Hendrick’s Gin – Review

Happy 20th Birthday or thereabouts!

If one were looking to write a list of influential gins, (and why wouldn’t one look to write a list of influential gins?) I think few people would quibble about Bombay Sapphire being given the top spot. The general consensus is that it truly helped revive the failing category of gin, and played a part in ushering in a whole new era of premium spirits. Perhaps few would argue that Hendrick’s Gin should be given the runner-up spot. If one were looking for the third, fourth, and fifth place entries into this list of influential gins, one would need to look someplace else, because I was basically just using the “influential gin list” as a cheap way to introduce the gin under review here in this post.

As I was saying, after Bombay Sapphire, Hendrick’s can legitimately lay claim to being one of the more influential gins out there. In 1999, the marketing big cheeses at William Grant & Sons decided that there was an opportunity in the gin category. They tasked Leslie Gracey with developing a spirit that was English in character, but stood out from the ubiquitous London Dry style. With a background in chemistry, Gracey had been helping develop products for William Grant & Sons since 1988. At the Girvan Distillery, she teamed up with distiller David Stewart and set about experimenting with two old stills the company had purchased sometime in the 60’s. One was a traditional pot still made by Bennett, Sons, & Shears around 1860, and one was a Carterhead still made around the turn of the century. Carterhead stills are unusual in that they are more or less a pot still with a column still on top.

Once Gracey had settled on a recipe of 11 botanicals, the team experimented, running the recipe through both stills. The gin that was macerated and boiled in the Bennet pot still was a heavier spirit dominated by the juniper. The gin made in the Carterhead using an infusion basket which allowed the alcohol vapor to pass through the ingredients, was lighter  and dominated by spice and herb notes. I like to imagine Gracey and Stewart standing around, scratching their heads thinking, “well, both gins are ok, but not great, which still do we use…what do we do?” And then in a burst of excitement that can only be mustered up by someone who spends a lot of time macerating botanicals, Gracey leapt high in the air with a mighty whoop, landed deftly, grabbed Stewart by the shoulders, shook him firmly but respectfully, and proclaimed, “we use both stills, Davey, we use both of ’em!”

I’m fairly certain it didn’t quite play out this way, but it’s fun to think about, no? In any case, Gracey and Stewart did come up with the unique solution of blending the gins from both stills. At the time, and possibly to this day, there were no other gin producers creating a product in this manner. And then came the coup de grâce. To set apart this new product even further from the competition, they added cucumber and rose petal essence after distillation. The addition of these two ingredients lent the gin a very “English” quality, but it also came with a challenge. London Dry Gin was the most recognizable and best-selling category of gin, but by adding flavoring after distillation, per regulations, W. Grant & Co. could no longer call it a London Dry Gin. With a uniquely produced and uniquely flavored gin ready to go, it was now up to the marketers to sell it to the masses.

The story goes that Hendrick’s took its name from an old Grant family gardener who was a favorite of Janet Sheed Roberts, William Grant’s granddaughter and a beloved figure in the company’s recent history. Armed with this name, William Grant & Sons turned to the Philadelphia firm Quaker City Mercantile to create a brand image for their new product. Quaker City Mercantile took the quirky English nature of this new gin and gave it an identity to match. Drawing from a romanticized Victorian pool, the brand image mixed olde tyme apothecaries, botany, hand-tinted colors, a little bit of Monty Python-esque animation, a dash of Rube Goldberg, and a hint of steam punk into a whimsical, penny-farthing and plumage approach that immediately resonated with younger, nostalgia-prone drinkers. Perhaps more importantly, this approach struck a chord with the nascent cocktail revival which was spending a lot of its time peering back into the pre-prohibition era. When Hendrick’s first came out, I remember thinking that it seemed like that squat, black bottle had always been on shelves, and yet it also seemed like something completely new and fresh.

The stills in Hendrick’s new Gin Palace. Photo by John Paul

Today, the Hendrick’s brand still relies on this original effective, quirky image, and it still relies on its uniquely double still-produced spirit. Lesley Gracie is still in charge of its production and its 11 botanical recipe is still the same as it was when it debuted nearly 20 years ago. Along with the rose petal essence and cucumber, Hendrick’s uses Angelica, caraway, chamomile, coriander, cubeb pepper, elderflower, juniper, lemon, orange, orris root, and yarrow. While Hendrick’s continues to be produced at Girvan, it’s now made in a dazzling new setting, dubbed the Gin Palace, that opened in the Fall of 2018. An identical second pot still was made to the exact specifications of the original, and the two now flank the Carterhead still in a space that echoes the botanical Victoriana of the marketing.

The Nose:  A light, floral-tinged wonderland of a nose. The balance of three main groups is upfront and immediate. There’s the sappy pine of the juniper, the citrus of lemon oil, lime zest, and underripe orange, and the subtle bouquet of rose petals and dried chamomile. The other ingredients seem to serve to give those three depth and complexity. The cucumber floats in and out as an ethereal top note.

The Palate:  That floral quality takes a step back on the palate, allowing more herbal and spice notes to come through. The juniper is now more woody and less sharp, and the citrus more pithy and orange-y. The herbs give this a slightly earthy, baking spice quality – ginger, allspice, and a little cardamom with a dose of black pepper coming in towards the end.

The Finish: A lingering retelling of the juniper, citrus, and spice. The peppery cubeb lasts the longest

Thoughts: So, so good, tremendously good even. Since its debut, Hendrick’s has always been a sentimental favorite of mine, it’s the first gin that I can think of that really surprised me and made me think the category could be something more than the cheap stuff. And it’s Scottish, which always helps. With all that in mind, it was nice to try to set sentiment aside and take an objective look, only to find it’s just as good as I like to think it is. To me, its distinctive flavor profile is characterized by its balance and complexity. It certainly nods to its London dry roots, as it forges its own path. In style and flavor, Hendrick’s is an influential original, certainly a gin not to be missed.

As gin is usually a cocktail spirit, here’s how I thought this one held up in a trio of classic drinks…

In a Gin & Tonic:  While not quite as bracing or sharp as, say, a Beefeater or similarly juniper forward G&T, a Hendrick’s G&T can be a revelation. The rose and cucumber add summer-y, pastoral element that’s, dare I say, unrivaled.

In a Martini: As with a gin and tonic, a Hendrick’s martini might not have the icy edge and wallop a more juniper-forward gin might bring, instead it’s a more subtle, sly, complex wallop.

In a Negroni:  While I find that Hendrick’s makes a very good Negroni, I also feel like the drink needs a little tweaking to make a truly stellar Negroni. Upping the gin a little and/or cutting back on the Campari and vermouth a bit helps make sure the more subtle qualities of Hendrik’s don’t get lost.

*Bonus Cocktail recommendation! I love Hendrick’s in a Bee’s Knees, as well as in Sasha Petraske’s riff on that classic, the Business.

Hendrick’s Gin, +/-2018

44% ABV


Sources:

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