Receiving an invitation to a Hendrick’s gin event in Sydney in the form of a gourd with a letter hidden inside brought a smile to my face. Discovering that Leslie Gracie, Master Distiller of Hendrick’s Gin, was visiting Australia for the first time, made me do a happy dance.
Leslie and David Piper (Global Ambassador for Hendrick’s) were travelling to Australia to share details of their recent expedition to Venezuela in search of a new botanical. (I’ll save that for another post).
I love meeting distillers, they are a unique bunch, so I made it my mission to see if I could have some time with Leslie. The Hendrick’s team not only arranged for me to meet Leslie, but also David! I couldn’t believe my luck!
It was great to chat to them and in the short time we spent together I learnt a great deal, including the fact that Leslie is from Yorkshire and trained as a chemist!
GQ: I understand you started as a whisky distiller?
Leslie Gracie (LG): I started out working for William Grant’s as part of the technical team covering all of the spirits, including whisky. Then we started working on Hendrick’s gin and I moved across to gin.
GQ: How difficult was it to adapt from whisky to gin?
LG: It wasn’t! Gin is much more fun than whisky because you can use all sorts of different botanicals. In whisky you only use cereal, water and yeast and that’s it. With gin you can take anything from anywhere, as long as you don’t kill anybody! And there are some fascinating things out there…
GQ: Did you have a clear idea of the type of gin you wanted to create?
LG: We knew we wanted something a bit heavier in flavour than the gin William Grant were producing then. We wanted something that was a step away from what was being produced globally at the time, but still recognisable as gin.
GQ: How many attempts did it take before you got it right?
LG: I started by taking all the botanicals I was originally thinking of using, and distilled each of them on a very small scale. I looked at them individually to work out which botanicals worked together and which ones didn’t.
Gradually, we got close to where we wanted to be. When we got to that stage, I took it from lab scale out on to the stills themselves, but then of course the whole game changed! Scaling up production onto two different copper stills (Bennett and Carter Head) and then blending those two distillates together to recreate what we had achieved in the lab was very complicated!
LG: You can see why gin is more interesting!
GQ: Why use a Carter Head still as well as a Bennett Still?
LG: It gives you something completely different. Two totally different distillates. I had a special little kit made to practice vapour-infused distillation in the lab.
GQ: How long did it take from lab practice to finished product?
LG: We started work in the lab in 1999. Then we moved onto the big stills in 2000-2001. We probably created about 15-16 versions.
GQ: What happened to those gins?
LG: Well, we drank them after we analysed what was wrong with them!
GQ :When you are talking about analytics are you doing specific scientific tests rather than taste testing with people?
LG: I was taste testing along with a couple of others, but using lab instruments to inform us too.
GQ: Where did you get the idea of adding cucumber and rose?
David Piper (DP): It was a collective idea within the company to create something very different. Cucumber and Rose were included to create quintessentially English.
GQ: Hendrick’s stands out as a game-changer in the gin category. What do you make of all the new gins?
LG: There are some very interesting products out there. Some of which really aren’t gin, because juniper is not the key note. Having said that there are some good ones, but there are some not so good ones too.
DP: It’s wonderful that the gin category has opened up and people are realizing that you can use all sorts of different botanicals. It’s great to see.
GQ: We’re also seeing more gin variants in the market – navy strength, barrel-aged. Do you think that is something that Hendrick’s will do?
LG: I never say never!
DP: We have some ideas, but we won’t ever just do another variant of Hendrick’s. It’s very interesting tasting it at 55% ABV but it’s not quite different enough to make us want to produce it for the market. Leslie is constantly experimenting, the results of most of which will never see the light of day.
LG: True! We’ve also tried some barrel-ageing for Hendrick’s but it wasn’t quite right either!
GQ: Finally, what’s your favourite way to drink Hendrick’s?
LG: I like Hendrick’s, elderflower cordial and soda water!
DP: A Hendrick’s martini!
Grateful thanks to the Leslie and David for spending some time with me, and for the William Grant team for organising it.