Words by Theodora Sutcliffe (October 2015)
For a chap who's just retired, Tom Nichol, the gin legend behind Tanqueray No. TEN, seems rather, well, busy. “I turned 60 on 3 August,” he says. “It was always my aim never to work past 60, because my father died when he was 60, so I decided to have some nice life after work, because work's not everything.”
An unpretentious, hugely likeable chap in an industry that attracts more than its fair share of egos, Nichol moved to the pretty Scottish town of Alloa, a couple of miles down the road from the even smaller town where he was born, forty years ago, and has lived there ever since. He and his wife Gillian, who married when they were virtually foetuses, recently celebrated their ruby wedding anniversary.
In fact, by the time he finally retired in July, Nichol had been working for 42 solid years. “I started at the Cambus distillery close to where I lived in Tullibody when I was 17,” he recalls. “I was there for 20 years until it shut in 1993. But my dad worked there long before I started. Like any typical distillery then it was nepotism: your father or your uncle had to work in the distillery before you could get a job.”
His current status comes from a thorough grounding in matters still-related. “I've done everything you could possibly do in a distillery. I started off painting the casks, I went on to filling casks, making carbon dioxide liquid, dried ice, things like that,” he recalls. When Cambus shut down in 1993, he moved to the Cameronbridge Distillery in Fife, the home of Tanqueray.
Nichol's public profile – not to mention Tanqueray No. TEN, which he still considers the best gin ever made – meant that even before he retired he was besieged with offers of work. Yet, aged 60 and, he claims, tired, he turns down much more work than he accepts. “When I worked at Diageo I was doing shift work,” he says. “I was working night shifts, day shifts, going away to do presentations. I was driving 500 miles a week back and forward to the distillery: it was tiring.”
This October, however, he has not one but two new gins launching. The first is his much anticipated Midwestern Dry Gin, from the Kansas City distillery J. Rieger; the second is a new gin for Jonathan Clark's City of London Distillery (COLD), named Christopher Wren in honour of the English architect who built St. Paul's Cathedral.
“With J. Rieger, rather than take money out of the company, I just took a stake in the company,” Nichol explains. “It's really nice to know that I'm working for myself now. I've made a few other gins for Tanqueray and of course the wages were really good. But it's not as though I got any extra bonuses for going that extra mile.”
While Nichol loves the relaxed vibe of small-batch, craft distilling, it does present some challenges. “I don't have the equipment that I did with Tanqueray,” he says. “The stills I had then were 12,000-litre capacity. I'm now working with something like 250-litre and 500-litre, so it's difficult to get the consistency: you're going from kilograms of botanicals to grammes.”
There's also the challenge of not wanting to recreate Tanqueray: Nichol remains passionately loyal to his former employers at Diageo and having a blank canvas to work from is difficult. “It's about trying to change things around and about but still get that perfect balance,” he says. “I'm not going to forget everything I've learned and just throw things in the bucket: if you used to make Rolls-Royce and you went to make your own car, you'd take your experiences with you, and it's the same way with gin.”
It was US drinks guru Steve Olson, also a shareholder in the business, who introduced Nichol to the J. Rieger crew: Ryan Maybee, the restaurateur who found an old mural for the Rieger brand on a wall, and Andy Rieger, whose great-grandfather started the original J. Rieger distillery. “They couldn't believe I'd actually make a gin for them,” Tom grins. “Obviously they thought the sun shone out of my arse!”
US craft distilling was quite the change from organised multinational land. “There was a really good feeling in the distillery, kind of crazy,” Tom recalls. “I'm used to being in an environment where everything's health & safety, everything's spot on, and I walk in and there's a guy throwing around an American football, another guy taking a beer out of the fridge, and they have a settee!” Throwing caution to the wind, Nichol went to work in shorts for the first time in his career. Not only that, he had a beer, followed by a nap on that sofa.
It took a while to get J. Rieger right, but Tom is finally happy with the product, which in-house distiller Nathan Perry will make to his recipe, with Tom popping over every so often to keep an eye on things. “Steve made a Negroni when I was there, one of the best-tasting Negronis I've ever had in my life,” Tom says. “It was fantastic. I thought – is it down to the gin or down to the guy who made it?”
Liberated from the demands of corporate PR, Tom is happy to admit that he really doesn't drink much gin nowadays. “I mostly drink beer. I don't really drink strong alcohol any more, not full-strength martinis,” he says. “I'd rather have something nice and light. My body just can't seem to take it any more. I have three or four drinks and that's it for me.” (His beer of choice? Tennent's Special, a light Scottish lager.)
Tom says his palate is not exceptional (although he'll routinely turn down pints of beer if he doesn't like the taste), but his nose is unique. “I've got a really good nose,” he says. “All the years I've been making gins, I never actually taste them until it's a new product. Everything is done by the nose. During the distillation, I'll nose it constantly, just to see how things are coming along. At the end of the distillation, the batch, I'll nose that and I'll know immediately if there's something wrong.”
This month sees the kind of intensive travel one would have thought a retired chap had abandoned. Fresh back to Scotland from finalising his City of London gin, he's touring a stream of US cities in early October to launch J. Rieger, while the COLD gin will launch on 26 October, complete with the Mayor of the City of London, and the kind of ceremonial that leaves this quintessentially down-to-earth man cold.
But once that's done, Tom promises, he really, really will be taking it easy. He's bought himself a motorbike, a 1200cc BMW RT that weighs more than a quarter of a tonne, and takes it out for a spin when weather permits, though he's not yet invested in leathers. “I always used to have motorbikes when I was young,” he says. “I moved onto cars, but one day I said I'd buy myself a nice bike. My wife's not too happy about it, mind.”
Other plans? He and Gillian, who retired from healthcare when he did but also keeps her hand in, have already taken a cruise. And then there's typical Scottish pursuits. “I always enjoyed flyfishing, the solitude of being out on a boat besides a loch,” he says. “I've done that once already – I didn't catch any fish, but it didn't matter. I used to do a lot of hillwalking. It would be nice to get back into that once I get fit enough. The years of working shifts and driving hundreds of miles a week and sitting around aeroplanes and airport lounges have taken away my fitness.”
Also, holidays. Lots of holidays. Tom waxes lyrical about the sheer pleasure of going away on a whim, and knowing you don't have to come back straight away. “My wife and I manage to get away and grab a holiday when we feel like it, somewhere in Scotland, down to London, catch a few shows, nice and easy. We can just take it as it comes.”
Sounds like retirement will suit him down to the ground.
Photography by Samantha Levi