She is one of a handful of women to be a Master Distiller and has just been inducted into the Gin Magazine Hall of Fame in recognition of 22 years’ service to the world of gin.
Born and brought up in Hull, after studying chemistry at university, Gracie worked in the pharmaceutical industry in her home city, using intriguing flavour combinations to mask the bitterness of new drugs.
“I always loved chemistry,” says the grandmother-of-four who moved north of the border when she married a Scotsman.
With her knowledge of flavours she got a job at William Grant and Sons’ laboratory before being involved in liquid development projects across varying spirits categories.
She was then asked to create the recipe for Hendrick’s Gin – despite not being a great lover of gin at the time. “Gin’s popularity had come and gone and there were really only two or three gins at the back of the bar,” recalls Gracie ,who is in her mid-60s.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s now 22 years since Charlie Gordon first asked me to produce a new gin for him. I thought he must be a bit mad as gin really wasn’t all that popular at that time. I started playing around with the recipe that would become Hendrick’s Gin. It was an amazing brief, there was total freedom to do absolutely everything differently.
“We had these two unusual stills and an idea to combine quintessentially British ingredients of rose and cucumber. It was fun piecing the puzzle together and playing with all sorts of flavours and techniques. At the time, it was impossible to even conceive that gin could be as popular and as loved as it is today, no one was really taking it seriously at that time, so it’s absolutely unbelievable the difference there is these days with the abundance of new gins, distilleries, and fans of gin we see today.”
In what was considered a radical move at the time, Gracie was not constrained by convention and eschewed the London Dry method of production in order to allow the fresh green notes of cucumber to shine through in the spirit. She was pleased with what she created but then she was shown the bottle.
“I thought it would be some clear, elegant bottle and then they showed me this brown dumpy bottle, I was so disappointed. But it just shows that I don’t know anything about marketing as the Hendrick’s bottle is still really distinctive when you go into a bar.”
Her experimental spirit has not rested since. Over the past two decades, she has been responsible for countless weird and wonderful Hendrick’s releases that have garnered acclaim and recognition amongst both the best bartenders in the world and legions of spirits fans.
Not content with creating the world’s best-selling super premium gin, Gracie released Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice as a limited edition. It fast became one of the best-selling before it made way for Gracie’s latest experiment, Hendrick’s Lunar Gin, a concoction conceived under the celestial light of the moon.
“I was sitting in my garden as it started to get dark and I realised how the smell of the flowers changed. It was a real moment of enlightenment.”
She has a laboratory ‘The Cabinet of Curiosities’ at Hendrick’s Gin Palace where she is constantly experimenting and creating new gin flavours using botanicals grown in two hot houses and kitchen garden – all created for Gracie.
The freedom to experiment and innovate is what has maintained Gracie’s interest in gin for over two decades.
A particular career highlight occurred when she ventured into the Venezuelan rainforest with explorer Charles Brewer-Carias in search of unusual botanicals.
“We had met this guy at a gin event and he said the best botanicals were in his back garden – his back garden was the Venezuelan jungle,” says Gracie.
“We did a lot of planning and my husband (or current husband as she likes to call him ‘to keep him on his toes’) didn’t say much about it, and then I told him there was a medic coming with us and he said in that case I could go – I was going anyway.”
As well as a medic and guide they took along a botanist to make sure that the plants and leaves they were tasting weren’t poisonous.
“It was the most amazing experience, for 10 days we lived in a hut in the middle of the jungle, bathing in the rivers and tasting all manner of vegetations.”
She took a small still with her so that she could create distillates while in the jungle.
The end result was Hendrick’s Kanaracuni from an unusual plant known as scorpion tail that grows in the jungle.
While it was an experimental batch to be shared with friends in the industry, the experience shaped Gracie, inspired her to build a tropical hothouse at the Hendrick’s Gin Palace, and provided the inspiration for a wider release: Hendrick’s Amazonia.
“I know I am extremely lucky to do what I do,” she says. “I love it when people come and look round, when they are allowed. I have missed meeting the visitors that come from all over the world – some of them bring botanicals with them for me to experiment with. We never stop learning.
“Hopefully we will be able to welcome them back soon.”
Praised as ‘beacon of excellence’
Hendrick’s Gin leads the super premium gin category and enjoys a 40 per cent market share, producing more than 1.4m nine litre cases each year.
In 2018, the Hendrick’s Master Distiller, Lesley Gracie, was awarded ‘Gin Distiller of the Year’ by the World Gin Awards in recognition of her ground- breaking work
In February this year she was inducted into the Gin Magazine Gin Hall of Fame, in recognition of her 22 years of service to the world of gin, in a virtual ceremony.
Bethany Whymark, editor of Gin Magazine, said: “Lesley serves as a beacon of excellence in the distilling industry, both in the UK and abroad.”