For almost two decades after the creation of Hendrick’s Gin in 1999, every drop of the brand’s award-winning gin was distilled in what was essentially a small, red brick shed.
It wasn’t a particularly inspiring sight, at least from the outside. A bombproof building on the site of a former munitions factory, which by and large had been turned into a distilling operation for the grain whiskies of William Grant & Sons, Hendrick’s always stood aesthetically apart from the rest of the operation. Although nestled in the picturesque Scottish hills of seaside Girvan, Scotland, flush with sheep and carefully laid stone fences, the actual distillery was fairly cramped and economical. Employees, including Hendrick’s Master Distiller Lesley Gracie, sarcastically referred to the idiosyncratic building as the “gin palace,” in honor of its unassuming nature.
Two decades later, though, the term “gin palace” is no longer an inside joke. Now it’s a glistening showroom; a temple built in honor of gin’s delicate loveliness. What was once a punchline has become the brand’s most impressive asset. Aside from Gracie herself, that is—the palace’s regal matriarch.
The new Gin Palace, first unveiled to select friends of the brand in 2018, sits only 50 meters or so away from that original brick shed. The bombproof nature of the original building having made expansion impossible, William Grant & Sons decided upon a massive investment in Hendrick’s future. They knocked down a whisky warehouse, creating a blank patch of land that was destined to become a statement piece for Hendrick’s as a brand—an ornate Victorian greenhouse, ensconced in tiny hills of flowing grass, that also houses a greatly expanded distilling operation. One gets a sense that much of the building’s design was conceived in honor of Master Distiller Gracie’s contributions—an acknowledgement of everything she’s meant to the brand over more than 30 years of service. Here, the brand would create a playground for Gracie’s imagination to run wild.
And indeed, following my return from visiting the Gin Palace at Hendrick’s invitation, I’d hope you could forgive some immediate Willy Wonka comparisons, in terms of the imagination on display, as the place is frankly fantastical to see. Upon entry, a high-ceilinged reception room is flanked by dual hothouses—one tropical in climate, one Mediterranean—where everything from mango and orchids to grapefruit and yuzu can be grown for flavor experimentation. On the second level, a miniature lecture theater bids guests aperire animo in a sign above its entrance: “Open your mind.” Down the hall, a lushly appointed lounge and bar showcase old gin bottles from William Grant & Sons past—and curious oddities like a 6 liter jug of Hendrick’s, or a leather guitar case made to hold an entire set of Hendrick’s cocktail paraphernalia in what might be the world’s most unexpected source of a G&T. Everywhere you look within the Gin Palace, there’s another source of curiosity. And that’s before you even get into the distillery proper.
Certainly, it’s a changed landscape from when Lesley Gracie first arrived as an employee of William Grant & Sons in 1988. Calling herself “not much of a spirits drinker” at the time, she hailed from a background in analytical chemistry, with a pretty unique area of focus: Flavor itself. Having previously applied her skills in the pharmaceutical industry, the distilling company realized her unique skill set could be used to “fingerprint” the flavors in their products on a more concrete, analytical level. And from there, it was only a matter of time until she was tasked with creating new flavor profiles from scratch. That license to create first gave us Hendrick’s Gin in 1999.
“The gins present at that time were mainly classic London drys, quite light and dominated by juniper,” says Gracie, surrounded by scientific implements in her personal lab within the Gin Palace. “The cocktail culture hadn’t picked up yet either, so it was mostly just gin & tonic, or gin & bitter lemon, things like that. That’s how people were consuming gin. I feel like when Hendrick’s came along, it sort of picked up the category and shook it by its neck. I think just the uniqueness of its flavors, and the ability to do different things with it, allowed bartenders to play more and expand their perception of how they could use gin.”
The classical Hendrick’s profile, or the “Hendrick’s house style,” as Gracie now refers to it, certainly stood out sharply from its competition at the time, both in flavor and in presentation—no gin bottle on the rack looked anything like the short, squat, black bottle of Hendrick’s, which immediately helped set it apart. In terms of flavor, Gracie was asked to both celebrate the U.K. and deviate from the expected, something she accomplished by choosing to highlight two classical symbols of England that hadn’t seen use before as gin botanicals: Rose and cucumber. The flavors of both are impossible to capture via traditional steam/hot water distillation, which meant another innovation in the form of vacuum distillation to capture the delicate essences of both. Now, the duo of “rose and cucumber” find themselves synonymous with Hendrick’s as a result, being captured in illustrations and stained glass all throughout the facility.
Ever see a stained glass cucumber?
