12 Rounds With… Hugh Williams
It’s unlikely that you know the name “Hugh Williams”. Yet, as Master Distiller of Tanqueray/Gordon’s, Hugh was instrumental in maintaining the modern London Dry flavor profile until his retirement a few years back. I was lucky enough to work with Hugh while researching my history of gin book (in stores spring 2012!!). Frankly, I could not have written it without his generous and vital input. Hugh schooled me in the essential botanicals from the point-of-view of a distiller, not a textbook. He related stories he had heard about the London Blitz during World War II that left the distillery in ruins and shared his exhaustive, personal research into the history of Gordon’s. He read the chapters on Britain and British gin, offering valuable tweaks and comments.
But enough about his knowledge. I love Hugh for far more reasons than that. Along with being a Master Distiller, he is a home winemaker and gourmet cook; our e-mails would often be exchanges about last night’s dinner (as he says, “I can’t get away from recipes.”) or a new bottle of vino. Anyone who loves food and drink like Hugh is a man to cherish. Further, he is opinionated, as you will see below in his answers; no newfangled products for Hugh, he is an old school gin man through and through. But most of all, he has the most delightful sense of humor I know. Hugh, you are a brilliant teacher, a proper gentleman and a friend.
01) What inspired your interest in cocktails?
I came to realise the versatility of mixing spirits, to achieve new and subtle flavours to a drink. But there are rules, and this elevates mixing drinks to an art.
02) What was your first formative cocktail experience?
Being in the trade, Friday evening was a social event for all who worked at the House (distillery/factory). It was usually to celebrate a retirement, or 25/40 years of service with the Company. It was here that I experienced many of the ‘classic’ cocktails that could be made with gin. The variations amazed me.
03) What is your all-time favorite mixed drink?
It has to be Gin and Tonic. Tanqueray or Gordon’s, and with bottled tonic, not that rubbish from a gun. Served with lots of ice and garnished with a wedge of lime wiped around the glass rim and then hung there. Nirvana!
04) Favorite place to drink?
Temple Bar,Tribeca, NY.
05) If you don’t know the bartender, what do you order?
Order a Gin & Tonic and watch him like a hawk.
06) If you could make any drink with the 12 Bottles, what would you make?
A Gibson. Cocktail onions can cover a multitude of sins.
07) If you could replace any one bottle with another, what switch would you make? And why?
Having been the Master Distiller of the two brands mentioned in question # 3, you can understand, and I hope forgive, my bias in replacing any other gin!
08) Outside of the 12 Bottles, what should people make an effort to try?
Try adapting the spirits by steeping them with fruits, etc. I have, this year, made some Damson Gin which has a wonderful, perfumed flavour. It extends the range of drinks you can offer guests and friends. I’m looking forward to trying my Damson Gin with the festive Stilton Cheese.
09) If you could only have one mixed drink for the rest of your life, which would it be?
A Gin & Tonic, of course.
10) With whom (living, deceased, or fictional) would you like to most share a drink?
Winston Churchill. A great leader and orator. I know he was a great fan of my brand and it was Roosevelt who inspired him to drink Martinis. I want to know if Winston really did believe that the correct proportion of vermouth in his martini was to show the vermouth label to his glass.
11) On which one item should the home bartender splurge?
A cocktail strainer.
12) One piece of advice for the home bartender…
Practice. Experiment. Practice. Experiment. And practice some more.
As Hugh is not a blog/Facebook/Twitter man, the best way to keep in touch with his is by drinking Tanqueray and Gordon’s.