The word most often associated with Hendrick’s gin is “unusual,” and there’s good reason for it. Consider the brand’s peculiar visual identity, created by adman Steven Grasse, which collages together semi-Surrealist, mock-Victorian illustrations of naked women in martini glasses, men in dunce caps, butterflies, knights, monocles, trombones, scales, strange machines, roses, and cucumbers. Or the collaborations, most notably with the London-based gelatin artists Bompas & Parr, who in addition to creating a gin-flavored jelly, recently concocted a chewing gum that tastes just like a G&T. And then there are the events: Hendrick’s doesn’t much do the usual cocktail competitions, choosing instead to host croquet matches in the summer and curling duels in the winter. It would all seem like a gimmick, except that for Hendrick’s, which launched a little more than a decade ago, there’s truth in advertising: The gin really is manufactured differently than any other spirit on the market, as we found out when we were invited to the factory in Girvan, Scotland, earlier this month.
Gin is made all over the world these days, from New Zealand to France. But Hendrick’s, owned by William Grant & Sons, is the only gin distillery in Scotland. Located an hour’s drive outside of Glasgow, the Hendrick’s headquarters stand on 380 acres overlooking Ailsa Bay, the body of water that’s home to Ailsa Craig — the island where blue hone granite is harvested to make curling stones.
The distillery is located in a former munitions factory that was purchased by William Grant & Sons's president Charles Gordon in 1964, the same year he purchased two stills and a gin recipe at auction in London. Hendrick’s produces an even smaller sampling of liquor than the typical small-batch producer — 450 liters at a time as opposed to 1,000 — and the factory is correspondingly tiny.
In the 1860 Bennett still at right, Hendrick's botanicals are steeped in a mix of neutral grain alcohol and water from the nearby Penwhapple reservoir for a day before distillation begins. At that point, the temperature is raised slowly. “If it's raised too quickly,” says master distiller Lesley Gracie, “the berries and botanicals will burst and the distillate will become green.”
While the Bennett still boils the botanicals, producing a vapor with great depth that then goes through a condensator — sending the infused alcohol out through what’s called a spirit safe — the 1948 Carter-Head still pictured above bathes the botanicals in a vapor to extract their flavor compounds and oils, which produces a lighter, fresher distillate.
“You can’t put botanicals into the Carter-Head still because there’s no way to get them out the bottom,” says Gracie. The Bennett still has a sliding drawer at its base where spent botanicals can be retrieved. The Carter-Head instead uses this copper basket, which is filled with botanicals and fitted into the top of the still.
The botanicals are assembled in a particular ratio by weight and layered according to particle size. To be legally designated as gin, the liquor must contain juniper berries (otherwise, it’s simply a flavored vodka). But the Hendrick’s recipe is much more complex, containing 11 different botanicals: juniper berry, coriander, Angelica root, lemon peel, orange peel, chamomile, cubeb berry, elderflower, meadowsweet, caraway seeds, and Orris root. Orris, the ground-up root of an iris plant, isn't dominant in the final spirit, but it acts like “a piece of Velcro that all of the other flavors hang on to,” Gracie explains, which helps keep the aromatics intact.
In the distillery, the botanicals are kept in labeled wooden boxes, with hand-painted tiles by Susan and Douglas Dalgleish of Edinburgh Ceramics identifying each one.
The Hendrick’s recipe was created in the late '90s by Gracie — who's a chemist by trade — and another master distiller, John Ross. There were hundreds of experiments done on miniature stills in the lab, and stillman Alan Rimmer reckons there were upwards of 20 experiments with heat and speed performed once the recipe was finalized. The recipe, Gracie explains, contains varying levels of each botanical mostly because of the varying degrees of oil content in each one. Coriander, for example, has a very low oil content, so the recipe calls for more of it.
Rimmer weighs the botanicals. The exact ratio is a well-guarded secret, known only to four people, including Rimmer and Gracie.
The distillates are checked for quality in the spirit safes. Generally, the first and last 10 liters of a batch — called the foreshots and the feints — are discarded, as they can be quite sharp and astringent on the nose. “Because we have no automation here, we rely on our senses to make sure everything is exactly the way we want it,” says Gracie.
Hydrometers for checking the percentage of alcohol by volume.
The distillate from the Carter-Head still is kept in the vat at left before being married in a secret proportion with the Bennett still distillate in the vat at right.
Once the two distillates are mixed, Rimmer adds rose and cucumber essences that have been cold-extracted off-site. The addition of flavor after the distillation process means that Hendrick’s can’t technically be called a London dry gin. With a London dry gin, like Bombay Sapphire or Beefeater’s, all of the flavor compounds are distilled together and the only things that are added after the fact are water, and occasionally sugar. Hendrick’s is instead known as a “distilled gin.”
A diagram explains the two-still process.
Hendrick’s squat, black bottle, modeled after the kind once used to protect precious apothecary liquids from the sun, makes reference to gin’s medicinal past. Juniper berry, which is said to have curative properties, was stuffed into the noses of Carnevale masks during the plague to ward off infection, and there is of course gin’s long association with quinine, which was used to prevent malaria when the Brits colonized India.
To fully appreciate how the gin is assembled, we were invited to taste (or nose, for those less brave) the 160-proof Bennett still and Carter-Head distillates as well as the two combined, the gin diluted with water, and the rose and cucumber essences on their own.
The cucumber, whose inclusion in the Hendrick's recipe was based on Brits’ affinity for the cucumber sandwich (often eaten, of course, in a rose garden), has come to be a kind of shorthand for the brand. Hendrick’s gin-and-tonics are served with a slice of cucumber rather than a lemon or a lime, and when it came time to create a branded car, Hendrick’s invented the Cucumbermobile, a 1961 Rover P4 purchased for just a few thousand bucks off of eBay.
The car, which seats six but is more often driven by two in rallies across England, is customized with a rose petal–shaped gearstick, tweed accents, a pop-out bar in the trunk, wiper fluid in a re-purposed Hendrick’s bottle, and this, a stainless-steel hood ornament shaped like a cucumber with wings.
The not-so-unusual view on the way back from the distillery to Glasgow. The facility is not open for public tours, but for more information, go to Hendricksgin.com.