The big interview: Terry Fraser
Terry Fraser, the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at The Spirits Business Awards 2023, reveals all about his journey developing two of the world’s biggest gin brands: Gordon’s and Tanqueray.
Cheers and applause echoed through the room as Terry Fraser was bestowed with the Lifetime Achievement Award at The Spirits Business Awards 2023. It was a crisp November afternoon. Almost 100 industry peers had gathered at The Club at The Ivy in London to hear the winners of the annual awards.
I remember seeing Fraser out of the corner of my eye as his 40 years of service to the spirits industry were rightly recognised by that most prestigious of accolades.
“I was quite emotional; I was very humbled. I just love working with these brands every day,” the master distiller for gin brands Gordon’s and Tanqueray recalls. “It made me reflect on over 40 years, on what I’d achieved. I don’t think any of us really take the time to think back on what we’ve actually achieved in our lives or our careers, so it made me heavily reflect on my life, career, people who’ve really supported me on that path I’ve been on. I’m just so proud – the trophy sits proudly in my living room.”
A career – and a mighty successful one, at that – spanning four decades is something many can only dream of. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the magnitude of these brands. In 2022, Gordon’s sold 7.7 million nine-litre cases, and Tanqueray sold 5.5m, as reported in The Brand Champions 2023. “It brings along so much self-pride being a custodian of such high-profile brands with so much history in the world of gin,” Fraser says. “Everyone who knows me and has spent time in the distillery with me can feel the passion, pride and the level of care in quality.”
Creating two of the world’s leading gin brands wasn’t always on the cards for Fraser, however. “I actually wanted to join the police when I was at school. My father had been a police officer, and I wanted to be a policeman,” he says. “But when I left school, a job opportunity came up at the Distillers Company [now Diageo]. My mother worked with the Distillers Company, and so did my uncle. So I applied, and I haven’t looked back since – in fact, my son now works at Diageo as well. So, it must have been in the stars that I was going to go down the spirits path rather than join the police.”
A curious soul
Fraser’s first role at the company was on the packaging side of the business, working, funnily enough, on the Tanqueray and Gordon’s bottling lines and dispatch areas. But Fraser was a curious soul, and soon found himself intrigued by the art of production and blending.
“The first day I walked into the blending department – the aromas, the different characters of all the whiskies, there were all these maturing malt casks, and it was always the aromas of these production areas that intrigued me,” Fraser explains. “I was really keen to start there. And at that time, you nosed every single cask before blending – and that was like 400, 500, 600 casks in a day. I pushed myself to get involved in that, and, ultimately, it turns out I had a good nose, which is really beneficial for botanicals further down the line.”
After 25 years in the blending department, having spent time on blending, coopering, cask maturation, and managing those areas, in 2009 Fraser was asked to take over responsibilities for gin distillation and vodka production. “Through managing the whole end-to-end process of Tanqueray and Gordon’s production over the past 15 years, I became the master distiller for both brands,” he adds. “It’s a high level of responsibility but having a much wider team all involved with the brands helps massively. We’re all carrying these iconic brands forward together.”
When it comes to botanicals, Fraser’s enthusiasm is unwaning. He speaks about aromas like emotions, powerful memory triggers, emotive and critical to making quality gins. Even to this day, Fraser takes a hands-on approach to ensuring he and his team use only the finest ingredients to make each bottle of Gordon’s and Tanqueray.
“That absolutely keeps me going,” Fraser says. “I love botanicals. There is only a small number of botanical suppliers we deal with, and they all have the same passion and care for the ingredients as we do. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier, that ‘wow’ factor with the smells and aromas. Every day – this might sound strange – but I will go into the botanical store, and I will spend five or 10 minutes walking through it, taking a handful of botanicals, and rubbing them through my hands, nosing them – of course making sure the quality is there all the time – but those aromas, there’s something quite relaxing about them as well,” he laughs.
While there are many departments that contribute towards creating Gordon’s and Tanqueray, the distilling team comprises eight distillers, who work alongside the lab and logistics teams, Fraser says. As master distiller, Fraser could be overseeing production plans, leading meetings with the distillation team, assessing botanicals, collaborating with innovation departments to design new projects, and inspecting ongoing distillates before they reach final bottling.
