Meet Lesley Gracie: Master Distiller for Hendrick's Gin & Leader in Modern Gin Innovation
It’s 2020, and Gin & Tonics have once again proven themselves as a faithful cocktail. They are light and fresh, a truly wonderful way to keep the calories down—but not too long ago, gin was a faltering spirit. Lesley Gracie, Master Distiller of Hendrick’s Gin, played a massive role in redeeming this current, fan-favorite spirit. In 1999, Charles Gordon, the late president of Hendrick’s, enlisted Gracie in creating a new and revolutionary gin that would later change the style of gin for the future. Hendrick’s focuses on flavor and quality rather than style; causing it to stray from the typical London Dry method of creation. Read our full interview with Gracie to learn about the beautiful, new “playground” that is Gin Palace, along with Gracie’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Dive into the details that show the growth and the development of a self-coined “unusual” company where innovation is the true priority.
Can you describe the Gin Palace?
The Hendrick’s Gin Palace is my playground, filled with all my favorite things. You follow a path lined with wildflowers and enter the walled garden through this beautiful old door. If you are lucky enough, I’ll be waiting to let you in. The Hendrick’s Gin Palace was built in the image of an old Victorian Palm House. It has this incredible domed glass ceiling and is flanked by my beloved hothouses, which is where I tend to all manners of weird and wonderful botanicals and flora from around the world.
There’s a tropical hothouse to the left, which to me is the scent of the Amazon—a place I was lucky enough to explore back in 2013 on a wonderful quest for rare and unusual botanicals. Now, it contains everything from Scottish-grown bananas, mango, hibiscus and pineapple, to coconut, coffee, cacao and peppercorn. To your right, is my Mediterranean hothouse, which houses many varieties of citrus trees, such as orange, lemon, lime and grapefruit. It can also be used for other experimental plants, such as prickly pears and agave, which I have managed to source and will be harvested, distilled and experimented with. Inside you will find six beautiful stills that make Hendrick’s. My favorite is the original Bennett still. Upstairs you’ll find my laboratory where I experiment with different flavors, and understand how they interact with each other, a lecture theatre where we deconstruct the Hendrick’s Gin for our friends in the trade and a very nice bar where others get to be creative and I just get to sit and enjoy the results. I never make cocktails; I leave all that shaky-shaky stuff to the experts.
If you were to describe Girvan to someone who has never been there, what would you say?
Girvan is a beautiful place, it’s kind of remote being on the Ayrshire Coast. It’s a small, unassuming kind of place and it is peaceful and calm. The coastline is rugged and great for walking the dog. There is very little light pollution out here and we are close to a dark sky park, so on a clear night you can really see the stars shining brightly. Just off the coast, you can see Ailsa Craig, which is the island where they source the special granite used for making curling stones. It’s kind of a spooky place and you can only cross over to it when the sea is calm.
What does your typical day look like?
Nothing in the Hendrick’s world is typical, never mind a [single] day. There is lots to do here at the Hendrick’s Gin Palace, from testing and analysing our botanical samples to ensure they are up to our pretty exacting standards, to tasting the distillates to ensure our quality standards. Playing in the lab with different distillates and essences is my favorite part of the day and I find tending to the botanicals in the hothouses a good way to relax and unwind. There are also tastings, meetings and events – there’s never a dull moment.
When Hendrick’s was originally created, what was the thought process behind deciding on cucumber and rose? How about the other complementary botanicals?
It was Charles Gordon who asked me to create a new, very different gin that used both cucumber and rose. He was a smart guy, a visionary even, and could see a moment when gin would once again be popular - at a time when most people weren’t really bothering with it. Rose and cucumber are the classic ingredients of a summer tea party, and I think it brought back fond family memories of rose gardens and cucumber sandwiches. It was my job to take the idea and make it a reality. Charlie had given me two stunning vintage stills and the two ingredients: rose and cucumber. I had to piece together the other parts of the puzzle to make a gin the likes of which the world had never seen before.
When we first started making Hendrick’s, Charlie was very keen that we put the rose and cucumber into the stills. But, to get the rose and cucumber into our stills, it would mean the temperature would have to go up to at least 80 degrees, and the cucumber just couldn’t take this.
If you have ever tried cooking a cucumber, you’ll know that at the first sign of heat it degrades into a floppy black mess and starts to smell of school cabbage. Distilling cucumber was not going to release the succulent, green aromas we were after. So, following much experimentation we decided to add our rose and cucumber after distillation.
There are 11 botanicals that make up the base of Hendrick’s – each adds something different to the blend and rounds out the final flavor profile. It is not about any one botanical here but more about how they interact with each other.
Can you explain your distillation process? Why craft in small batches? Why not distill in the London Dry style?
Hendrick’s Gin is handcrafted in small batches, just 550 liters at a time; as this is what our two wonderfully unusual, vintage stills – The Bennett and The Carterhead can produce - and how we can best control the quality. These two very special stills are key to the flavor profile of Hendrick’s Gin. The Bennett still steeps its botanicals before distillation for a minimum of 14 hours and creates a spirit that is rich, fervent and deeply complex. With the Carterhead, on the other hand, we place the botanicals in a basket at the top of its long neck, so that the botanicals bathe in spirit vapour rather than coming into direct contact with the spirit. The result is a fragrantly light and delicate distillate that gives a gentle undertone.
