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Building a Heritage Brand

An Interview with Diageo's Joanne McKerchar and Dante Concepcion

— September 27, 2019 — Business
Diageo is a global leader in the alcoholic beverage category, with a number of popular brands in its portfolio. One of them is Tanqueray – “the world’s finest gin.” The company is known for its premium and limited edition spirits that push the category further. With only six distillers making the spirit in the world, the gin wholeheartedly embraces exclusivity and heritage. Each contemporary product is inspired by the recipe notebook of founder Charles Tanqueray which dates back to the 1830s.

With 180 years of history and an aura of authenticity, Trend Hunter spoke to Diageo Lead Historian and Head Archivist Joanne McKerchar and Reserve Brand Ambassador Dante Concepcion about the Tanqueray product, how history is harnessed to give it an edge in the market, and what new innovations are coming up in the gin space.

In the gin space, how can a reference to history contribute to future growth?

Joanne: One of the areas that require the utmost finesse is harnessing the power of heritage and delivering it in a way that is right for the brand. The search for this balance is one of the biggest skills that we bring to Diageo Canada. Nobody wants to hear a boring history lesson with dates and so on, but when you start to talk about the story and the culture -- that is a different ballgame. It is really important that brands are aware of their origin. For gin, specifically, the stories that we have are so fantastic that they seamlessly lend themselves to be embedded in culture. As a result, whenever we are talking about our brand founder or inspiring innovation or our consumers, it always starts from a place of authenticity. Tanqueray is a brand with 180 years of heritage and it's all about using that in a relevant way. A great example of how we embraced our history is actually our innovation process, as all our cutting-edge ideas begin with the recipe books of our brand founder -- Charles Tanqueray. They are 180 years old! Yet, we use that everyday to inspire the work we are doing on product ranges such as the Flor de Sevilla. When we tell consumers that the spirit is inspired by Seville oranges but that it is also based on a recipe from 1862, it initiates a spark, a sense of curiosity, and the feeling that they are experiencing something true and authentic. There is a big switch in behavior, as consumers want to know more about the brand and understand the origins of the spirit. They make the time to learn about that stuff.

Dante: It is truly the age of the conscious consumer. It's not just about a new, hot product on the shelf. They want to experience the heritage -- from the distilling processes to the selection of ingredients. We see this with some of the workshops that we do. We've been doing a series of events in Canada for trade professionals and consumers, where we sit down and we talk. Joe gets to tell them about the history of gin and her fantastic time at the archives. We dive into the history of the Tanqueray brand, as well as the quality and care that goes into making all our products. We then run the attendees through a gin tasting of five variants that are made readily available in Canada. Finally, we put them through a little cocktail-making session. There is a definite increase in levels of engagement and attendees are more responsive to the information and to the experience. People want to learn and are willing to pay a little bit more for a premium product.

Joanne: This has value when it comes to selecting a spirit in the store, as well. There is so much choice and I think people want to know more because they want to understand how to select the one that is right for them and their taking the time to figure it out. As for bringing these innovations to the contemporary space, it is a collaboration between myself, our global marketing team and our distillers. We will read up on what is trending, as well as the desires and needs of consumers and bartenders. We will crosscheck with our recipe books to see what stands out and is implementable in the space. The distillers will take that and see how they can use it to inspire a new product.

What are some of the innovations in gin that you are excited about?

Dante: The introduction and advancement of distilled gins or new world-style gins that don't have that predominant juniper flavor, as the classic London dry does, are really introducing more and more people into the gin category. Bartenders are embracing it and using the spirit for an unlimited amount of flavor profiles and cocktails. From this, you start to see a lot more exotic botanicals and non-traditional ingredients that are used in gin production. It is really opened up the opportunities and versatility for it.

Joanne: For Tanqueray, Flor de Sevilla has been particularly successful and really quite ground-breaking for us. It is bringing people who don't necessarily drink gin into gin. I think that is the great thing about the recipes that we have -- we've got over 300. Even in the 1830s, Charles was experimenting with herbs, botanicals, and spices from all over the world. But everything that we do has that fundamental Tanqueray London Dry gin at the heart of it. Then, we are adding different things to see how we can change that flavor profile, but it is all about making sure that there is a Tanqueray gin out there that is perfect for everybody. This has been one of the best things about the sessions that we have been doing recently. Attendees are tasting five different products and everyone has a different favorite. It's been really interesting to observe.

How does the consumer play into the type of product you decide to develop?

Joanne: We have been quite successful with our limited edition program that we've been running. We are looking at the trends, whether it be in food or flavor or for bartenders, and then seeing how we can bring that to life in our gin. Some recent examples of this would be Tanqueray Lovage, Tanqueray Winsbury, and Tanqueray Old Tom. They were only released in limited edition batches. We do one bespoke collection every year and that's how we keep the loyalty of bartenders, in particular. The spirits are very sought-after and it gives bartenders something different to work with behind the bar. And again, this is all coming from the recipe books in the archive and we are making sure that our products are tapping into current trends.

