Making sense of the nonsensical


David Piper lives and breathes Hendrick’s Gin. Or at least you’d be inclined to believe that, so intertwined are their personalities. With the short hour we had with the infamously flamboyant Brand Ambassador, we were proffered a tiny glimpse of their zany world…

When Hendrick’s Gin first launched in 1999, there were few, if any brands that were as unique as it was. Despite being a product of William Grant & Sons, one of the largest family-owned spirit companies in the business, the brand dispensed with the usual I’m-better-than-the-rest posturing, and instead put pedal to the metal in driving the schtick of peculiarity to the point of eccentricity.

A Brand Ambassador represents his product and its values, but few have become so synonymous with their brand as David Piper has. While most are lovely people who wish to share a genuine love of the brands that they represent, it typically stops there; sometimes I’m almost convinced that David defines the brand and not the other way round. But you’d be forgiven for thinking so, such was the near-symbiotic nature of their relationship; the pair are a match made in heaven.

David is as marmite as they come, and I’m fairly certain he takes that as a compliment. He’s been called a number of things, ranging from curious, oddball, and “out there”; but rarely described as boring. As someone who constantly needs to think up with drivel that doesn’t sound too much like a rehash of marketing buzzwords and cliches (although I suspect I’ve failed on one occasion too many), you have no idea how much of a godsend that is to be able to speak to such a character – and I didn’t even care if there was a story to begin with.

Nonetheless, I prepared for the meetup with half a story in mind, and braced myself to rip it up and roll with it should he go off-piste. And yet a part of me was worried that he wouldn’t; that despite his reputation and silliness and idiosyncrasies, he’d tow the company line regardless. But either way I wanted to get a glimpse, if just a small one, of what Hendrick’s really was.

William Grant & Sons, owners of Hendrick’s Gin, are from Scotland. The distillery can be found in South Ayrshire, Scotland. Perhaps then it is with tongue-in-cheek that the Scots are peddling a stereotypically English tipple tinged with an overwhelming display of Britishness. It is a breath of fresh air in a world where people or rather, brands of spirits, can take itself a little too seriously. Its zany image is an unmistakable, unabashed ode to Terry Gilliam, evoking the same zaniness and irreverence, but without the pugnacious Python-esque disrespect; typical Britishness played up to its zenith, milked for all it’s worth. “These go to eleven,” as Nigel Tufnel would say.

Hendrick’s makes a quite a big deal about how their gin is made. It’s produced by a combination of distillates from a Carter-Head still and a Bennett pot still, two obscure machinations from a bygone era that had been rescued at an auction in 1960, and lovingly restored to working order. Hendrick’s uses 11 botanicals (juniper, coriander, angelica root, orris root, orange peel, lemon, cubeb berry, caraway, elderflower, yarrow and chamomile) in the maceration process, followed by adding the essences of Bulgarian Rose and that most english of english devilishness, cucumber.

The curiously quaint Carter-Head and Bennett stills

The curiously quaint Carter-Head and Bennett stills (Credit: Hendrick’s)

As the precursor to many modern artisanal gins that boast unusual and sometimes exotic (quixotic in some cases) botanicals, Hendrick’s Gin is no longer that unusual. Placed alongside a growing collection of rather radical distillers, it feels rather tame in comparison – exotic botanicals these days can range from seaweed (Seaweed Gin) to Savannah baobab (Elephant Gin) to black truffle (Alimentum). Perhaps the only rather unusual quality is that Hendrick’s isn’t particularly overpowering in Juniper notes despite its alleged Britishness. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Clean and refreshing, it helps in turning people on to gin as there are no particularly sharp flavours that will make you wince.

In that sense, Hendrick’s knows it doesn’t have to be different for the sake of being different. It maintains its relevance as an excellent gateway to more artisanal gins thanks to its accessible flavour. But it would not have been quite as successful without its cleverly crafted marketing, which shrewdly capitalises on the Hollywood-approved stereotype of British peculiarity. Just in case I hadn’t mentioned it enough times before.

It’s hard to argue against the importance of a good backstory, and Hendrick’s less-than-conventional efforts in crafting its brand image have been studied with great interest. It has mostly distanced itself from conventional advertising efforts – at least that I know of – and focuses primarily on branding efforts and engaging fans and potential fans alike with some rather left-of-field experiences.

Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, which was later adapted in Tim Burton’s 2003 movie Big Fish, told the tale of William Bloom and his estranged father Edward, whom he saw as a compulsive liar who loved to tell tall tales. Their relationship had broken down as William could not trust his father to give him the straight dope. When a dying Edward seeks reconciliation with his son, William is forced to address their relationship, and eventually sees Edward as who he was – a remarkable storyteller, guilty only of embellishing the truth for the sake of a more compelling narrative.

Arguably one of David's less flamboyant photos

Arguably one of David’s less flamboyant photos (Credit: Hendrick’s)

While David is no Edward Bloom, he certainly has made Hendrick’s Gin more compelling, and more than just a gin. The unmistakable face of all their campaigns, he has no qualms looking silly. And yet, never once do you truly mock or ridicule him; that is, if you get the joke, and that’s the genius of it.

Even at his jet-lagged worst, thanks to a heady cocktail of late nights and merry drinking at Singapore Cocktail Week, David’s peculiar charm – or facade, depending on how you looked at it – didn’t seem far removed from the man himself. When he arrived at our meeting spot at the restaurant appropriately named Lime, he had just recorded a podcast for Steve Schneider, reading a story from The Long Pour, a book of anonymous bartender stories.

As far as he and people at Hendrick’s Gin are concerned, the story is everything. “It’s important not to forget where everything came from, and how it led up to where we are now,” beamed David, as we chug back a gin and tonic, with Hendrick’s, of course. Routine and experience need not be mundane; to him, the concept of taste is all in the mind.

“In the modern world and in general, I don’t think we’re aware of what happens when we’re tasting something,” he laments. David feels that a perfect tasting experience calls for excruciating detail, right down to putting together the right environment for the occasion; entering a bar or restaurant that you feel comfortable about, feeling at ease with the music and lights even before you’ve been seated, and served a glass of water from a waiter with a comely smile. (Or is that a comely waiter with a smile? We digress).

“Taste is very susceptible to all of those things, but when it’s (done) right, you get an amazing dish which only happens in a few restaurants. It’s the kind of food that does something emotional to you, involuntarily… For me, that’s the ultimate in taste and tasting. It’s achievable if we all were more conscious and mindful,” he concluded.

Hendrick’s appeals to those who are different. The creative ones, the people who appreciate art and craft, and the inevitable by-product of being so: being different.

Nothing new here. And with all due respect to Hendrick’s Gin, it’s the imagery and the off-beat humour that you tend to remember more of. Success of course, is to not have one completely overshadow the other. As I learnt, Hendrick’s is not really that intent in telling you how good the gin is – that, to them is a given; it is a requisite that the quality of the gin has to be deemed sacrosanct. Well, it’s not actually flawless but it is a decent and pleasant gin, at least in my opinion. More importantly, it is something that they haven’t forgotten. “Without that (quality), we wouldn’t be here,” said David. “People wouldn’t like it, and it would be pointless to start doing fun events and all the strange nonsense that we get up to. If it wasn’t any good, the fun would end.”

Every conversation ultimately leads back to the personality of the spirit, with an unwavering focus on how good and unusual it is. Despite the ‘hipster’ appeal, the reality is there isn’t really much difference in how Hendrick’s Gin markets itself, as opposed to say, how a premium name like Macallan does it.

Macallan wants you to feel that you are drinking the most exquisite whisky in the world, and their events and interactions are held in the most exquisite settings. You are told it’s impeccable and peerless, and certainly they want you to feel exclusive; and they do a fine job with that. Hendrick’s appeals to those who are different. The creative ones, the people who appreciate art and craft, and the inevitable by-product of being so: being different. If you see the value of not taking some things too seriously, while knowing full well about there are more important things worth your energy, then Hendrick’s wants you to know that they feel the same way. Wink.

Hendrick's events are never, ever mundane

Hendrick’s events are never, ever mundane (Credit: Hendrick’s)

When Hendrick’s hired David Piper, they found someone who had a penchant for the unusual – a kindred spirit – although they weren’t exactly sure in what capacity, conventional or otherwise. David had christened himself Commander of Special Operations somewhat as a joke, but the irony was that seemingly absurd title would prove to be more spot on than one would think.

