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Spotlight Mini-series: Charles Maxwell & Thames Distillery

Written by Gin Foundry

Meet Thames Distillery and its owner Charles Maxwell, the fourth Ginsmith in our Spotlight Series and the only chance we have in this particular round to look at the often-unexplored world of third party distilling.

Gin, as we all know, has boomed in recent years. From just dozens in existence a decade ago to thousands today, British made gin has exceeded every expectation. But, for the thousand or so gins made in the UK there are not a thousand or so distilleries to go alongside them. This is down to two important factors; First - most distilleries are producing multiple gins in their ranges today and second - some are producing dozens of brands both for themselves as well as under contract for others.

Others take this to another level and produce hundreds of gins each year at their distilleries which have been entirely geared to be at the service of others. Thames Distillers are one of these third party producers in the UK and have earned a reputation for being one of only a handful of “go to” places trusted by new entrepreneurs to transform their concepts into liquid form.

In a rare glimpse behind the curtains of this hard working distillery, what amazes us the most isn’t just the amount of bottles needing to be filled and processed, but the sheer diversity of flavours that are possible to create from the same equipment. Flavour profiles, concepts and quantities all vary each and every time the still is switched on.

Spending a day with Maxwell and the team at Thames Distillery leaves very little doubt about the technical expertise that’s needed to make so many gins and fulfil such a diverse set of briefs. Each botanical has to be understood, each gin has to have due diligence applied to it and every time a batch is brewed – which can be months or days apart depending on how popular the brand is – it has to be the exact same. Bear in mind that it might be only the second or third time it’s ever been distilled and could be happening at a completely different time of year, with different seasonal produce. It’s tough and there’s a need to be both highly astute and experienced when asked to deliver on demand.

Gins that are made under contract also show a vital element of the creation process that so many “craft” distillers fail to acknowledge in their initial start up phases too – that it’s not all about the end flavour.

A recipe is a reflection of an idea; it’s a translation of a concept and a vision. The compelling proposition for what the client wants their gin to be informs the recipe and flavour direction contract distillers take. Good gin is not just a well-balanced formula, it’s about how well the liquid echoes the pitch that’s being made to the drinker through the brand identity and design work. Done well, the pitch (made through labels or the wider brand proposition for example) to drinkers is so symbiotic with the flavour profile that one re-enforces the other.

Because of the way that contract distillers have to work, they have to see the “big idea” in order to be able to develop a recipe in the first place. It can’t be a process of tinker and evaluate. Change it some more and then fine-tune a final recipe because “that’s what tasted good”. Either they would go bust, or the clients would have such astronomic R&D bills that it would prevent anything ever being made.

Interestingly, some clients will come with specific ideas that already have recipe implications they have calculated, while others will appear with very loose briefs and the kind of emotive straplines that bare all the hallmarks of cheesy 1990s perfume ads. Very rarely will a client appear at a contract distillery with all their botanical choices set and ask for that to merely be balanced out. Rarer still will a client emerge with an actual recipe and ask for it to be processed verbatim, something that almost only ever happens if they are already in production somewhere else.

There’s a good reminder for both drinkers and new brands to be gained from looking at this creative process. As drinkers, we are not often aware why a product resonates with us or what to seek out, but remembering that it’s both about flavour and the idea behind the brand - it can help guide you to find what you are looking for. For distillers it’s a timely reminder that marketing ideology has to go hand in hand with recipe creation and to be truly successful, it has to be done at an early stage and at a time where one can still inform the other, as opposed to being reverse engineered into it.

Surprisingly, less (proportionality speaking compared to how many are entering the market overall) new gin brands today are going down the third party route than in years gone by. This isn’t a reflection of any stigma, nor a quality issue, but solely due to the fact that the barrier to entry is considerably smaller to set up your own than it ever has been. Stills come in all sizes and cater to all budgets, meaning that many are trying their hand at opening up shop themselves.

Equally, many start ups are using contract distillers as a stepping stone en-route to opening their own premise, therefore there are numerous “third party” brands that are no longer third party - a phenomenon that used to only occur every once in a blue moon.

For these young brands, they gain the initial expertise offered by the likes of Maxwell, work with him to create better gins than they ever could have by themselves and get a product onto the market. This allows them to build up awareness, sales and establish a route to market (whilst nicely filling the coffers) before any major outlays on copper / construction have taken place. Once they feel ready, they buy-out the recipe and continue on their own. So long as everyone is being transparent about expectations and communicating that to drinkers - most would agree its not a bad way of going about it.

Because of this transactional status, it’s easy to see contract distilleries in unromantic terms and as a mere service provider. Even if that were the case though – it’s an important service to have for the gin as a category, as without the likes of Thames and others, many gins wouldn’t be here today. Portobello, Ford’s, Sabatini, Bishop’s, Chilgrove, Kokoro, Ish, Fifty Pounds, Foxtenton, SW4, Juniper Green, Cremorne, Geranium, King of Soho, Barra, Nicholson’s, Willem Barentz and Ancient Mariner cover just a fraction of the brands that are all still made at Thames. Jensen’s, Locksley’s and Darnley’s only moved to their respective distilleries many months after their launches and lets not forget that the recipes for Renegade, Elephant and 6 O’Clock were (again just a handful of the) recipes that were initially developed there. Look to other contract distilleries other than Thames and they too will have names that everyone will recognise and names that everyone is glad to see are in the category.

Contract distilling is more than this, however; look past the transactional assumption that most hold of anyone making something on behalf of another and you will see a world of creativity, of collaboration and of experience that’s helped deliver some of the fantastic gins that we all know and love. It’s an important part of the industry and one that’s garnered great results, having facilitated a route for many brands we know and love to emerge into the market. No doubt, there will be many more to come too…

Thames, Thames Distillery, Charles Maxwell, Contract distillery, spotlight