Take the winding roads across the sweeping Scottish landscapes of Girvan, along the east coast of the Firth of Clyd, until you have reached a height which allows the eye to trace each tip of the surrounding fells. Here, amongst the forests and under the dome of a UNESCO biosphere, you might chance upon a most unusual 13ft. ink-black wall. Behind it hides the inner workings of one of the best-selling gin brands in the world.
Approach the wrought iron gates and you might well hear the lines of Willy Wonka ringing through your mind, “I have decided to allow five children, and no more, to visit my factory this year. These lucky five will be allowed to see all the secrets and the magic of my factory.”
In fact, a host of comparisons to some of the most popular works of children’s literature come to mind when describing the newly unveiled Hendricks Gin Palace – despite it being no place at all for children.
After all, an alcoholic alchemy happens within laboratories not dissimilar to those within the walls of Hogwarts, and where the glistening black and green lacquered tiles might pave the pathway to the Emerald City of Oz.
Ring the bell at the wrought iron gates, and a small hatch will open to reveal a gatekeeper — but, we should warn you, access here will be granted by invitation only.
The mechanics behind the magic
Appropriately, for a place determined to subvert all expectations of what a mass-production distillery ought to look like, the inner sanctum of the Hendricks operation plays host to a highly-skilled small team of less than ten.
However, what they lack in number is amply made up for in production: every single drop of Hendricks, enjoyed anywhere in the world, has been distilled within these walls.
Every palace requires a master, and here that role falls entirely to the woman with the Midas touch — who developed Hendricks’ instantly recognisable, unchanged recipe nearly two decades ago — and whose exacting standards must be met before a single drop leaves the building.
"These stills are my babies..."
Upon entering the distillery, you are greeted by three looming stills which glow in the light of a green and red glass domed ceiling.
“They are my babies”, Lesley grins, as she strokes the rotund copper belly of her ‘favourite’ of the three — a still which has been in operation for over 150 years and which she adamantly proclaims she plans to take with her upon retirement (“there’s room enough in the garage”).
As her petite frame moves about the Gothic walls and her quiet voice commands the attention of the room — you get the sense that nobody here will stop her.
The insatiable thirst of gin-lovers
In the new distillery, Lesley’s three stills might still take centre stage, but they can no longer produce enough gin to quench the insatiable thirst of Hendricks lovers across the world.
After all, in June this year, it was reported that Hendricks had hit one million cases a year, after reporting 13% growth in 2017, and gin alone now accounts for a 68% value growth within the entire UK spirits sector.
A small black door therefore leads on from the centre stage into another stillhouse which keeps a further three stills, and you are reminded that this beautiful building might take its design cues from the ornate Victorian folly tradition — but it has been built primarily for industrious purpose.
As the gin market continues its meteoric rise, distillers have the opportunity to enjoy experimenting with new techniques and flavours.
At the Gin Palace, two hothouses have been installed in order to recreate Mediterranean and rainforest climates, which will grow botanicals and plants impossible to cultivate on Scottish soil. It is worth mentioning however, that the soil in this most unusual part of Scotland has been known to sprout palm trees.
Outside, a garden has been planted to grow a host of wildflowers, to allow Lesley’s passion for experimental chemistry to continue leading Hendricks into exciting, unchartered waters.
Her latest creation, Hendricks Orbium incorporates curious tastes of wormwood, quinine, and blue lotus blossom — and its name represents the spherical round taste that Lesley refers to when describing the Hendricks’ house style.
The alchemy of the inner sanctum
“I see these flavours as shapes”, Lesley explains, surrounded by laboratory walls stacked floor to ceiling with glass bottles holding every type of botanical curiosity. For Lesley, who perhaps experiences a form of Synesthesia, Hendricks is distinctly rounded in shape — the result of her unique blend.
The gin incorporates 11 botanicals into the distillation before adding concentrations of cucumber and rose essence to give the gin its distinctive character.
This is her sacred space, where she can tinker with as-yet-unknown recipes. It is also now a place where she can teach lucky VIPs and visiting bartenders about her craft — as the new distillery comes fitted with a classic-style lecture hall and the laboratory becomes a classroom.
Lesley is razor sharp, infinitely curious and clearly excited to share her universe with the uninitiated. Her hands illustrate the rounding, the sharpening, and the refining of her potions with all the oratory skill of a Shakespearean actor, and she commands her new lecture theatre with unwavering clarity.
Encouraging the room to explore the magical ingredients sitting within the glass cabinets, the occasional reminder comes: “under no circumstances drink the essences — you taste nothing but cucumber for weeks!”
…And suddenly we are back in the company of Willy Wonka, as he warns Violet Beauregarde to keep well away from The Giant Gum Machine.
“I want to be able to say that any bottle of Hendricks in the world is the same..."
Make no mistake though, Lesley desires none of the attention she and her creations attract.
Her goal is clear, “I want to be able to say that any bottle in the world is the same. After I’ve achieved that – these guys can strut their stuff with it” she says, with a nod towards a member of the Hendricks team whose work falls outside the black walls.
As the iron gates close behind you, all sight is lost of the rack of penny-farthings, the glass-domed roof and the effervescent glow of copper.
Fortunately, no matter where you are in the world, just a sip of a Hendricks G&T (garnished with a signature cut of cucumber), will transport you right back inside.
Hendricks Gin Palace
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