Other experiments in Gracie’s “flavor library” followed in the years to come. She created several versions of a “quinine cordial,” designed to be added to soda water in the perfect Hendrick’s G&T, which ultimately led in the direction of Orbium, the bracing, sophisticated, “quininated” version of Hendrick’s first released last year. She traveled to Venezuela, spending 10 days in the jungle while researching potential botanicals, which resulted in small batches of the unique, scorpion tail plant -infused Kanaracuni gin that has been poured at limited events around the world. And most recently, the brand has put its biggest push behind the floral-centered Midsummer Solstice, which Gracie describes as a celebration of practically everything currently in bloom. Bottles of that particular limited release are hitting shelves now.
“Midsummer is when most flowers are at their best, and this gin was about capturing that,” she said. “To me, it’s like when you get a bouquet of flowers. It’s not about the individual flowers; it’s about the effect of the whole bouquet. I don’t like to talk about specific floral notes, because I’d rather it be appreciated as a whole, rather than searching for specific parts. I really like it. It’s floral, but it’s not bound to the floral essence in such a way where you’d think of it as feminine. ”
Of course, the unspoken intent of Orbium, Midsummer Solstice and the like would presumably be to help Hendrick’s maintain a hip and modern image in the very craft gin market it helped to establish back in 1999. On the production side, the Gin Palace houses greatly expanded distillation capacity—enough to reach a current max of two million cases per year. But there’s still far more space awaiting other potential stills in the same facility, which makes it clear that the brand is building with the future in mind. Who knows—perhaps one day, they’ll be producing something like Midsummer year round. Or maybe they’ll just continue scaling up production of their classic gin, which continues to thrive as the cocktail renaissance explores endless permutations of what can be crafted with any given base spirit.
Speaking with Gracie, one feels like those topics will likely be left with the suits in charge of the company’s strategic goals. The Master Distiller is much more interested in the novelty of experimentation for its own tactile, sensuous rewards. Listen to her enough, and you’ll hear certain words get repeated often enough to realize that they form a core of her philosophy toward gin. One of those key words? “Roundness.”
“I always say that when I taste something, I see its shape—I’m a bit weird like that,” says Gracie, after I ask her to elaborate on what the concept of “roundness” might mean to a more inexperienced taster. “When you drink something, it has to all blend together seamlessly, rather than perceiving it as having something sharp sticking out. There has to be a sort of symmetry within the flavors. I had a drink recently where everything worked except for this one spicy flavor, and I felt like it was just sticking out, poking me. Being able to distinguish flavors in the finished spirit is important, but balance is even more important.”
As such, it is perhaps not surprising that Gracie shows little interest in the so-called “new western gin” style that has become popular within the U.S. microdistillery scene, as typified (rather unappealingly) by the likes of New Amsterdam. Sweeter, fruitier and eschewing any substantial juniper backbone, typically in favor of candy-like citrus impressions, these products have led to impassioned debate on what does and does not qualify as “gin” in the first place. Gracie knows where she stands.
“In any true gin, the juniper does have to be a presence,” she asserts. “If it’s not, then it’s not really gin. There’s some nice things out there that people are calling gin, but they’re more like nicely flavored vodkas than true gins.”
In fact, despite Hendrick’s being so associated with rose and cucumber, Gracie still finds herself as something of a juniper evangelist to those who don’t really understand the juniper berry’s flavor. She’s especially fond of the Macedonian juniper used in Hendrick’s, calling it brighter than the Italian variety used by many distillers.
“I think juniper is an amazing flavor,” she said. “And when you mention juniper, people often are thinking of a ‘piney’ type flavor, but it’s really not that at all. It has so many fruity flavors and so much depth in it.”
These are the types of discussions wherein Gracie can easily hold court for hours at a time, but she doesn’t always have that luxury—there’s always something to be done at the Gin Palace, whether it’s overseeing production, studying new flavor compounds in small-scale distillation or tasting each distillation for quality control after it leaves the still via “nosing panels.” Every bottle needs to match the Master Distiller’s personal standard for what Hendrick’s should be. This is, after all, her baby, and she’s producing it in a huge facility built more or less in her honor—one that is currently only open to invited guests, although it could become a public attraction years from now.
It rather makes you wonder if her exhausted palate might sometimes need a break from the flavors of gin. Curious of what she might say, I ask her what she drinks otherwise.
“Coca-Cola,” she replies, chuckling. “And I don’t mind beer and wine. But if I’m drinking a spirit, it will be Hendrick’s.”
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident spirits geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.