The sleepy little coastal town of Girvan, Scotland, has been home to the Hendrick’s Gin Distillery for more than two decades, ever since master distiller Lesley Gracie created the gin, which is known for its signature flavor profile of 11 botanicals plus rose and cucumber essences.
When Hendrick’s first hit the shelves in 1999, quickly revolutionizing the gin world, the distillery was housed in a bombproof former World War II munitions factory. It was a very industrial space that didn’t allow for expansion, and it was hardly a showcase for Gracie, her groundbreaking work, or even the brand’s own quirkiness.
NextTribe is taking a small group of women to the Scottish Highlands in June 2024, and we’ll be meeting women as fascinating as Lesley Gracie. All the details here.
That’s no longer the case; several years ago, Hendrick’s opened the doors to its new $70 million gin palace, just a stone’s throw from the old distillery. And “palace” is the right word to describe the new building. “The old place had its charm, but this is an amazing space,” she says.
Gracie, one of the few female master distillers of any kind of spirits, has become famous because Hendrick’s was really the first gin to break the mold of the heavy, juniper-laden gins that all kind of smelled and tasted the same to non-gin drinkers. Hendrick’s is owned by William Grant & Sons, which also sells the famous Glenfiddich and Balvenie brands of scotch as well as other premium spirits. Gracie began working at the company in 1988 as a chemist with no aim of becoming a master distiller, but now she is Hendrick’s Gin, and the new distillery, constructed especially for her, demonstrates her stature in the company and the spirits world.
Inside the Gin
There are two different hothouses in which to grow experimental botanicals—one filled with Mediterranean citrus trees and the other filled with tropical plants. “I’ll be growing blue lotus in here,” she says as she takes her first American visitors on a tour of her stomping grounds.
The Victorian-style building, which opens to an atrium with both greenhouses flanking it, features the brand’s green-and-black color scheme, and practically everywhere visitors gaze, there’s something to intrigue. “This is Boris,” Gracie says, petting a stuffed peacock that stands guard outside the Mediterranean solarium.
Gracie never dreamed of becoming a distiller, much less the creator of an award-winning international brand.
Gracie points out the guest book, which includes the signature of Prince Charles. She also shows us the two copper stills where she originally distilled Hendrick’s: the Bennett, constructed for William Grant & Sons in 1869, and the Carter-Head, constructed in 1948. “When I retire, I’m going to take the Bennett with me,” she says. “It will just fit in my garage. And it’s not stealing if I told them I’m going to do it.”
Dressed in a black lab coat and tying her waist-length hair back in a ponytail, you would never know Gracie is considered a legend within the cocktail and distilled spirits world. There are no airs about her. In fact, in one of her official bios from William Grant & Sons, she notes that her granddaughter thinks “she’s seriously weird.”
Sebastien Derbomez, American national brand ambassador for Hendrick’s, says she’s so unassuming he didn’t even recognize her when he first came to visit the old distillery, back when he was just a bartender who had won a tour. “I’m so embarrassed,” he says. “We were about halfway through our day, and I said ‘We haven’t met the master distiller,’ and someone said, ‘No, that’s her.’ I spent all day with her, and I had no idea who she was.”
A Cabinet of Curiosity
Today, visitors definitely know who Gracie is, and if they don’t, the sign outside her workroom, “Lesley’s Labouratory” should indicate who she is. Within the lab itself, Gracie boasts several shelves of botanicals, distilled botanicals and more—she calls it her “cabinet of curiosity,” and this is where she plays with flavors and aromas. Most recently, her playing led to the brand’s very first limited release, Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice gin.
Hendrick’s was the first to break the mold of the heavy, juniper-laden gins.
This gin came out of a wedding gift Gracie distilled for the former global brand ambassador, Duncan McRae. “I made it to commemorate his wedding, and I designed it from what his wife was getting in her wedding bouquet,” Gracie says. “I love flowers. I won’t say what flowers are in this gin because you don’t smell the individual flowers, you smell the whole bouquet.”
Gracie distilled only six bottles of this gin in one of the mini-stills in her lab. It was such a hit people asked her when she was going to make it again. She hadn’t till now. But with the new distillery, which boasts not only the original stills but additional ones and even more room for expansion, she was able to figure out an exact recipe that could be replicated and made in much larger quantities. “It was tough to scale up,” she says.
The Science of Spirits
Gracie never dreamed of becoming a distiller, much less the creator of an award-winning international brand. She studied chemistry at college, and when she graduated, she worked in the pharmaceutical industry for 12 years. “I did flavor work to make drugs more palatable,” she says. “I never woke up and thought, ‘I want to be a distiller.’ I always liked the science side of things, and I just really liked chemistry, much more than history and geography, and I prefer doing things than just sitting.”
