They made for an unusual party, tramping through the Venezuelan rain-forests: the grey-ponytailed master distiller carrying her 10-litre copper still; the septuagenarian explorer and his botanist companion; the stout chief of the local Ye'kuana tribe and his trusty medicine man; and the chisel-featured Global Ambassador of one of the world's hippest brands. Meet the unlikely team behind ?Hendrick's Perilous Botanical Quest?, in pursuit of rare ingredients for 2013's extremely limited edition gin, Hendrick's Kanaracuni.
It is not altogether surprising that Hendrick's, a brand defined by a whimsical fondness for the peculiar, would undertake this extravagant adventure to bring back distillates of rarities such as the verbena-related 'scorpion tail? plant. After all, it is distinctive botanical flavourings that set gin apart from spirits such as vodka. What is more surprising is where these botanicals were brought back to.
That most colonial of spirits and its loyal aide - aka the gin and tonic - were famously credited by Winston Churchill with having 'saved more Englishmen's lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.? Yet Hendrick's is produced a world away from the imperial metropolis in the Scottish seaside village of Girvan, headquarters to William Grant & Sons distillers who produce some of the biggest names in Scotch whisky including Glenfiddich Single Malt.
The real surprise is the extent to which the fortunes of gin and whisky are becoming intertwined. Craft gins are emerging from several Scottish whisky distilleries where, for new distilleries in particular, the production of gin can offer an attractive cash-flow solutions until the whisky matures. Given the current renaissance of Irish whiskey and the 20-plus new Irish distilleries in the pipeline, might Irish craft gin become the next big thing?
Hendrick's was created in 1999 when Lesley Gracie, a master distiller who had worked her way up through the ranks at the family-owned William Grant & Sons, was asked to turn her hand from whisky to gin. ?Gin was pretty boring,? Gracie says. ?Everybody was chugging along the same track. Hendrick's took a step off that track.?
Gracie was given two different copper stills to play with: a Bennett pot still with a broad belly in which the neutral spirit is redistilled with botanicals such as juniper, cubeb berry and elderflower; and a Carterhead still with a longer neck at the top of which botanicals are hung in a basket for a gentler vapour infusion. The former ?boiling? method gives punchy base notes, while the latter gives a bright, floral character. Hendrick's was the first to combine these two styles, distilling each separately before blending.
?With whisky you're limited as to what you can put into it,? Gracie says. ?Whereas with gin, you've got lots of freedom and can produce something totally different.? Gracie did just that, seasoning the final blend with essence of cucumber and rose, added post-distillation to preserve their delicate notes.
This unique move placed Hendrick's outside the categorisation of London Dry Gin, which forbids the adding of flavourings after distillation. But its ensuing success proved that consumers were less hung up on categorisation than the gin industry was. Hendrick's accentuated their point of difference with their trademark cucumber garnish, and mixologists had a field day drawing out the complex flavours. The net result, says Gracie, was to ?turn the whole category on its head?.
One of Ireland's leading mixologists and co-owner of Drury Buildings bar and restaurant, Ronan Rogerson agrees. ?Hendrick's were one of the main brands responsible for the gin revolution in the UK and Ireland. It was all to do with their quirky serve.?
Rogerson reports that gin has surpassed vodka in bar sales terms. Indeed, Dublin's Super Miss Sue fish restaurant has devoted a whole bar to gin and campari, stocking up to 30 gins including a bespoke SMS London Dry Gin and emerging Irish brands such as the Kerry-produced Dingle Original Gin. Dublin's Celtic Whiskey Shop now stock 50 gins - and their biggest selling gin last Christmas was Dingle Original Gin, surpassing Hendrick's from the previous year.
Founded in 2012, Dingle Distillery was the first of new wave of Irish craft distillers to take on Midleton, Cooley and Bushmills. Dingle Gin's character is a result of unique local botanicals such as fuschia, bog myrtle and rowan berries, captured by the distillery's unique process. Meanwhile, Cappoquin, Co Waterford is home to a spanking new whiskey and gin distillery, with Blackwater No 5 gin on shelves this Christmas. Blackwater's distiller Peter Mulryan won't divulge his secret London Dry recipe but it includes nods to unusual Spice Route botanicals once landed in Waterford's 'massive shipyard? by Whites of Waterford.
It may be too early to say what the future holds for Irish craft gin, but for now it's riding high on several rising tides. Cheers to that.
Aoife Carrigy @HolyMackers