How Hendrick’s Master Distiller Lesley Gracie Is Shaping the Future of Gin
With all due respect to the Queen, Buckingham isn’t the only palace in the United Kingdom we’re paying attention to. Roughly 400 miles northwest of Westminster, in the remote seaside Scottish town of Girvan, sits the Gin Palace—an iron-and-glass temple dedicated to the production of Hendrick’s Gin.
It’s a cool and foggy morning when we arrive at the “palace” gates. After a few taps of a hefty wrought-iron door knocker, a viewing portal slides open and we’re greeted by a smiling woman. “Welcome to Gin Palace,” she says, as the door creaks open to reveal a petite frame and floor-length, silver ponytail draped over a dark blue Hendrick’s Gin button-up coat.
That’s Lesley Gracie, Hendrick’s’ iconic master distiller who’s been producing the massively popular, cult-beloved gin since the company first launched in 1999. A chemist by trade, Gracie worked her way up at pharmaceutical companies until, one fateful day, she was challenged by Charlie Gordon, the late former CEO of Scotland’s William Grant & Sons, to create a new gin that could defy convention.
“Gin is so special because you can use anything—as long as it's not poisonous—and as long as you have juniper at the front,” Gracie says after we’ve taken a look around her madcap laboratory, where shelves are lined with hundreds of jars of herbs and flowers. “You can basically use anything, so the range for different gins is enormous. Whereas the hands of whiskey makers are tied by what they can use, gin allows you to do so many different things. I think it’s just a fascinating place to be in.”
Fascinating is an apt way to describe Gracie’s own gin, the Hendrick’s flagship expression, which has set the standard for gins straddling the line between traditional and nouveau. Honoring the integrity of the juniper-forward base while sparking intrigue with its signature oddball accents of cucumber and rose, the gin has captured the hearts of drinkers and bartenders alike for two decades.
“Right from the beginning, the bartenders were great with Hendrick’s—many of them are still working with us now,” Gracie says. “There’s nothing better than a bartender loving the product and actively encouraging people to try it in amazing cocktails they’ve made.”
In December of 2018, Hendrick's released the first new product since its inception: Hendrick’s Orbium, a limited, small-batch “quininated” gin—flavored with quinine, wormwood and lotus blossom—only available on-premise at bars. Quinine, as gin lovers know, is the primary ingredient in tonic water; the implicit goal of a quininated gin, then, would be revolutionizing the classic G&T by recreating its signature bitter flavor with a simple swap of regular soda water. The first release in the company’s nearly 20-year history, Orbium’s announcement sparked chatter and curiosity among Hendrick’s cultish devotees (myself among them) who eagerly waited to test the liquid.
But beyond being just a bold and exciting gin, Orbium signaled a new chapter of experimentation for a brand that was, frankly, doing fine without any. So what changed? It’s no coincidence that months earlier, in October, William Grant & Sons revealed a $16 million distillery expansion. Prior to that, Hendrick’s was produced in a tiny, unglamorous brick building that was once home to a munitions factory—a space that seemed totally out of step with the brand identity. Gracie chuckles recalling the way she and her team ironically referred to it as “gin palace.”
Now, Gin Palace refers to the Victorian-style manor hidden behind those ironclad gates. It’s here that Gracie presides over a new age of distillation for Hendrick’s—with double the production capacity, mind you—holding court in a proper wonderland decked out in fittingly odd curiosities like old-timey record players, leather trunks, and Penny-farthing bikes. On either side of the main hall are greenhouses—one with a Mediterranean climate and the other with a tropical climate—housing the various flowers, bushes, and trees used for Gracies’ experiments.
“Orbium is not exactly our first innovation—we’ve been really looking closely at quinine through the years,” says Gracie. “The fact that we’ve now got increased capacity in our stills and added another three stills, our capacity has actually doubled to two million cases. We now have the opportunity to look back on things we have done in the past and relase them.”
Such innovation struck again in the early spring of 2019, when Hendrick’s released the Midsummer Solstice, another “experiment” that found the approval of the William Grant & Sons team. Gracie explains that this one came about in a more serendipitous manner—she never intended to release it commercially. In fact, it had been stored away with other experiments in her “Cabinet of Curiosities,” a real locked cabinet inside the Gin Palace.
“When our global brand ambassador got married in 2017, I did six special bottles just for his wedding—I had kind of found out what was going to be in the wedding booking, so it was aimed down the floral route,” Gracie recalls. “People liked it, so they decided that we would move forward with it as a commercial liquid, which was a bit of a sham because when I made it, I basically put in the floral things that I like. It was never meant to be commercialized!”
These experimentaions notwithstanding, Gracie has proven herself committed to respecting the time-honored definition of gin as a spirit centered around juniper. Even Midsummer, what with its fresh bouquet of aromas, could be categorized as such. Hendrick’s may have paved the way for new, experimental gins to stray far from those roots, but its wide appeal lies in Gracie’s masterful balancing act of tradition and innovation. Whatever new products emerge from the Gin Palace’s Cabinet of Curiosities, we know for sure it’ll be a juniper-forward gin, through and through.
“We’ve got our own unique house style—some people say it’s ‘floral,’ but it’s really not,” Gracie says. “When you taste it, it’s very complex and round. For me, products that aren’t juniper-forward don’t mean the gin definition. I don’t mean to say they are bad drinks ... but let’s say there are some very good bitter vodkas out there.”
Though Gracie is undoubtedly the heart and soul of the Hendrick’s brand, she’s not one to take credit for its success. Even now as the de facto queen of the palace, Gracie stays modest, asserting that it’s her team and the people around her, from the marketing team to the distillery staff, who’ve made the brand what it is today.
“We knew from the beginning we were going to do everything differently and that is what has made the difference—you see the ideas and you’d think they’re crazy,” Gracie laughs. “But it’s only worked so well because everyone on the team has been so committed to that vision. There isn’t a single person who I’ve heard say, ‘This is rubbish.’ They are an amazing team—and they’re all absolutely mad.”