An exciting project
There are expansion plans in the works too, as Fraser explains. “At the moment, I am focused on an exciting project to expand our gin distillation capacity through extending the distillery footprint and by introducing two new stills. So, in the next few months, I will be focused on commissioning and getting the new stills running,” he adds.
Given the growth of both brands, it’s unsurprising that production capacity is being increased. The gin boom may be slowing, but demand is indisputably still there. Gordon’s Pink has been a substantial contributor to the brand’s success since it launched in summer 2017. Flavoured with raspberry, strawberry, and redcurrant, the line extension hit sales of 1.21m cases in 2018, supporting a 26.7% volume increase for Gordon’s overall from the previous year.
“Reaching a million cases in such a short period of time was a real surprise, I would say, across the whole business,” says Fraser. “With Gordon’s Pink, we set out to break new ground and take a risk that ultimately paid off. Personally, seeing and feeling first-hand the increase in Gordon’s distillations, it probably should not have come as a surprise when we reached the million-case mark at a time of real explosion in the category.”
Since then, myriad pink gins have come to market. In the past couple of years in particular, flavoured expressions have grown in consumer popularity and shelf frequency. Fraser is in favour of flavoured gins, making them, and enjoying them in mixed drinks. But he refuses to compromise on quality.
“Again, it comes down to using only the best ingredients and natural flavour extracts, and working alongside a fantastic innovation team to pull it all together,” he insists. “Like any distillation, it’s about balance of ingredients and taking the time to perfect prior to launch. Of course, as we say at Diageo, we stand on the shoulders of giants, and pull from the many generations of knowledge that go into our brilliant brands like Gordon’s and Tanqueray.”
While these two brands are part of the same portfolio, they are also markedly different. Gordon’s was created in 1769, while Tanqueray was born the following century, in 1830. They share four key botanicals, “but their recipes are completely unique”, says Fraser. “Both are such great products and are the base for the majority of flavour variants.” He adds: “There is no hiding behind flavour. The core liquid has to be excellent through and through.”
Tanqueray No. Ten is a particular highlight in the brand’s portfolio, Fraser notes. “It is the jewel in our crown,” and is one of his favourite products to work on. “We make the citrus-heart distillate in our small batch still, Tiny 10 – you can literally wrap your arms around it and give it a hug, it’s really small,” he explains. “In the final stages of completing the Tanqueray No. Ten recipe, I select the finest chamomile flowers to impart the delicate and sophisticated flavour that No. Ten is famous for.” The gin is finished in the 250-year-old Old Tom still, as it’s called.
“Tanqueray No. Ten was created to be the bartenders’ favourite gin,” Fraser adds. He recalls attending the Diageo World Class bartending global final in São Paulo last year and how inspired he felt seeing bartenders push the boundaries of cocktail making – particularly using Tanqueray No. Ten.
A proud moment for Fraser was several years ago, when the global brand director asked how he would feel about making the inaugural No. Ten variant.
“What an opportunity that was,” Fraser says, “and at the same time, nerve-wracking.” Fraser went back to his favourite topic, botanicals, and introduced pink grapefruit from Spain into the recipe, and rosemary. “I can always remember during distillation trials stretching the distillation slightly longer than No. Ten, as there was so much fantastic botanical character from the introduction of pink grapefruit coming across, and providing such complements with the rosemary leaf.” The final product came to market in 2020 as a travel retail-exclusive: Tanqueray No. Ten Grapefruit & Rosemary.
He reveals that when travelling through London City Airport after The Spirits Business Awards in November, he overheard a conversation in duty free about which gin to buy. Excitedly, he asked if he could lend his expert advice to the couple in question, and shared how he was the distiller behind the Tanqueray brand.
“I thought, I’ll just go for it and hope they won’t mind, and they did end up buying the bottle of Tanqueray,” he adds. “We took a photo together, and we chatted about the gins – and I love that. I love being able to connect with those kind of people and hearing what they think.”
He adds: “There’s no doubt I love working with gin. In the future, I definitely want to free up some more time for experimentation with botanicals and future product developments. I love showcasing our brands at every opportunity, so an opportunity to share that message to a wider audience in some kind of ambassadorial role in the future is something I’d love to do.”