Ian McCulloch, founder of Silent Pool Distillers, on how he came to be making Pan Am vodka and gin

How did Pan Am come to license a range of booze? Distiller Ian McCulloch tells all!

Ian McCulloch… Thank you for making time. First, your name: I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything more Scottish in my life…
Yes; Ian Douglas McCulloch. Family origin is Ayrshire, but many generations back.

Where were you born?
Kingston upon Thames Hospital!

And you don’t sound even slightly Scottish!
No? What can I tell you? We were beaten at Culloden, they buried the tartan. Sowe come under clans Munro, Ross and MacDougall.

Buried the tartan, did you say? I’ve not heard that phrase?
Apparently that’s what they did back then. It means you can’t reform… So you remove all the men, burn down the town and bury the tartan. It’s gone; like when a flag is taken by the enemy.

Wow. I’m glad I asked. Bury the tartan… Well, what a cheerful start! So, we’re speaking today because you’re the man responsible for making Pan Am gin. What made you the right person to do that, do you think?
Well, in short, I was brought up as a Pan Am brat! My family background is Pan Am; my father was the Director of Marketing, and a sales director for them based in London. He started there in about 1961 – first in Piccadilly, then Park Lane. Later, he moved to New York and now lives north of Manhattan. In fact, his train used to go into Grand Central Station which was right underneath the Pan Am building. He’d get off the train, walk straight into the lift and go up to the office. Although the building still exists, it’s now the Met Life building – nowhere near as glam.

Ian McCulloch, Silent Pool Distillers, Pan Am, Food & Drink

Ha! Great! So you have an inherent insight into the brand… And you’re running your own distillery. But how did the deal to make Pan Am gin and vodka come about? Through your dad’s old connections?
No, not at all! One day, this guy walks onto the site – I think he was shopping; we’re open seven days a week, ten until five. He starts having a conversation with the lady that runs the shop; Hazel. Hazel is an absolute sales ninja, she’s amazing!

She chats to this guy who mentions what he does and because she knows my Pan Am background, she asks this chap, Richard Pink from Pink Key Licensing, to talk to me. One thing led to another, we got on well, and we discussed what Pan Am had and hadn’t done with their brand, and all the glamour of that era.

Richard Pink being a licensing agent for Pan Am…
You’ll see that Pan Am have put their logo on merchandise and some restaurants around the world, but nothing in spirits. Richard was seriously interested in doing spirits, so I said I’d write a paper from my point of view – as somebody utterly embedded in Pan Am – about what I thought we could do with gin and vodka. Could we capture ‘The Spirit of Pan Am’?

And did Richard know that you were so steeped in the brand?
Yes, after he gave me his initial thoughts, I told him about my connection to the brand. I think he was pleased, really, that I had that depth of brand knowledge. Anyway, I wrote the paper, then we had a few calls with the guys in the US and explained the costs of the design work… You know, most of the expense is at the front end. Eventually, we agreed some territories and did the deal.

Ian McCulloch, Silent Pool Distillers, Pan Am, Food & Drink

You mention the glamour of the brand. Tell me about that… Where does it come from?
Arguably, Pan Am’s glory days were the 60s and early 70s. Stylistically, this is that Mad Men sort-of era, a decade of optimism, landing a man on the moon and an explosion of American culture and style. When people travelled, they dressed up; they looked smart and wore shirts and ties. Just to fly! Because, back then, travelling like that really was glamorous and exciting. And, to some extent, that’s because Pan Am helped bring down a lot of the cost of it. For lack of a better word, they democratised it. And the enduring glamour of Pan Am has stuck.

And culturally, you can get a feel for that glamour looking back…
Yes. You see archive footage of Pan Am and it’s almost always tinged with glamour. The Beatles flew to and from their first US appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, watched by 73 million people, on Pan Am… The days of real Beatlemania! There’s newsreel footage of that, and I think it’s in the film A Hard Day’s Night. Also, on his very first assignment in Dr. No, James Bond travels to Jamaica on a Pan Am Boeing 707.

Right! Bond also flies Pan Am in From Russia with Love. Clearly, MI6 wanted their people to travel in class and comfort!
Well, in a way, that might be true! Pan Am was thought of as a sort-of extension of the US diplomatic corp. As kids we were always told, “If you’ve got any problem anywhere in the world, just go to the Pan Am office. And by all accounts you’d get plucked out and back home. The Pan Am fleet had a very visible role in projecting American presence around the world.

Is that right? That’s amazing! But if anyone doesn’t really know what we’re talking about, they could do worse than look at the way Steven Spielberg portrays Pan Am in Catch Me if you Can with Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. He shows that in a really glamorous way – the cabin crew are like celebrities!
Right – because flying was glamorous back then. I grew up with it but I still remember that if you, as a kid, were at the airport and an airline captain walked past, with the full-dress uniform on, and gave you sort of cheeky wink… Well, it was like meeting Neil Armstrong. That was it. You were done. You have to remember, it was a completely different time… Smoking was cool, drink was good for you, Vegas was good for you! The cultural impact of The Rat Pack; Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin… Jazz. Andy Williams. Muscle Cars! Cadillacs… All that was immense worldwide.

