Hendrick’s master distiller on creating a gin that defied convention

23rd May, 2019 by Amy Hopkins

Hendrick’s kick-started the craft gin movement and now the brand has entered its most exciting chapter yet. Its master distiller, Lesley Gracie, tells SB about her love of breaking the rules.

Hendrick's master distiller Lesley Gracie

Hendrick’s master distiller Lesley Gracie

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

When Hendrick’s launched in 1999, sporting a jet-black apothecary bottle design and botanical recipe that championed cucumber and rose, it broke the mould. The William Grant & Sons-­owned brand is largely credited with kick­starting the craft gin boom, and today sells more than one million cases around the world. According to its master distiller, Lesley Gracie, Hendrick’s set out to demonstrate a point of difference from day one and has marched to the beat of its own drum ever since.

She recalls that as the turn of the century neared, Charles Gordon, the late president of William Grant & Sons, charged her with creating a gin that defied convention. “Charlie wanted a new gin for the company, which at the time was quite a surprise for us because gin wasn’t doing much in the marketplace, and there were probably just the four usual suspects on each back bar,” remembers Gracie.

“He wanted a new gin, but he wanted it to have plenty of character. We started with lots of botanicals, did large­-scale distillations and pulled them all together, looking at what worked and what didn’t, to come up with the final recipe.”

A RADICAL MOVE

This recipe took its inspiration from the quintessentially English ideals of rose gardens and cucumber sandwiches. Also, in a radical move for the time, Hendrick’s did not prescribe to the London Dry method of production. “We were more concerned about the quality and flavour of the gin than what style it took,” says Gracie. Once the recipe was finalised, Charles Gordon asked his team to try it out on two stills he had bought at auction in the 1960s: a Bennett still dating from 1860 and a Carter­Head still from 1948. The resulting two distillates were brought together and, with the help of a creative marketing team, Hendrick’s “took the world by storm”.

Over the years, the brand has captivated audiences with its “curious” persona, creating all manner of cucumber­-themed oddities, including a travelling cucumber slicer, a cucumber-powered musical instrument, a cucumber bus and a giant cucumber aircraft. Gracie embodies the quirky persona of her gin, with signature long grey locks that almost skim her knees, ringed fingers, a creative mind and a free spirit.

However, even she was left in shock after being shown the Hendrick’s bottle prototype. “In 1999, we thought Hendrick’s was going to be presented in a tall, clear, elegant bottle, so when the marketing team arrived with the black bottle, we were like, ‘what?!’ It was a surprise, but the unusualness of the gin and the unusualness of the bottle came together perfectly.”

The new £13m Hendrick’s Gin Palace

For Gracie, working as master distiller for Hendrick’s brings together two of her passions: gardening and innovation. “I love flowers and plants,” she enthuses. “Right from being little I used to mess about in the garden and pick flowers. And gin is the best spirit you can do different things with; you’ve got very tight regulations around things like whisky, but gin really gives you the opportunity to experiment – I use the word ‘play’. I didn’t wake up one morning and think I want to be a gin distiller; it’s just one of those things that happened.”

Born in Yorkshire, Gracie moved to Scotland to join William Grant & Sons’ laboratory team in 1988. With a degree in chemistry and a background working at a pharmaceutical company, where she used flavours to mask the bitterness of new drugs, Gracie soon moved into liquid development. Now, her famous invention has entered its most exciting chapter yet.

Since its inception, Hendrick’s has been produced at a modest distillery that sits in the shadow of Girvan’s mighty column stills in South Ayrshire. But last month the brand opened the doors to its plush £13 million Gin Palace, which has doubled its production capacity and increased scope for flavour experimentation. Gracie’s excitement over the new facility is evident. “We’ve moved to an absolutely amazing building, which has got so much potential for innovation within it,” she says. “The plans were in motion for a couple of years because we were wondering whether we would just modify the existing building or create a new one. Ultimately, the decision was based around the fact that for William Grant, innovation is always key.”