Gracie came to William Grant & Sons in 1988, when she moved up to South Ayrshire from Yorkshire to get married. She was looking for a job, and the company was looking for a chemist to join their technical team. For the next 11 years, she specialized in developing flavors in whisky, and in 1999, the then-chairman of the company, Charles Gordon (who was also the great-grandson of William Grant) tasked her with a special job: to create an ultra-premium gin that was different from anything else on the market.
For gin production, orris root is a magic ingredient.
“Charlie Gordon—it was his idea to produce gin,” Gracie says. Though the spirits company had distilled gin for a very brief time in their history, it wasn’t anything unlike the other gins on the market, and the company had not distilled any gin for a very long time.
Tasked with this project, Gracie worked with the help of another distiller, John Ross, to come up with the exact botanicals for the recipe. They experimented with hundreds of different botanicals, and they tried juniper berries sourced from around the world before settling on berries grown in Macedonia. The other 10 ingredients include coriander, angelica, lemon peel, orange peel, chamomile, cubeb berries, yarrow, caraway seeds, elderflower, and orris root.
“The orris root is the rhizome of the iris plant, and for gin production, it’s a magic ingredient,” Gracie notes.
But the experimentation didn’t stop with the botanicals themselves—they used the stills in combination and separately, and one reason Hendrick’s has such an interesting profile is that the two stills process the botanicals in different ways. The Bennett brings out stronger flavors, while the Carter-Head produces more subtle aromas. “That’s a bath,” says Gracie, pointing to the Bennett. “And that’s a sauna,” she says, indicating the Carter-Head.
Then, after distillates from both stills were combined, Gracie added cucumber and rose essences. “We distilled lots of ingredients individually and in combination, and it just kind of happened,” she says.
Face of a Brand
That happening, combined with the astute and distinctive design of the bottle (which comes from a Victorian apothecary bottle) and its packaging, took the gin world by surprise. While today, modern gins run the spectrum of flavors and can be everything from earthy to citrus to floral, Hendrick’s was really the first gin to set that course. The company slowly grew the brand, and as Hendrick’s gained in popularity, so rose Gracie’s profile. Shortly after designing the gin, she became its master distiller, and today, she’s really the face of the brand.
The guest book at Hendrick’s includes the signature of Prince Charles.
“The thing about Lesley is you can take her anywhere,” says brand ambassador Derbomez. “I’ve met a lot of master distillers in my career as a bartender, but it’s hard to connect with them.”
When Gracie’s not working, she likes spending time with her husband and their grandchildren, and she loves her golden retriever, Jock. When she travels for work, she likes visiting zoos and botanical gardens. Having worked for the company for 31 years, Gracie could retire, but she says she’s nowhere near moving on. “It’s much too fun in the moment,” she says. “When it stops being fun, then I’ll retire.”
From Drink Like a Woman by Jeanette Hurt
This drink is always a hit whenever I teach cocktail classes, and it’s a drink that non-gin drinkers love, especially if it’s made with a fine gin.
- 1 ½ oz. Hendrick’s Gin or Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice Gin
- ½ oz. cranberry juice (100 percent juice blend)
- ½ oz. fresh lime juice
- ½ oz. simple syrup (sugar dissolved in equal parts hot water)
- 2 dashes citrus bitters
Garnish: lime twist
Fill a shaker with ice. Pour in all the ingredients and shake for about 30 seconds or until well chilled (condensation forms on the outside of the shaker). Strain into a martini glass and garnish with a twist of lime.
By Mattias Horseman
This refreshing summer cocktail brings out the cucumber notes in Hendrick’s, and it’s fantastic on a hot summer evening.
- 3 to 5 basil leaves
- 3 to 5 cucumber wheels
- ¾ oz. simple syrup
- 1 ½ oz. Hendrick’s Gin
- ¾ oz. fresh lemon juice
Glass: double rocks glass
Garnish: basil and cucumber wheel
In a mixing glass, muddle basil, cucumber, and simple syrup. Add Hendrick’s Gin, lemon juice, and ice. Shake well and fine strain into an iced double rocks glass. Garnish with a bunch of basil and a cucumber wheel.
Styled by: Mattias Horseman
Jeanette Hurt is the award-winning writer and author of eight culinary and drink books, including the recent Drink Like a Woman and The Cheeses of California: A Culinary Travel Guide, which received the 2010 Mark Twain Award for Best Travel Book. She lives in Milwaukee with her husband and son.
A version of this story was originally published in June 2019.