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William Lowe MW: the man with the Midas touch

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There are a lot of impressive people in the drinks industry, but you’d be hard pushed to find somebody quite as accomplished and personable as Master Distiller William Lowe MW. Holly Motion asks the man with the golden touch about his incredible career to date

William Lowe has achieved a great many things in his life. At the time of writing, he’s the only Master Distiller to also hold a Master of Wine title. At the age of 41, he already has countless letters after his name from various academic qualifications in psychology and philosophy, and is months away from embarking on a PhD in Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology.

“I’m a serial studier,” he says with a boyish smirk and an infectious giggle. “I can’t help it. I think I’ve had 17 consecutive years of exams in one shape or another.”

Somewhat surprisingly, given the laboratory behind him as we speak and the very scientific qualifications he has to his name, Lowe doesn’t come from a science background. He joined the wine and spirits world one day after he turned 18, working as a bartender.

He says his “very academic” family thought his choice to bartend was a phase. But, at 18, Lowe took his grandfather’s words “if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” to heart – something he still believes to this day.

“I took that not just to mean if you’re going to do something, do it as best you can. But genuinely it’s a question of self value. Why waste your time doing something to a mediocre standard? There’s just no point. We’ve got a limited time on this planet, haven’t we? So I thought, if I’m going to be a bartender, I want to be really good at it.”

After bartending internationally and mixing drinks for the Queen and celebrities, Lowe ran bars and restaurants for a time, before he went into distribution and then education, training more than 10,000 people worldwide. From here, the man with the voracious appetite for learning moved into production. In 2012, he set up Cambridge Distillery – which started life in his front room.

Rather than use a traditional copper pot still, Lowe fashioned a vacuum still with rudimentary apparatus to distil his fresh, seasonal botanicals according to their individual needs.

“The methods that we use here were literally laughed at a decade ago,” he explains. “And then they were thought a curiosity seven or eight years ago. And then a bit weird but quite interesting five years ago. To the point now where what we do here has resulted in gold medals for quality for literally every product that we have ever commercially released, and that gets some attention.”

Over the past 10 years, Lowe has produced a series of world firsts. “There was no such thing as gin in Japan before I did that,” he says with pride. In order to explain to the world why it was a Japanese gin, Lowe told everybody what it was made from and now there are lots of Japanese gins. “Every single one of them is based on a recipe I created here in Cambridge,” he bristles.

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Where the magic happens: William Lowe's Cambridge laboratory-cum-distillery

Lowe says a lesser man would find that very frustrating but cites a “wonderful quote that most people only know the first half of”. “You know they say imitation is the most sincerest form of flattery?” He continues, “… that mediocrity can pay to greatness”.

“It’s damning with faint praise,” he adds. “We see a lot of these products come along. I made the world’s first gin out of insects. A lot of other people have tried that too. I made the world’s first gin out of truffles. A lot of other people have tried that too. But I don’t begrudge people following because that’s great – it means we’re doing things right and that is excellent.

“And actually, if the whole world takes this approach of going quality-first and really aiming to make the best gin they can make, rather than the cheapest gin they can make with the best profit margins, well then we are in a good place. But, there are things I have worked really, really quite hard on in here that are outside of a patentable space, so we’ve got some very well-guarded secrets.

“For example, our Truffle Gin is not just juniper and truffle. But there is only one other person in the world, other than me, who knows the full recipe for that and he’s my Head of Production.” Lowe then adds quite seriously: “and we never travel in the same car.”

During our hour-long video call, Lowe sits in front of his laboratory-cum-distillery and periodically pulls props from beneath the bench upon which he sits. He jumps up to show me the oar from the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race – coincidentally, the day Cambridge Gin officially launched in 2012, Oxford infamously broke an oar – and he repeatedly holds up A1 photographs of the distillery in its various stages of development, and his favourite prop: a miniature copper pot still.

He also, much to my delight, takes me into the laboratory – with index finger to lips like a child sneaking into a room he’s not allowed to enter. The laboratory surface is lined with five small stills that look nothing like the copper pot still miniature he regularly and animatedly holds aloft.

“Instead of having one big one, I’ve got lots of little ones,” he says with that smile. “One of the first things that people laughed at when we were talking about this [distillery], is they said well that’s great but you can’t scale it so it’s pointless. My point was fundamentally that actually, I wasn’t trying to prove you could scale it. I was trying to prove I could make a better gin. Well, I’ve done that. Next problem is scaling it. And, if you can't make a bigger one, just get LOADS – it’s fine,” he grins.

Lowe can have five different botanicals running five different regimes at five different temperatures and five different pressures all at the same time. The resulting liquid isn’t gin, he tells me, but “lots of little threads that I have to weave together into the tapestry that becomes gin”.

