By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
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.
In this little cocktail sphere, all roads lead to a bar. How we got here and which side of the counter we’re on really doesn’t matter – we’re all in it for the drinks – but the road each of us traveled to get to this bar often makes for a damned fine story. Take the case of Canadian Darcy O’Neil. At some point in his life, O’Neil faced a fork in his road – a degree in chemistry to the left or culinary school to the right. He made the sane choice – he chose chemistry. But the road not taken has a sneaky way of winding around and crossing in front of you again. For O’Neil, that crossroads came in the form of downsizing notice from a large oil and gas research facility. It was a crossroads which also came with a new direction: cocktails. After all, what better mixture of food and chemistry is there than cocktails? Okay, maybe baking, but Canada already had enough bread.
Doing the research to which scientists are drawn, moth-like, and building his own home cocktail laboratory, O’Neil set out to change the Canadian cocktail scene one drink at a time. But the Canadians weren’t having it. Well, some of them were, to be fair – just not the bar and restaurant managers for whom Darcy found himself working. Unwavering, O’Neil set his sights on an even bigger target audience: us webizens. He shoots, he scores! Today, O’Neil’s Art of Drink site is one of the top – if not the top – cocktail blogs on the internet, and at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, the good man is up for both Best Cocktail Writing and Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book for his chronicle of the American soda fountain, Fix the Pumps.
If you’re a better cocktail nerd than we are, you’re most likely heading New Orleans way this week in celebration of Tales of the Cocktail, the spirits culture’s big annual educational and networking hoedown. Yes, there is something other than Comic-Con going on this week, and I have to think that the partying is probably better in New Orleans. We’ll await your reports. Since we’re not attending Tales (or Comic-Con), however, we thought we’d live vicariously and feature a couple of our favorite people who are nominated for Best Cocktail Writing at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.
For my money, Camper English is the MacGyver of cocktail and spirits writers. If you have a problem, he’s there (or, was that The Equalizer?). With his work regularly appearing in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, and Fine Cooking – not to mention Germany’s Mixology Magazine and Singapore Airlines magazines – the man gets around, literally. Not only does his site, Alcademics.com, feature a “Camper on the Road” section (recently: London, Spain, Italy, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Cognac, and, this week, New Orleans), his last post begins “I was in New Delhi all last week….”. At any given moment in time, he could be touring a distillery or judging a cocktail contest in some far-flung corner of the globe. When he finds time to write is a mystery, but what he does write sets the bar for the rest of us. In short, Camper lives the cocktail writer’s dream – which is why we envy the man so damned much.
Somewhere in an alternate minstrelverse, Matt Gatting, in the role of Monty Python’s brave Sir Robin, is being ceaselessly tormented by the Duckworth Lewis lads’ never-ending serenade of “Jiggery Pokery”. But, today, the gentlemen are here. Well, by today, I mean roughly a month ago, when they answered their 12 Rounds, and by here, I mean London’s fabled Abbey Road Studios, where they were putting the finishing touches on the forthcoming Pugwash album, “The Olympus Sound.” They were, however, kind enough to take time away from their busy record-mastering business to answer our probing questions.