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Still Life

In the dewy scottish hills, two antique stills and one very cool vegetable yield the world’s best gin.

Author Kirsten Matthew Photography Courtesy of Hendrick's Gin


Image – Courtesy of Hendrick’s Gin

GIRVAN, SOUTH AYRESHIRE, is a tiny fishing port in southwest Scotland with rolling, bright green bluffs stretching back from a quaint harbor. There’s a castle visible in the distance, tempting visitors to fancy themselves barons sitting in that rambling gray structure sipping scotch by the fireplace, watching the ships roll in through the fog. It’s such a quintessentially Scottish scene that you may be surprised to learn that the drink of choice in Girvan isn’t scotch but gin. And a local gin at that, one made with…cucumbers.

That’s not all. Unlike most gins, this one is served in a corked squat black bottle meant to resemble an apothecary jar, hearkening back to when gin’s botanicals were used medicinally. The Victorian flourishes don’t end there. The label announces, “EST. 1886,” suggesting to the uninitiated that this drink had been wrung from the very turf of Scotland, when in fact it was created in 1999 by a former pharmaceutical chemist.

This is Hendrick’s Gin, and it’s arguably the most interesting liquor success story in recent memory. Hendrick’s is produced by William Grant & Sons, a family business in South Ayreshire since 1887 best known for Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Grant’s Scotch Whisky. Since it hit the shelves in 1999, Hendrick’s has won the hearts of gin drinkers, non-gin-drinkers, bartenders and the press. In 2003, it was named “The Best Gin in the World” by The Wall Street Journal.

Hendrick’s is the brainchild of Lesley Gracie, one of only three people on the planet who know the recipe (it’s closely guarded so that no one can duplicate the unusual taste). The 54-year-old master distiller received a degree in chemistry from the University of Hull in Yorkshire and worked in pharmaceuticals for 12 years before relocating to South Ayreshire in 1988 to marry her Scottish beau. The big business in town was the local distillery, so she applied for a job as a chemist there. “Alcohol was a different medium,” Gracie says. “It was a totally different set of rules, but really interesting.”

In 1999, the company decided to create what the industry calls an “ultra-premium” gin, one that retails for $30 a bottle. Gracie went into the lab and emerged once she had created a delicate blend of standard gin ingredients like juniper berry, aged Angelica root, coriander and orris root, along with more idiosyncratic additions such as chamomile and an infusion of cucumber and rose, meant to evoke eating a cucumber sandwich in a rose garden. (Rumor has it that the gin gets its name from the gardener who tended the Grant family’s rose garden for 30 years.)

That only about 200,000 cases are produced a year has put the stuff in short supply (Beefeater, the leading premium gin, exports more than a million cases a year to Spain alone), but Gracie won’t budge from her distillation method—one born of a 1966 auction purchase by Charles Gordon, William Grant’s great-grandson. Gordon bought a Bennet copper-pot still made in 1860, and a 1948 Carter- Head still and restored them. Today, they’re integral to Gracie’s process. She steeps grain alcohol, local spring water and botanicals in the Bennet still for 24 to 36 hours, then gradually heats the mixture to create distillate. Meanwhile, in the Carter-Head, alcohol vapors wash over a mix of raw botanicals. The distillates are combined, and then the cucumber and rose flavors are infused. This complex process—most gin makers use only one still—gives Hendrick’s its distinctive taste; Gracie tests each 120-gallon batch by nose to make sure the balance is just right. She admits she might be able get the same result with an automated still, “but the old stills have worked so well and the gin notes are now inherent in the still,” she says. “It gives us control over the product.” Xavier Padovani, the brand’s global ambassador, says that’s typical of Gracie’s style. “She’s a bit different,” he says. “She doesn’t work on a computer much; she keeps everything in her head. She’s rock ’n’ roll.”

Of course, the hands-on approach would all be for naught if no one were enticed to try the product. This most unusual drink needed a most unusual marketing scheme, which U.S. marketing director Caspar McRae calls “madcap Victoriana.” A trip to HendricksGin.com reveals illustrations of men and women in 19th century garb, chess pieces, butterflies, clocks, trumpets and subtle roses and cucumbers, all under a banner welcoming you to “Hendrick’s Curiositorium.” Hendrick’s print ads sport the same Victorian-style illustrations and come emblazoned with such messages as “Somewhere between ‘Oh’ and ‘My,’ he realized he’d never drink any other gin again.”

Augmenting the marketing effort are the company’s “brand ambassadors,” a band of men and women dispatched to all 60 markets where the gin is sold. They host dinners and cocktail classes with chefs, mixologists, members of the media and historians. They even host croquet matches between bartenders. A select few get to drive the “Cucumbermobile,” a 1961 Rover P4 80 sedan painted cucumber- rind-green, with a winged cucumber hood ornament.

Next year, Hendrick’s will be launched in Argentina, Colombia and Brazil, with Gracie on hand at Girvan to oversee production in her beloved antique stills. It’s a busy life, and that extends to her hours away from work, when she tends to her four grandchildren, her golden retriever, Anya, and about 50 orchids; she has also been known to enjoy a Hendrick’s served with soda and a splash of elderflower cordial on occasion. “That fetches out the flower notes,” she says with a smile. “I like gin.”

Like a cucumber, KIRSTEN MATTHEW always makes her surroundings cooler.

BIRD’S EYE VIEW BY JIM RYAN

1 1/2 oz. Hendrick’s Gin
1 1/8 oz. Lillet Rouge
1 1/8 oz. dark simple syrup
4 leaves mint
4 blackberries
3 dashes yuzu concentrate
2 oz. brut champagne

In a mixing glass, muddle mint, berries, yuzu and simple syrup. Add Hendrick’s and Lillet and stir. Add ice, shake well.

Strain into an iced rocks glass. Add champagne and garnish with a sprig of mint and a blackberry.

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