Ian McCulloch, Silent Pool Distillers, Pan Am, Food & Drink

Well, that leads to my next question, Ian, because all the things you’ve listed make sense. But at some point you’ve got to say, “And if all that was in a gin bottle, what would it look like? How would it taste?” So where do you start with that?
Well, first, you’ve got to make sure that what’s in the bottle tastes fantastic. For that, we went back to some old-school gin and vodka recipes; pared back. Pan Am gin isn’t like Silent Pool Gin which has a lot of complexity, layers and is a contemporary take on a classic spirit. The Pan Am gin has what I call the Pan Am spirit. I sort of floated that at the start because, actually, Pan Am does have a spirit; there is a ‘Spirit of Pan Am’! If you were to try and define it, I guess you’d say that if BOAC was the ministry of air travel, Pan Am was all the glamor.

Got it.
Anyway, we went back to the 60s, researched recipes from that era, tweaked it and reproduced it. It makes a great martini and gin and tonic; and we did the same with rye grain vodka – it’s a classic rye-grain filtered vodka. So they taste great; they taste classic. And while that was coming together, we started working on the bottle design.

Which is stunning! Oh, you’ve got one there… Beautiful. Can you walk me through it?
So the label here is the iconic Pan Am Boeing 707 tail fin. But the design on the back is based on the old card baggage tag. We changed the airport identifier to say RGV for rye grain vodka, and the gin to LDG – London Dry Gin – rather than LHR or GTW – the airport code. You might be bit young to remember it, but those baggage tags used to be almost handwritten. And in terms of the bottle itself, it has a very thick, heavy base. It’s also waisted and shouldered – it has an elegance and a great silhouette.

Oh! So that feeling of the silhouettes is there!
Yes. Also, if you look at old pictures of the single-storey houses in those days, many of them had these very gently sloping roofs. The ads you see for Cadillacs and sports cars are made long and thin. And everybody’s standing up! They’ve got super-long legs and thin bodies. Everything went thin, long and elegant

Sleek is the word I want to use when you hold up the bottle…
Yes, sleek is a good word! That word also comes to mind when you look at key parts of the New York skyline, like the Chrysler building and the Pan Am building. They were all sleek, modern, elegant buildings. Similarly, I don’t know whether or not you saw our Pan Am Travel Retail gift boxes… They contain two one-litre bottles and are replica’s of the Pan Am building itself.

Ian McCulloch, Silent Pool Distillers, Pan Am, Food & Drink

Brilliant! So tell me, Ian, how did you come to be running your own distillery?
I did quite a long stint at the television company, ITV. I started there when Channel 4 hadn’t been around for long in the early 80s and – after a management regime change – ended 27 years later after the whole digital-consolidation thing, when people started watching Coronation Street on their phones whenever they wanted rather than only via the Radio Times and a TV schedule.

What was your role?
It was to get all the advertising money in. We were selling spots on ITV1, 2, 3, 4, sponsorship and – latterly – web space. I then became responsible for the broadcast side which was sales, marketing, transmission, regional, innovation as well as a number of other areas. After that, I did a bit of media consultancy, but was looking for something else. What I found interesting at ITV was that itmade its best sales on drama… The reason that drama does so well is that it engages you on a heart basis in a story, story telling is important .

In the sense that drama resonates with the viewer? Emotionally?
Exactly. You engage with the characters; you empathise with them and become very attached. But ITV exists because people advertise brands with them and they want to address audiences who are engaged and consuming dramas. That’s how brands work. So unless you’re Ronseal, where your brand more or less does what it says and says what it does, brands need to resonate in an emotional way. That’s especially true with products like spirits or watches or cars. Because they’re not necessarily offering a set of functional benefits.

Do you have an example that sums up that thought?
Range Rover comes to mind. You don’t buy a Range Rover because you’re going to go driving off road! You buy it because it makes you feel good; your friends in the golf club think you look great when you’re in it and it makes a statement about you. It’s about the brand and how you feel about it, and the values around it. So while I was thinking about brands, I also looked at my local patch and wondered what I could do. And it occurred to me that there was no booze making around here.

