This week in our My Gin Life series we’re speaking to Lesley Gracie, the legendary master distiller who helped to create – and is still making – Hendrick’s Gin. When it was released, this Scottish brand was a game changer for the gin world – and 20 years later, Lesley is still working hard to keep it at the forefront of gin innovation, using Hendrick’s Gin Palace as her botanical playground. Lesley was inducted into the Gin Magazine Hall of Fame in 2021.
Gin Magazine (GM): Tell us how you got into the distilling industry, and how you got to your current position.
Lesley Gracie (LG): I never set out to be a master distiller of gin, it just kind of happened, so I was very lucky. Right place, right time, and I had the right set of skills really to get the job done.
My background is in chemistry and I started my career in the pharmaceutical industry. Part of my job was to help develop new medicines and mask the bitter taste of some of the drugs we produced so that people would actually take them.
I moved up to Scotland over 30 years ago now and joined William Grant & Sons. I started out in the technical team, analysing samples in the lab, and then quickly got involved in developing new products and playing around with flavour.
Then one day, Charlie Gordon [the great grandson of William Grant, the company founder], asked me to help make a new gin. It was slightly surprising as back then, no one was really playing around with gin – it was quite an unloved category. There were just a handful of gins on the back bar and people weren’t really drinking gin anymore.
But gin has this incredible history. It used to be so very popular and Charlie could see a time when people would fall in love with gin again. He was very clear in what he wanted: a bold new kind of gin with real character and flavour. He wanted it to include rose and cucumber – you can’t get more quintessentially British than rose gardens and cucumber sandwiches! And he wanted to use these two stills he’d bought at auction back in 1966, a rare Carterhead still from 1948 and a vintage Bennett pot still that dates all the way back to 1860. When I eventually do retire, I’m going to take that one with me; it’s my baby!
So, with that pretty tight brief, I got on with figuring out how to bring all those elements together to create the round flavour profile of Hendrick’s. And 22 years later, I’m still making it using the same recipe in the same 500-litre small batches, and continuing to experiment all the time. I’m really lucky to have the freedom to create whatever takes my fancy, and am positively encouraged to do things differently, which is great!
GM: Hendrick’s is now a world-renowned brand – how did you develop it, and how do you continue to ensure that it keeps up with the demands of its global audience?
LG: It’s incredible to see how much Hendrick’s has grown. I crafted the original recipe and the initial brief was to create something different with character – that’s what I did and it’s what I keep doing with all of the new releases we put out into the world.
If I’m honest, I’m not really thinking about a global audience when I create a gin. Most of my creations start out with a memory or a feeling. I look to capture a specific memory in gin, often triggered by a scent. Scent is such a powerful sense that can truly transport you to different places and allow you to travel through time. When I make the gin, I get to play around in my lab and see how different flavours work together to create the sensations I’m after to tell a story.
People seem to like the stories I tell with gin and enjoy my experiments. No two gins are quite the same, but they always have the core Hendrick’s house style at the base, so there’s always something reassuringly familiar and that little bit different. People have come to trust us to take them on a journey and deliver a surprising sensation in their glass. They know it will be consistently good quality.
We really must thank the bartenders that supported us from the very beginning for our success around the world. I like to show my appreciation by creating curious oddities for them to play with in drinks. It really has been the bar world and cocktail culture that has helped Hendrick’s soar and allowed this ginnassaince to take place.
GM: Tell us one thing you are proud of in your career, and one thing that you may do differently if you had the chance again.
LG: Creating the original Hendrick’s recipe will always be a career highlight. It’s the foundation for all our innovations that followed and provides our really distinctive house style that has stood the test of time.
It’s remarkable – we’ve had to expand production to keep up with demand, but instead of creating a more efficient process, we just replicated the Carterhead and Bennett stills down to the last dent. Now we have six stills installed at the Hendrick’s Gin Palace, following the one Carterhead and two Bennett stills set-up.
There’s nothing I’d do differently, really; I’m quite happy with how things have turned out. If I wasn’t in drinks and was to pick a different career, I’d probably choose to be a vet. I love animals. I have a dog and two tortoises, they’re incredible creatures. I would love a pet rat too, but my husband isn’t too keen on that idea.
GM: What is the best piece of career/life advice you have been given?
LG: The best piece of life advice was from my mum. When I was not doing my homework one day, she just said, “Get on with it, get it done.” By doing my homework and studying, I passed my exams. It always stuck with me – the idea of getting on with it. I guess I’m a doer – I get on with things, I get the job done, and that attitude or work ethic has served me well in my career. When you get stuff done, people tend to come to you with interesting projects because they know you’ll complete them.
GM: What do you find most exciting about the modern gin industry? What part of the industry should we be watching for interesting developments in the near future?
LG: I think it’s amazing the number of gins that are around today, and from so many different countries. Before we created Hendrick’s, everything was a bit monotonous. There weren’t that many gins around and those that were used really similar production techniques and had a very British style. Now gin is made literally everywhere; it is a truly global product, which I think is great. So many people are doing things differently and exploring local botanicals.
GM: Are there any other gin producers that you really admire?
LG: There are so many amazing people turning out good-quality, consistent gins today. For me, anyone who produces with care and consistency deserves admiration. I won’t name names, as I know quite a few people in the gin industry and wouldn’t want to upset anyone by leaving them out, but they know who they are.
GM: If you were a gin style or gin cocktail, what would it be and why?
LG: I’d be something simple and a little bit unusual. Not that I’m simple, but I am a little odd. I like to see clarity in a gin. I prefer being able to taste the botanical flavours and elements in a gin and see it shine through in a drink, rather than muddy the waters with too many different ingredients.
There is a drink the guys make for me which mixes Hendrick’s with elderflower and soda water. I really love it. It’s simple, elegant, balanced and floral and really refreshing on a warm day or just at the end of a day. I used to ask for it so much they named the drink after me, so it’s been christened the Lesley Gracie.