As I look after the Gins and the Malts, my time is spent working on whatever my teams need me for. This can vary from inspiring new pack design, providing access to the historical recipes which can inform new liquid development, taking part in marketing & innovation strategy sessions, briefing agencies on the history of the brands, internal education and brand passion sessions for colleagues, and media events such as new product launches or Pop-ups. We also work closely with our colleagues in Legal and Intellectual property. No two days are the same, and that’s why I love it.

GF: Between all the brands, we can see how it can get hectic! Any favourite parts of the job?

JMcK: Often my work will require me to rummage through the original material I have for the brands, and this is the part I love the most. You never know what you’re going to find, and each time I look at my collections I discover another little gem. Despite being here for 8 years I’m still learning and discovering every day, although that’s not surprising when there are over 100 boxes of original Gins records, 6 plan chests full of historical advertising and over 500 historical gin bottles!

GF: Are the archives only for internal use?

JMcK: No, we also have an external role to play. This can be anything from helping our consumers with family history enquiries, to helping people date historical bottles they have found. We also work with our colleagues on product placement to ensure, for example, the historical Tanqueray bottle that’s shown in Mad Men looks exactly as it would have done in the 1960s. It’s pretty cool to be watching something and all of a sudden a bottle pops up in a scene and you think ‘I sent the artwork so they could make that bottle!’

GF: The fact that Don Draper is drinking historically accurate Tanqueray is amazing! So, how does a Gin archive work exactly? Does each market have to send over what they create each year and you log and curate as if in a museum or is that just too big a task? Both gin brands must have enormous amounts of activity going on globally so the job of keeping track of it all must be huge?! 

JMcK: This is a really good question, and it highlights one of the biggest challenges we face. As we are Diageo’s global archive, we are required to collect material for all Diageo brands and sites, in all markets. In theory everything that is produced today that has been identified as worthy or permanent preservation has to be sent to the Archive. However, the practical side of this is very challenging. As Diageo is so big not everyone who works in the company realises the Archive exists.

A lot of what we do involves building relationships with our key stakeholders around the globe to educate them about the Archive and to encourage them to send their work. This works with varying degrees of success, but it’s an area that we’ve identified as needing attention, and I’m working on a new way or working that I hope to roll out this year. There is so much fantastic work being produced by our Gin brands around the world it would be a shame if it wasn’t captured here forever, and of course we have a desire to build the Archive for future users.

GF: The word user is really apt as it really puts the Archive in context as an active, even living entity. As you referred to earlier, when one considers the meaning of “Archive” it can sometimes be perceived as a place that ensures history is recorded - filing the past to remain there - but it’s much more than that. It’s a really useful asset to use when developing new ideas centered around reinterpreting historical recipes and recreating historical bottlings…

One of these projects was the Charles Tanqueray boot polish recipe project with Worship Street Whistling Shop. As we understand it, this came from the Diageo Archives and the guys took inspiration from there. Could you talk about how this came around and explain a little about the project?

JMcK: Acquiring notarised copies of Charles Tanqueray’s recipe books and travel diaries is one of the things I am most proud of. When I joined Diageo we didn’t have much of a relationship with John Tanqueray, the great great grandson of Charles, so I set about trying to build one.

John had worked for Tanqueray Gordon & Co until 1989 when he retired. After speaking with him on the phone and over email we decided to meet to I could conduct an oral history interview with him. We immediately hit it off and I had a wonderful day at his home. The memories he shared of his time with the company were fantastic, and I often use extracts of his interview to humanise and bring to life his era with the company. Whilst there, John showed me the original recipe books he has in his private collection. I was blown away by them, and could instantly see how valuable these could be, so I convinced John to let me come back with a huge photocopier and a notary public and we made notarised copies of the records.

They have proved incredibly inspirational for Tanqueray. Not only have they stimulated new product development, but they have enabled me to learn so much more about Charles Tanqueray, and the more I learn about him the more I love him! Charles sought perfection in everything he did. This is obvious when you see the experimentation he carried out to achieve his Gin. But he was also a chemist, and extended his talents to include his other passion, horses. As well as being full of recipes for different drink, the books are peppered with recipes for things like, ‘How to clean your horse’s harnesses, ‘stomach pills for horses’, and a recipe for boot polish.

I keep the recipe books under lock and key at the Archive, and the only person I allow access to is Tom Nichol, the Tanqueray Master Distiller. However, when I was approached by Tristan Stephenson from the Worship Street Whistling Shop about his project I was keen to help.

With guidance from my colleagues in Intellectual Property I was able to share a tiny amount of information about the types of ingredients Charles Tanqueray was experimenting with. Frustratingly for Tristan I could say no more than ‘we know he was experimenting with White Cloves’, but this was all the inspiration Tristan needed to create the White Clove liqueur and this is what he hinged the Juniper Journey event on. With regards to the boot polish, with permission from the estate of John Tanqueray I was able to share the entire recipe. This enabled Tristan to re-create it exactly, with wonderful results.

I’m delighted to see the recipes being used is such a creative way. It’s brilliant to see the genius of Charles Tanqueray brought to life.

GF: And to do it so accurately too! Tristan clearly did it justice, both the journey and the polish were really high quality. It’s always a bit of a gamble to allow people to recreate things but if time has shown anything, it’s that he’s more than capable of living up to the pressure of delivering projects of that caliber.

What’s next for the archives? Is there ever going to be a gallery / museum in the same way there is the House of Bols in Amsterdam - will it ever be open to the public? 

JMcK: At the moment members of public cannot access the Archive without a prior appointment. It is something that we have talked about from time to time and we may move in this direction when the time is right.

We are just coming to the end of a huge £1.5 million expansion project at the Archive, which has seen us add on a much needed third store as well as a new front of house facility. The new front of house will showcase around 3,500 historical bottles, and will allow us to entertain and inform the ever increasing numbers of visitors, which include key customers, media groups and influencers. It’s fantastic to see Diageo invest so heavily in its heritage, and its testament to the value the Archive brings to the business.

We can’t wait to show off the new space, and it’s a really exciting time to be working at the Diageo Archive.

GF: Absolutely! We can’t wait to see the finished space. It’s brilliant that a juggernaut company like Diageo is willing to invest in its own heritage and to keep up to date. It’s a long term move which in time, will pay its dividends.

Right. We’re all in agreement it’s time for a cheeky Gin & Tonic break!

Coming up… the second part to our interview where we’ll return with more questions for Jo regarding some of the contents found within the archives and what’s happening to all those vintage bottles…