Ian McCulloch, Silent Pool Distillers, Pan Am, Food & Drink

And you’re in the Surrey Hills, right?
Right. And to be clear, there’s a bit of beer making and some vineyards around – but not as much as I would’ve thought. That got me thinking and I went into this as a modest toe in the water. I kept thinking I’d soon discover the reason that no one’s done it before! Maybe it costs a huge amount of money to get started, or you need a particular license and the authorities haven’t granted one in 200 years, or you need so much electrical power and all the right connections…

Oh yes! “This is why they’ve never done it!”… You were waiting for the other shoe to fall?
Yes. Only it never did. So I just kept walking in deeper, thinking, ‘Well, I can’t have been the first person in a thousand years to turn up in the Surrey Hills thinking about a distillery.’ And I was so lucky with the location by the Silent Pool…

And for our readers that haven’t heard of the Silent Pool, how would you describe that?
We’re six miles due east of Guildford… The Silent Pool is a spring-fed chalk pool that’s been there since the last ice age. It’s about 10,000 years old and now sits on the Duke of Northumberland’s estate. He owns the pool, but grants access to it through Surrey County Council in exchange for them managing the roads and access and paths.

I’ve been there a few times and had the idea that it gets its name from a certain amount of stillness… It has crystal clear water, but it’s distinctly quiet; it has an eerie stillness.
Yes, it’s eerie; it feels moody. And as you may know, it’s got a lot of history. Druids used it and it does have a very calm, still aura about it.

What makes the pool so special?
The pool springs provide the only chalk pool in the valley, which has a lot of history. So when I found a suitable site, I said to the owners that we were looking for a converted barn to put a distillery in. And we asked if there were any issues taking water from the pool… They said no! Turns out it produces about a hundred thousand litres of spring water every day. Then we asked if there would be any issues naming our brand Silent Pool? Again, they said no! All very straightforward but very, very lucky.

Ian McCulloch, Silent Pool Distillers, Pan Am, Food & Drink

And was the Silent Pool important to you? As a brand, I mean?
Yes, because it’s not one of these brands where you look at it and think, “What’s that then? What does it mean? Is it a person?” If you google Silent Pool, from anywhere in the world, you actually find a dot on the map.

How did you develop your own brand?
We engaged a design agency called Seymour Powell. I really didn’t know anything about design or packaging agencies at that time, so I went on some packaging-award websites… Happily, the same names kept popping up. I wrote to six of them, and went to see four. They all got very excited about the project. And I more or less said to them, “There’s two things you need to know. First, if you get involved with us, you’ll become incredibly famous and there’ll be many plaudits for you, and you’ll win more awards. Second thing: there’s almost no budget!”

Ha! Did that work?
You know, it was a great outcome because one firm came back and explained that their client base included huge household names – but having a risk and pure innovation project like ours would be a refresher for them. And they said that if they could cycle creatives through the project, and if we agreed to give fast, accurate, unvarnished feedback, then they’d do it. So they delivered our logo, which is an image of two pools; they delivered the Silent Pool gin family, our whiskey and our vodka. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude – we were fortunate to have a world-class design company on our doorstep.

And yours is still quite young company isn’t it, Ian? When did you first hit the shelves?
We got our first bottles of Silent Pool gin out in February, 2015. I started selling cases to local pubs and shops from the back of the car and we progressed from there. We started doing farmers markets and that’s something we still attend. We now do about 550 a year, sampling over 80,000 people annually.

Ian McCulloch, Silent Pool Distillers, Pan Am, Food & Drink

Good Lord! That astonishing. So who stocked the bottles originally?
We got into Waitrose relatively quickly, and Majestic. We also got a call from Travel Retail at Gatwick. They wanted to carry it at the airports – and, as you know, we’re about midway between Gatwick and Heathrow, and just 27 miles from Oxford Circus.

Ideal, really!
It’s probably worth me saying that getting to shelf quickly was quite important because – as a business – if you want to pay salaries and buy stock and expand, you’ve got to turn gin into money. We’re not like a lot of people who get into distilling saying: “Let’s make a load of gin! We’ll sell some, then we’ll make some more…” That’s fine, but you can very quickly end up in a room full of unsold stock! 85% of what we do is turn spirits into money. It’s not just about making it… Yes, we have got to make it and it’s got to be great, but making it great is not the only challenge in the business.

Fantastic! Well, Ian – you’ve been very generous with your time and I really appreciate it; it’s been fascinating. I have one last question. Are there any other licenses you’d like to work with?
Hmmmm. You know, there’s nothing that jumps out. But then I wasn’t looking to do this! Had Richard Pink not arrived at the site, I never would’ve done it. And it’s only because I can go back to me, aged four, standing in the Pan Am office – jumping up and down on the scales – that I felt that instant connection. I think the depth of my attachment to what that brand meant… I can’t think of anythingthat replaces that brand.

You might be right. Pan Am really did have glamour, on top of which there’s a nostalgia for the seemingly simpler time in which it soared – if I might use that word. And I think the memory of the reality galvanises the nostalgia! Anyway, this has been brilliant, Ian; you’ve been a treat. Thank you so much for your time. i’ll sign out with a couple of links to the site – Silent Pool gin here, and Pan Am gin here! Thanks, Ian.

Ian McCulloch, Silent Pool Distillers, Pan Am, Food & Drink

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