Many next gens want to start their own business, and it’s not uncommon to set one up in the area where the family has its expertise. That was exactly what Charles Maxwell, 59, whose family has been making gin in London since the 17th century, did when his family business was sold. His Thames Distillers specialises in developing gins to suit any taste. NXG caught up with him to talk about gin through the generations.
When did the family business start? With a man called George Bishop, who was an apprentice to a member of the Worshipful Company of Distillers in the City of London in the 1680s. Since then every generation has distilled in London and the business, which is on my mother’s side, became the Finsbury Distillery. You can still buy Finsbury London Dry Gin, although it’s nothing to do with the family any more.
Did you always want to be in the gin business? I have gin running through my veins. I’m an eighth-generation gin distiller and I wasn’t given much option! The product that the family company, Finsbury, became best known for was Stone’s Ginger Wine, and I suspect that it was put in my bottle when I was a baby. As a boy I was brought up to London by my father a few times and taken into the distillery. The director was told to give me a glass of the feints, the impure by-product of the distilling process, which put me off drinking gin for 20 years. I think that was the idea.
Your first job was in the family business, then? When I was at school I came in for holiday stints, doing bits and pieces, and then when I left school I studied accountancy. I then joined the family business and I was given a broom and told to start on the floor and work my way up. I did every job in the distillery, which was bought by Matthew Clark. I left in 1992.
What did you do when you had left the business? Someone I knew came and said that they knew of a little distillery that had closed down in South London and I thought that was interesting. So I went back to my roots. I was 39 at the time. Now we make 40 different gins. People come to us and say they want to develop a gin, and they have ideas about what they want it to be like. We make Juniper Green – the world’s first organic gin – we make one for Bacardi and we make gins for customers in the Spanish, American and Asian markets. Our stills are pretty busy.
How did it help you that you had worked in the family business first?
The fact that I had spent time working in all the disciplines, from production through to finance, sales and marketing, had schooled me well to ensure that all parts of a business were covered. It certainly helped me to become an entrepreneur, together with the fact that I had been encouraged from the very first to be responsible for my own actions and be a self-starter.
Your gins are drunk all over the world. How do tastes differ?
In Spain they have a G&T with lots of ice; it’s meant to last 30 minutes, so you need a complex, bigger style of gin that is built to last. Gin is big in Spain. A serious bar will have 20, 30, 40 types of gin, some say they have over 100. America still is very much more into the cocktail style. Branding is still the thing there, people want a Beefeater or a Bombay. In Japan they aren’t allowed to have quinine in their tonic so it is revoltingly sweet and they need so much juniper you feel you are almost eating the tree. This law about quinine ends later this year, which may change the market.
How about China? They love whisky there, don’t they? The Scottish whisky people are pushing hard there, but the main spirit in China is still baiju, which is a white spirit with a bit of flavour in it, so I am positive that gin can find a market there in one form or another.
What is so special about gin? What makes it so appealing? It’s a very simple drink. The only rules are that it has to be at least 37.5% alcohol, and that juniper is the main flavour. After that it can have almost any flavour you can think of. People in the UK have recently realised that this means it can be a far more interesting drink than vodka. For example, one we developed recently was Gilpin’s. The makers use water brought down from Cumbria in the north of England, and they have a good slug of juniper and coriander, balanced off with a citrus note from bitter orange, then the softness of sage and borage. It’s very interesting and it makes very good cocktails.
Would your ancestors still recognise what you do? They would be surprised to see the stills made of stainless steel but we use small, 500-litre ones that they would recognise. The process is the same: distilling, sourcing botanicals and turning it into gin. We are doing the same thing that they were in the 1680s.