His, now trademarked, nine-step approach is called a novo-dimensional distillation matrix. Lowe will talk about pressure and temperature but he, for aforementioned reasons, will not discuss the other seven.

He says his commercial and production team, on occasion, accuse him of having NPD Tourette’s – NPD being New Product Development.

“Because I do go quickly,” he blurts out. “By the time you’ve seen a new release from us, I’m normally three or four projects further down the line.”

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The idyllic backdrop where Lowe and Co work and source some of their seasonal botanicals

He says they had to strike a deal because his flights of fancy are “so brilliantly fun” and he finds them “very, very engaging” – but there are commercial realities that underpin his work. For this reason, Lowe has created a triage system for new product ideas.

As a general rule, if it already exists then he’s not interested – unless he thinks the product that’s out there isn’t good enough and he can improve it, in which case he’ll “just make it better and explain how it’s better and then people get to taste it for themselves”. If it’s a truly new idea, then he will ensure the new product has a purpose and reason to be. His Truffle Gin, for example, was born out of a desire to create a digestif gin – because a waiter at a Michelin-starred restaurant once remarked that there wasn’t a gin “good enough” for the digestif trolley.

After months and months of reverse engineering the taste profile for a “good enough” digestif – think chocolate, tobacco, leather, tar, smoke and forest floor – Lowe released a gin that has since gone on to win countless awards. He didn’t say, but I’d hazard it also now graces that digestif trolley.

Lowe is ambitious – doggedly so. He says Cambridge Distillery set out with a singular objective to be the world’s leading luxury gin producer and that his goal has always been to be the best. He’s the world’s first gin tailor, who sits with private clients for an afternoon and creates a gin based on their specification. And every product he releases wins at least a gold medal in tasting competitions.

When asked how this is possible, he responds: “I taste for a living. It’s my job. I’m the best part of a quarter of a century doing this now. And, within that quarter of a century, I have been judging both wines and spirits internationally for over a decade, I’ve been teaching the Diploma at the WSET, which is the highest qualification offered by the world’s biggest wine and spirits school. I’ve also been called out by people like the IWSC and the WSET who named me one of their future 50. British Airways named me as one of their 100 modern Britons for my services to the food and drink industry. And, last year, I became the world’s first Master Distiller to also become a Master of Wine.

“And I’m not just telling you this to seek the approval that I’m yet to receive from my father – the point here is that I’ve got a good palate. I’ve been working on it for a long time. And the system I use makes that palate more accurate by a factor of 10 to the power of four. And that’s why, when I release a gin, I know it will get a gold medal. Because if it isn’t a gold medal standard then I just don’t release it.”

Lowe’s next qualification is a PhD in Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology on the intrinsic liquid properties of quality in wine and spirits and how they map to the extrinsic perception of quality in a range of novice, amateur and expert tasters. This, he says, could have sat in psychology, philosophy or chemistry. He chose the latter as a “challenge” because he’s “pretty strong” on the first two.

“What I’m trying to do at the moment is focus my efforts,” he says. “And focus them on the things that I think are smart goals which are objectively measurable and achievable. And stretching and challenging – because I’m not interested if it’s not a challenge.

“For example, let’s face it, the work that is part of that PhD is what I would be doing anyway. The PhD gives me the structure and it imposes a timeline and it brings me that focus. So it is absolutely part of my ecosystem and it works because it works.

“There were times when I was trying to balance my WSET Diploma with a part-time Masters in Forensic Psychology – that was a lot harder. Very, very different subjects and I found the switch between them very stimulating. But this is absolutely all guns trained on the same target.”

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Liquid gold: the Master Distiller's attention to detail and precision are key to Cambridge Distillery's success

Lowe says he became a distiller to solve problems others hadn’t. While he is seemingly laser-focused on gin, one can’t help but feel there are problems in other spirits categories that a man of his tireless energy is just itching to solve.

When the question is put to him, he says simply: “Never say never.” Thankfully, as is often the case with the Master Distiller, he elaborates: “My wife is the voice of wisdom and reason within the business. I remember once being sat at our dining room table and I had two application forms in front of me: one was for the Master of Wine and one was for the Iron Man that I was intending to do later that year.

“I was looking at these two things and thinking this is going to be tough and my wife looked at me and said: ‘Will, there’s no shame in it. You can’t be elite at everything…’ and I was just about to say ‘I bet I can…’ and she finished her sentence with the words ‘at the same time’. And that was it.”

When asked how he finds the time, and quite frankly, the energy, for the many things he is currently focusing on, he says: “Time isn’t something you find. It’s something that you utilise. We’ve all got 168 hours in the week and it requires discipline and prioritisation. That’s how you make your time.”

And really, really good gin.

Browse the Cambridge Distillery range here

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