In Gin Lovers Magazine VII we travelled through Europe for Gin, the stories and distilleries of London Nº1, G'Vine, Ferdinand's Saar, Sylvius Gin, Hendrick's and Martin Miller's in six countries and different cities.
Here we left part of our journey, to Scotland of Hendrick's.
Since Hendrick’s hit the market, Gin and the world that surrounds it will never be the same. Even Scotland will never be the same in our imagination. How can a black bottle, its label and talented marketing team change the way we see a country? In an unusually ingenious way!
The few days we spent in Scotland were intense and the famous Scottish friendliness was always present. I understood that at 6:47pm, when we arrived at Edinburgh Airport (Edinburgh they say “Edinbra”) and were met by two characters who, within a few short hours, would prove to be the best guides. When I say “characters” I mean it in the best sense. Tim Harfield and Dominic Le Moignan seem to have come out of a movie set in Victorian times (with that Hendrick’s “look”), but although flamboyant, not in an eccentric or flashy way. Or rather, they are dandy. Tim is not yet 30. He is nearly two metres tall, has a Morrissey hairstyle, and he’s from Manchester. Dominic (Dom, as he prefers) is a Londoner who sounds identical to Jason Statham. Curiously (or not, as we might later show), he is also an actor. They guide us to the bus that will take us to the hotel. It has tables in front of the seats and even before we start moving, there is already a Gin & Tonic (with cucumber) for everyone. The only rule is not to be embarrassed to have another one, not now, nor in the coming days. We have been introduced to everyone and all the rules. This will not be easy.
The pilot had warned us: “the weather in Edinburgh is not that great at the moment, as usual” and our journey to the G&V Hotel is made through rain that is more drizzle than heavy. We can see the night draw in beyond Grassmarket, where the Fringe Festival takes place in August (during which, these young men and Duncan McRae, who will join us tomorrow, presented The Hendrick’s Emporium of Sensory Submersion - which was an instant success). The Gin & Tonic is good and compensates for the shortcomings of the day - the rain.
We went for a short walk to the historic centre, obviously to get another drink. The castle was shrouded in mist and Edinburgh assumed a Tim Burtonesque air. Suddenly, Hendrick’s imagery makes sense.
The Victorian age is alive in every architectural detail of Edinburgh, one of the few cities of this great island that did not suffer any bombing during the Second World War. We stopped at Panda & Sons, a basement with a centuries old aroma of dampness, for a Hendrick’s + Absinthe + Lime + cucumber + a Secret Ingredient cocktail and some improvised limericks, then by The Bon Vivant pub for a Hendrick’s with lime juice and a few more pinches of secret ingredients. We walked through some bulldogs (the dog, not the game) that shared the bar with their owners (maybe this was the effect of the Absinthe). Then this typical Scottish day, as Dom called it, ended.
The crows were bouncing around the on the ground instead of taking off (it was early and the air is too cold for them to they can’t lift their weight from the ground) and we were already in the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens (one of the first in Europe), for a meeting with Max Coleman, the man who knows all the untold secrets of plants, from mere geographical curiosities to the most erotic details that involve bees and other bugs.
About the botanicals used in Hendrick’s Gin, he knows everything. Where they grow, how they influence palate after distillation - all we wanted to know and much, much more, all told to us with passion as we walk through a forest, one of those we are used to seeing in period films. And what could be better after walking through a typically Scottish forest? The Scottish pensioners’ sport of choice, of course! Unusual? Of course not! Unusual is to find ourselves inside Edinburgh Curling Club, the busiest ice rink in Europe, surrounded by friendly old ladies with whom we share conversations about gardening, birdwatching and also a delightful tea. There is a difference, though: our Earl Grey is a hot punch made with Hendrick’s with a good dose of spices that some big bearded men have prepared for us in a samovar.
We find ourselves starting our first ever game of curling a little bit drunk. We chose hats from a vast collection (bowler hats, top hats, deerstalkers like Sherlock Holme’s) to use on the rink while we sweep the ice. The stone we have to slide is huge, we fall over a lot, and there is plenty to give the old ladies a laugh. It must be because of the Earl Grey, of course. Hendrick’s Global Ambassador Duncan McRae joins us for the party. Yes, it is a party. There are even trophies and awards. I will never look at curling in the same way again. And now, I will always support Scotland against Canada. Curling was invented in Scotland. Not everything is golf, here. Duncan tells me, while he eats a ham, mustard and, of course, cucumber sandwich, that his is the best job in the world. “It is Hendrick’s, for god’s sake. Silly, funny, intense.”.