Dante: A big reason why we put so much focus on the bartender and the trade is because they're our first line of communication between our brand and anyone who goes to a bar or a restaurant and doesn't know much about gin. If we can get bartenders excited about this new innovative product that we are launching and they have an education on it, they are going to harness that passion and make you a cocktail with it and tell you about it, as well. Hence, they are kind of like our own media ambassadors.

What is the most cutting-edge ingredient in gin-making and how is your company taking advantage of it?

Joanne: The cutting-edge ingredient for me is juniper because it is at the heart of every gin. The definition of a London dry gin is that it needs to be juniper-forward in flavor profile. We take immense care in making sure that we source the best juniper for our gin. Every distilled sample that is sent to us has to be passed by a panel of 10 people and once it is approved, it goes back to the distillery and is distilled and passed once more. Hence, juniper is so important to us that it has to be our cutting-edge botanical. That being said, we are still experimenting and looking for whatever's new. One of the best examples of that would be Tanqueray Number 10. We were the first to distill with whole citrus fruits and it took our distillers two years to perfect it. They are not just using the peal or the rind of the fruit, they are actually putting the flesh in, as well. When they kept trying to get it right, it kept turning into jam. When you ask about the method, the distillers are quite cagey about it, it's like their secret. In terms of cutting-edge gin and innovation, Tanqueray Number 10 is definitely a pioneer in that super-premium gin space. Then you got chamomile flowers in there for an extra kick. It's just a fabulous gin. It was crafted in response to many people opting-in for vodka. We were trying to excite people about gin again.

Dante: It is the ultimate martini gin. It comes in a little bit of higher strength and it’s because they used the whole citrus fruit. It brings a really bright, fresh, and juicy aroma and flavor to it. This is enhanced by combining it with a little bit of a floral aspect from the chamomile, facilitating this beautiful, beautiful balance of flavors that are meant to be sipped in a martini. You can still mix with it, but it is also perfect as it is.

How do you and your team innovate?

Dante: If we are looking into cutting-edge ingredients, it is more about the processes and how we develop newer things. With Tanqueray Number 10, it is not only about the whole citrus fruit that is used, but it is also about how it is made. We use a very small batch capacity still that is only 500 liters compared to 2,500 liters. What that does is create an optimal flavor and promote different processes of gin-making.

Joanne: In terms of innovation as a whole, we are always looking to see what our opportunities are and how we can implement them in the right ways. We don't want to be just jumping on the trend bandwagon if you will. It is a collaborative effort between the archive, our global brand teams, and our distillers. We strive to make sure that whatever we're doing is not only true to the Tanquerey brand but that it also aligns with what our consumers want. These things don't happen quickly, we rather take our time to make sure the botanicals and the process of getting them through the still are up to the highest possible standard. We give our distillers the freedom and time to experiment. They enjoy that part because it gives them access to something really different and the opportunity for them to test their skills, as well. There are only six people in the world that make Tanquerey, so, they are really special people. The care and attention they put into gin-making is phenomenal. Everything is done by nose, there is no mechanical component of knowing the distillation process. They are checking every half an hour, with reference to their rules and making the decision themselves. That element of the craft and the concentrated method of production is what surprises people and hooks them often. When we come to them and say we want to try something new, can you make this? Lovage was a great example of that, figuring out how to implement the roots of the lovage plant to enhance the flavor of our gin and then we work through the aforementioned recipes, trying to see how we can scale our gin up. The collaboration is my favorite part -- having four of us around a table, figuring out what the next steps for Tanqueray will be.

Where do you see the industry being in the next 10 years?

Joanne: As a whole, we can definitely see things changing. The category is continuing to flourish and how that manifests depends on the market you're in and its different stages. With the UK and Spain, for example, they are quite far in their gin journey, while markets such as Brazil and South Africa are just beginning it. The most exciting part is that you can see the gin explosion taking off in different parts of the world and I can't see it dipping down anytime soon. I'm very excited to see the industry advancing.

Dante: Gin, especially here in Canada, has been one of the fastest growing spirit categories over the last three years by far. I think people are starting to realize what an easy-going spirit it is to drink and because there is so much variety on the market, there really is something out there for everybody, especially within our portfolio. People just gravitate toward different varieties of gin and that is great. In terms of 10 years time, it is hard to tell, but seeing how far it has gone in the last decade -- we have an exciting journey ahead. A lot will probably be driven by consumer trends and what people are looking for. Car companies that are heritage-based, for example, are making electric cars now. They have to be flexible and have to be able to adapt to what’s happening in the modern world. So, we will see what that looks like for gin.