A drink with… Jo McKerchar, Diageo Archive

11th February, 2020 by Nicola Carruthers

Diageo’s gin and malts archivist and historian, Jo McKerchar, on managing the world’s biggest spirits archive.

Jo McKerchar, Diageo’s gin archivist and historian

*This feature was originally published in the October 2019 issue of The Spirits Business

How did you start working in the industry?

I’ve always loved history, so when I went to university that’s what I studied, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My professor suggested I work at the National Archives in Scotland for a year, which I absolutely loved.

Then I did my Masters in archive management and was lucky to get the job at Diageo, which came up just before I graduated. I started at Diageo in 2005 and have been there ever since.

The spirits industry is in my blood. My dad worked for Glenmorangie for about 25 years. My grandad actually worked at the same site that I now work at.

What does your job involve?

I look after gins and malts, ensuring that we have all of the new information that’s being created for those brands and making sure it’s sent to the archives. My role is dependent on what the business needs me to deliver so it can be quite reactive.

I’ve been helping with the Gordon’s Shall We…? campaign, which is rooted in a historic advert from the archive. I also work closely with the distilleries and the innovation department to inspire the next product. Gordon’s Pink is based on a recipe from the archive in the 1880s.

We get involved in everything, which is one of the best parts of the job because no two days are the same.

What do you enjoy most about it?

I love telling the stories of our brands because they have such authentic ones, and when people hear them, they say ‘wow I didn’t know that’. That’s what I love the most. Going over to a distillery and seeing how these historical recipes are coming to life is a special part of my job.

What’s been the most challenging part of the job?

Definitely making sure that we future‐proof the archive because when a project is finished, although someone might have used the archive to do that project, they then forget to bring things back.

How do you future-proof the archive?

By collecting the relevant materials that we need now so there are no gaps in our collections. We make sure all the records that are produced today and are relevant for permanent preservation are kept in the most accessible way.

How is the archive organised?

Everything is given its individual number, which is put into a system, and a location is given to it so we can find it again. To give you an idea about the scale we work with, if we laid everything that we physically have in the archive out side by side, it would take up about the same amount of space as 55 football pitches. It’s the largest spirits archive in the world. We replicate that system digitally as well.

Can you tell me about any interesting discoveries you’ve made?

I found a letter that proves the Tanqueray bottle shape is based on a cocktail shaker. There are a lot of rumours, but it’s definitely a cocktail shaker.

We also are continuing to expand what we know about our distilleries and our brands from outside the archive. Most recently, we were contacted by Ian Gordon, who is the great‐ grandson of [Gordon’s gin founder] Alexander Gordon. He has provided me with so much personal information about the Gordon’s family that I didn’t know, in particular about Alexander’s wife, Susanna, and the crucial role that she played.

Will the archive open to the public?

It’s something that we’re asked a lot but we are predominantly there for the business and to ensure it gets what it needs from the archive, and that takes up pretty much all of our time. So I can’t see it happening at the moment, but that’s not to say that people can’t come; we do allow them to, by invitation only.

What are you working on right now?

Innovation will always continue. The thing that will keep me most busy will be the distillery visitor centre expansions in Scotland and making sure we are telling the best story we can. Working on bringing the Port Ellen and Brora distilleries back to life has also been a dream come true.

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