Now the minibus takes us south. More Gin & tonic and bloody maries from a small traveling bar. We watch the green, beautiful and inspiring Scotland scenery out of the window. We are heading to the distillery, which is closer to Glasgow. That is only tomorrow, though. Today, much is still to happen, after we check in at the legendary Turnberry Hotel. When we finally got to Craigengillen Estate, the night is pitch black. The only light comes from the mansion windows and the stained glass of the main entrance, only just enough for us to recognise the two huge mastiffs (or were greyhounds? it was very dark) that receive us amiably. Suddenly, we step back a few centuries. And we haven’t yet walked in.
Inside, that sensation grows. It’s as if someone downgraded from a castle to something more humble but refused to dispose of any of the decor. There is red velvet everywhere, sinister oil portraits, embalmed owls in glass cases, all of which could be called eerie - an English term that sits somewhere between “ghostly” and merely “weird.” But it is not eerie. It’s just from the Victorian era, and thus, we are at home. In someone’s house. Someone lives here. A lady, who prefers to remain anonymous but who receives us for a dinner that she has cooked for her friend Duncan, this oh so well-connected young man.
For now, this property, all of it, all domes and extravagant furniture, is ours. Dinner only appears after we taste a few cocktails (the red-haired big bearded men from Hendrick’s are always present, they come from who knows where and stubbornly give us glasses filled with delicious things).
After dinner, friendships already sealed across terrines and platters and French wine, a fireplace invites us to another room. We spread out over sofas, chairs and armchairs, facing Dom who is on his feet and holding some books. Duncan is by his side and in front of him there are with some Hendricks bottles, lamps and test tubes. “The Genteel Tipple Through Gin in Literature” is what follows. In other words, Dom recites some passages that show that gin is inseparable from the rich Anglo-Saxon literature. He takes us chronologically through an historical background of the drink that brought us here. Duncan is in charge of preparing cocktails while Dom addresses them.
With Martinis, Martinez, White Ladies, all this is better than 3D movies, and much more fun, tasty and enriching. From the Victorian era to the Gin Craze, via the “Roaring 20s” where we see the appearance of the Dry Martini, Dom makes us fall in love with Dickens, Fleming, Amis, Goodwin. This is perhaps the highlight of the trip, although tomorrow there is still room to find the very core of everything.
The huge William Grant & Sons complex is surrounded by an enviable landscape. It is at the epicentre of this loud bustle of loaded grain trucks that is the modest Hendrick’s Gin Palace - a surprisingly tiny distillery where the entire Hendrick’s production is centred.
In its warm and stripped interior, Lesley Gracie - responsible for all this - awaits us. She is instantly evidently an endearing lady. Her hobbies are taking care of her house, with its numerous dogs and numerous cats and her garden. But this Scot is the genius behind the Gin flavour everyone talks about. Before that, she worked in a pharmaceutical laboratory. Her work was to make medicinal syrups taste good to children.
With her pharmaceutical background, she was asked to create a Gin that would respect the historical genesis of the drink but, at the same time, to be as English as it is unusual. Leslie came to the conclusion that the ever present cucumber and roses of the island’s gardens were mandatory in its composition. The combination of the two flavours make this a unique distillation in the world. But there are many, many more ingredients, all from the best sources, each batch of which Leslie is keen to taste herself, saving the company money that would be spent on quality control. She is the one who opens the doors every morning, before seven o’clock.
She knows each one of these spice boxes very well, and also the two stills responsible for the humble 500 litre distillations (each batch), which ensures better control over product quality. There is the Bennet still, the heart, and the Carter-Head still, from 1870, which the director of William Grant & Sons bought at an auction, knowing that its genius design could “clean up” the poor quality distillation that was common at that time. Leslie then adds cucumber and rose infusions, once all the spices have been properly distilled (and tasted).
All the work behind one of the most brilliant gins at the moment is literally hand made, part of a great master work. Marketing plays a big role and it is a big weapon that places Hendrick’s as a product of excellence in a market that had seemed to be have been exhausted. But Leslie knows nothing about marketing (but loves the Queen) and after all she is the one we have to thank all of this.
And what better way to do it? Raise your glasses!
Ana Gil Art | dIAZ Words | Gonçalo Villaverde Pictures
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