The limited edition Hendrick's Midsummer Solstice

The limited edition Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice

As such, a new stillhouse was built opposite the existing one. The two buildings have a total of six stills – including the original antique Bennett and three replicas, as well as the original Carter­Head and one replica. Gracie has the run of a new laboratory, complete with a flavour library, lecture theatre and bar, but she appears most excited about the new walled gardens and greenhouses. One greenhouse is set to tropical conditions that mirror those in Venezuela, where she travelled in 2013 to explore indigenous flora and fauna, and the other is set to Mediterranean temperatures.

Hendrick’s may have the facilities to explore limitless flavour variations, but Gracie insists the original recipe will remain untouched. “The new stills are exactly the same as the originals,” she explains. “We’ve not done anything different – Hendrick’s is made exactly the same now as it was right from the beginning.”

While the original Hendrick’s expression is staying true to its roots, new flavour combinations could be explored in the form of line extensions. “There are lots of opportunities to diversify slightly, which is something we always like to look at,” says Gracie. Currently, Hendrick’s has a limited core portfolio. In 2017, the brand launched Orbium, a “quininated gin” that shows “what Hendrick’s might taste like in a parallel universe”. To create the expression, Gracie added extracts of quinine, wormwood and blue lotus blossom to the original recipe. The Hendrick’s stable grew again last month, with the launch of the limited edition Midsummer Solstice, which is infused with floral essences and flavours that capture the “aromatic intensity of a midsummer day”.

William Grant & Sons has a long-­term approach to brand development, and is not known as a serial acquirer. Indeed, despite the buoyancy of the category, Hendrick’s is its sole representation in gin. Might the group look to create an entirely new gin brand? “Never say never,” answers Gracie. “If the company decides it wants new gins, that’s perfect. We do lots of different experiments and some of them are really good but don’t fit into the Hendrick’s house style. There’s nothing to stop us doing something different.”

Gracie has what she calls a “weird” approach to flavour creation. “When I taste something, I see it in terms of a shape,” she explains. “For it to be a balanced, drinkable product, it has to be round. Sometimes things jump out sharp and that doesn’t work for me. It has to be round, smooth and complex, and not sort of jaggy around the edges. That’s how I like things, but not everyone is the same.”

Plant life: the distillery entry hall

Plant life: the distillery entry hall

The freedom to explore new flavours is what has maintained Gracie’s interest in gin for two decades. A career highlight, she says, was her trip to the Venezuelan rainforest with explorer Charles Brewer-­Carias and botanist Francisco Delascio in 2013. The three embarked on a two­week expedition into the Guiana Highlands to discover unusual flowers, roots, fruits and seeds.

“That was an amazing trip,” Gracie recalls. “In the west we think we know everything, but that was such an eye­opener in terms of what else is out there. One of the people in the tribe we were staying with climbed up this tree and brought down a fruit. He put it in my hand and I looked at it and thought, ‘I have no idea what I’m going to do with that’. He looked at me, took it out of my hand, and I could see him sort of go ‘dear oh dear’.

“There are loads of untapped flavours we don’t know about. There’s a whole world out there that’s begging to be looked at and developed and investigated.”

But has flavour exploration been taken too far? There’s much discussion in the industry over the increasingly common use of unusual botanicals in gin and so-­called ‘flavoured gins’. Some stakeholders believe juniper is starting to play second fiddle to other ingredients, which they say contravenes EU law and is detrimental to the sector.

According to Gracie: “As long as you can pick up a bottle and sense that there’s a predominant character of juniper, then I think anything new is great. People are opening the category up and it’s amazing. As long as something stays in the definition, I don’t have a problem with it at all.”

She may be all for innovation when it comes to gin distillation, but don’t ask Gracie to try her hand at fixing a Negroni: “I like cocktails as long as I don’t have to make them myself. I never, ever make cocktails. The idea is just a non­starter. I’d never find two halves of a cocktail shaker, the right ice, the right glass. I’d rather just pour it and enjoy it how I like it, with elderflower cordial and soda water. I’m a bit old school, I’m afraid.”

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