If I were to write another book, it might well be a history of gin. It is the most fascinating spirit, especially at 70-percent alcohol by volume, and at 10 o’clock in the morning. The location was DEQ bar at the new Ritz-Carlton hotel, Toronto; my excuse was an opportunity to spend time with Xavier Padovani, global ambassador for Hendrick’s gin, on one of his very rare visits to our city.
What do you have to do to become a Global Ambassador? Padovani is a Corsican who ended up in Lyon with a year to kill before his national service and started working for Paul Bocuse. He moved to London and worked at Quaglino’s, first downstairs, then upstairs at the bar, wearing a white jacket and mixing lunchtime cocktails for the gentry. He opened a number of clubs in London, frequently nipping over to Paris to create “exclusive drink experiences” at Philippe Starck’s renowned Bon II and Kong and, more recently Mama Shelter. At 36, he’s currently a partner at ECC Chinatown, a bar in London’s West End that I will be visiting next month and which I hope will serve as an informal HQ for the group of keen Canadians coming to see the Olympics in 2012, courtesy of Gold Medal Plates.
Meanwhile, last week, Padovani was in Toronto, a ball of energy and a mine of information about Hendrick’s. As a brand, it’s a newcomer – just 10 years old, the creation of the Scottish whisky distillers William Grant & Sons who also preside over Glenfiddich and the Balvenie. They have been making gin (in their distillery in Girvan, Ayrshire, Scotland, right beside the Turnberry hotel) since the 1970s, when they distilled and bottled a private order for Lord Lichfield, the Queen’s cousin, but it was strictly an occasional sideshow until they devised Hendrick’s.
Like people or dreams, every gin is different. Every distiller creates his or her own recipe of botanicals (fruits, seeds, flowers, barks, spices, whatever) that will give the spirit its immediate flavour. Juniper is always in there somewhere, but some are heavy with it while others are tangy with citrus, exotic with floral notes or, in the case of Hendrick’s, proudly and elegantly aflaunt with the scent of rose petals and cucumber. This isn’t like a wine with a bouquet that makes one think of cedar or black currants. The reason Hendrick’s smells of these things is that actual rose petal essence and cucumber essence are added to the spirit after it has been distilled. Nothing wrong with that. But it does mean that this gin can’t describe itself as in the London Dry style, because one can only add more alcohol, or sugar or water to the distilled spirit for it to be technically London Dry gin. Hendrick’s, with its fragrant addenda, is officially a “distilled gin.”
But that isn’t the whole story behind its complicated genesis. Two different stills are used to create it. One is a Bennett still, built in 1860, in which the mixture of botanicals is steeped for 24 to 36 hours in alcohol and then boiled until the oily vapour rises, is captured and condensed. The other is a Carter-Head still, a more complex contraption with a thick neck containing innumerable fine copper plates and a basket in which the dried plants are carefully piled. The whisps of ethereal ethyl pass through the botanicals, picking up the ghosts of their aromatics.
Padovani demonstrated the difference for me by inviting me to taste the spirit from each still, diluted down from 96% to around 70%. The Bennett still spirit is massively fragrant but when Padovani adds water it turns cloudy white, like arak, as the molecules of essential oils from the botanicals come out of suspension. The same trick played on the Carter-Head spirit fails to cloud its clarity: there are simply far fewer oils in this one – and indeed the aroma is more subtle and the taste more fleeting.
Master Distiller Lesley Gracie blends the products of the two stills in a secret ratio to create Hendrick’s before adding the rose and cucumber essences. And she does an excellent job. Hendrick’s markets itself cleverly as a gin that not everyone will appreciate and enjoy. The reverse is true. It’s very easy to love, with the pungency of its juniper hidden behind a fresh and pretty mask of cucumber and rose and orange peel. Wherever it is deployed in taste tests, it wins converts from the monotonous world of vodka and even from the loyal congregations of other brands of gin.
Padovani’s secret weapon as a proselytizer is a cocktail called the Renaissance, created by the barman at ECC Chinatown, Nico de Soto. To make it you must shake together 2 cl of Hendrick’s gin, 2 cl of freshly squeezed lemon juice, 2 cl of rhubarb syrup and 4 cl of Aperol (a particularly delectable red vermouth from Italy that has something of the herbal, bittersweet intensity of Cynar). Add a pinch of salt then shake it, strain it into a large wine glass half filled with ice and top up the whole thing with Champagne. A rhubarb stick is the unnecessary garnish.
Padovani had the bartender at DEQ make one up for me. It was beautiful – a sort of coral red – and very delicious. The salt mitigated the acidity of the lemon, rhubarb and wine and while the first five seconds of each sip were spent in rapt appreciation of the refreshing components with their hint of Hendrick’s, the whole game suddenly changed as the vermouth kicked in at the back of the palate. It was like listening to choirboys singing and then all at once the tenors and basses and the rest of the choir come in with contrapuntal harmonies. Something of a revelation.
I do not believe a man needs to restrict himself to a single brand of gin. If, however, that were the case, I suppose I would belong to the Plymouth brethren. Tasting the Renaissance, I confess I felt the tug of this new Scottish doctrine, especially with Padovani whispering its virtues as I drank… One day, sooner or later, the moment will come when I order a gin and tonic and the waiter will innocently inquire whether I’d prefer Plymouth or Hendrick’s gin. What will my answer be? Tongue-tied I turn and stare with bewildered anxiety into the camera… Hold that look, Jimmy… Hold it… Hold it please… And… cut.