Both distillates would make perfectly good gins on their own merits, but I see flavor as a shape, and I was looking for a beautiful, round flavor. By combining the depth and complexity of the Bennett distillate with the lightness of the Carterhead, and then adding the ‘coup de grâce’- these incredible essences of Bulgarian rose and the finest cucumber, you get this rare combination of lightness and complexity. The result is an oddly exquisite gin that sits roundly on the palate.
To be a London Dry Gin all botanicals must be distilled together. Hendrick’s is a distilled gin because we add rose and cucumber post-distillation - as it is the only way to retain that fragrant green freshness. And what can I say, people seem to like the gin whether it is a London Dry Gin or not, so we’re not particularly bothered by the definition of it, for us it is about the flavor.
What separates Hendrick’s Gin from such an ever-growing category?
What the customer might see is the rose and cucumber that makes us stand apart. Our classic cucumber garnish, old Victorian style apothecary bottle and perhaps, our quite peculiar events. But underpinning of all this is the liquid. We act a little unusual because we’re made unusually. Hendrick’s is distilled using not one, but two utterly dissimilar types of stills. A Bennett, which is an antique copper pot still dating right back to 1860, and a rare Carterhead from 1948 of which only a handful exist today. The Bennett style stills steep their botanicals, resulting in a rich, complex spirit, whereas the Carterhead gently steams the botanicals in a basket atop its long neck, creating a lighter, more delicate spirit. The precise marrying of these two types of distillate, alongside our trusty cucumber and rose, results in a rare combination of lightness, depth and intricacy. Each batch of Hendrick’s Gin is crafted 550 lovely liters at a time in batches at the Hendrick’s Gin Palace and benefits from the plentiful soft water of the nearby Penwhapple Reservoir.
We hear you have a Cabinet of Curiosities. What is that and can I have one?
Yes, we do. It is a real physical cabinet in the heart of my lab. It’s kind of a flavor library and stores a huge number of essential oils, distillates, extracts and different rare and unusual botanicals. We play about with these to see how different flavors sit together and how we can build new flavor dimensions in our drinks – there are some interesting things in the Cabinet of Curiosities. All the innovation work for Hendrick’s starts here, and it’s a lot of fun.
How did Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice come about? What about Orbium? Why decide to release these commercially, opposed to the other “experiments?”
The liquid for Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice was originally developed for a dear friend of mine who was getting married very close to the Midsummer Solstice. I created six special bottles for their wedding based on the flowers in the bride’s bouquet and the Solstice as a present. It tasted good and everyone seemed to love it. We ended up releasing it as a limited-edition last year, and it went down well.
Hendrick’s Orbium is a little different. This was an extension of my experiments with wormwood, a botanical I’ve been playing with for a while. We wanted to create something a little special for our friends in the on-premise who have supported us from the very beginning. We have taken the core Hendrick’s Gin and then deconstructed the elements around two ways it is imbibed - a classic Hendrick’s & Tonic and a Hendrick’s Martini. With Hendrick’s Orbium, we’ve taken quinine, which is the main ingredient in tonic water, and wormwood, the main ingredient in vermouth and an essential part of a martini and to that, added the distinctive Blue Lotus flower to create the right balance and round flavor.
We doubled the production capacity when we opened the Hendrick’s Gin Palace which means we have the space to share more of my experiments out to a wider audience than we’ve ever been able to before.
How would you suggest people drink Hendrick’s other than a typical G&T?
Why do you think gin is having a resurgence in popularity?
Because it is a beautiful botanical spirit, what’s not to love? It can be enjoyed in so many ways, from a refreshing Gin & Tonic to all sorts of fancy cocktails, and can be mixed with almost anything.
If you aren’t drinking Hendrick’s, what are you drinking?
I probably shouldn’t say this, but a beer!
When you are not working in the Gin Palace, what are you doing?
When I’m not working, my favorite thing to do is walk my dog. I’m a big animal person. I have one dog, two tortoises, two rabbits, a hamster and lots of fish. I’d have more if I could. I also love being outside, walking and exploring the different scents you find outdoors. I’m forever wandering around gardens of country houses and just sniffing everything I see and occasionally acquiring an odd cutting. I love flowers, especially orchids and spend a lot of time gardening.
Does the new distillery and the Cabinet of Curiosities mean we should be expecting more limited releases in the near future?
I’ve always being playing and experimenting, but until recently, we didn’t have the space or capacity to release these on a wider scale, but it doesn’t mean we weren’t busy behind the scenes. If you are creative, you have to scratch that itch no matter what the circumstances and keep on creating. So yes, I tucked away lots of liquid innovations in the Cabinet of Curiosities, ready to release when the time is right. Now with the increased production capacity at the Hendrick’s Gin Palace I can share these liquid treats with the world.