More importantly, David’s personality and background in theatre lent itself well to the brand’s identity and direction. Even if they had no idea what he should be doing, they were certain that he would be right man for it. David would seek out collaborators; finding artists, designers, philosophers, poets, inventors, or whoever they could work with to come up with inventive, and usually, nonsensical ideas that resonated with the ethos in Hendrick’s wacky universe.

The journey of a thousand G&T miles starts in these chairs

The journey of a thousand G&T miles starts in these chairs

One of these ideas would evolve into what we have come to know as Voyages in the Mist, which was showcased during Singapore Cocktail Week earlier this year. In a room belonging to a time long forgotten, you are seated, blindfolded, as a contraption that vaguely resembles a vintage hair dryer from a time not quite forgotten, released scents of gin and tonic while David’s soothing baritone prods you along on journey to the scenter (sorry) of the earth via Ailsa Craig, an island a stone’s throw away from Girvan, where Hendrick’s is located. “Actually it came from an event we did in London many years ago, where these guys created for us a whole room (Alcoholic Architecture with Sam Boompas and Harry Parr) that was gin and tonic that you could walk into – so it was a mist of Hendrick’s and tonic,” said David, explaining its origins.

Voyages was considerably simpler, as the original concept required you to put on protective suits that shielded both hair and clothes from the inevitable stickiness, and you had to line the room properly so that you won’t muck up the decor as well as the cleaner’s day. Also, visitors could only stay for twenty minutes tops before they’d be breathing in too much alcohol. A smaller, portable rig that was easier to set up was devised, so that they could realistically bring it to more people. They would also less likely be at the wrong end of a lawsuit, which is nice.

“We realised the aroma and the imagination were so important. Normally we’d give people a Hendrick’s tonic or a Hendrick’s cocktail. It was great, but we wanted to bring in more of the senses and have fun with it,” he continued. “What we do really well is I think – or what we enjoy doing – is creating experiences for people.” In all honesty, any talk about the importance of “the experience” can get a little grating, regardless who’s telling that to you – how many times can you listen to hipsters in turtlenecks telling you how their new product will change your life? But of course there is a difference in somebody bragging or humble-bragging their merits, and someone who is aware that you are astute enough to ascertain it for yourself. And it’s the understanding of the latter that gives Hendrick’s its charm.

A just another Victorian afternoon in the city

A just another Victorian afternoon in the city

At Voyages I was thirsty and needed a drink, and there I was, drinking a gin and tonic on a hot, humid day in the 21st century while basking in a Victorian-esque setting in centre of a historic district in Chinatown, with gin and tonic mist tap dancing on my face with a hair dryer from a bygone era over my head. A rather glassy-eyed English gentleman waxed lyrical about smelling the roses – and cucumber – while a sassy lass in Victorian garb stood arms akimbo hanging on keenly to his every word; it was all rather amusing and somewhat kitschy, which either you accept as a harmless, self-deprecating bit of fun, or reject for being a total heap of bovine egesta. A fine line no doubt, but the bottom line is it’s not something you’ll readily forget.

You can afford to be oddball if you are charming; but ultimately businesses are in the business of money, though they can ill-afford to step on too many toes in the pursuit of it. It’s a fine line. Which is why David feels it is important to have the right people creating the Hendrick’s experience: people who are at the frontline, going into the bars working with the bartenders; people who understand how things work at the ground level, and not people stuck in the office churning powerpoint slides and crunching numbers.

“All of us ambassadors get involved quite a lot in all the fun stuff we do as a brand, so we get involved in the marketing. The plans for our parties are crazy activations and because we’re so much closer to where it should be, it makes everything work better.” As there only 11 Hendrick’s ambassadors around the world, David says they’re always looking out for more of the right people.

From the curious nature of the brand to the fairly unorthodox nature of its distillation, the people at Hendrick’s Gin are prodigiously good at painting an unusual story for pretty much everything they do, and their campaigns are no exception. Some seem to make more commercial sense than others, others make no sense at all. There is a charged air of impish enthusiasm in their endeavours, even if it seems unlikely that they’d ever capitalise directly from them; I would put voyages in that category – it was just a bit of fun. Others, like The Perilous Botanical Quest, felt like it carried a greater sense of purpose; it was a journey to seek out exotic and exciting botanicals, carrying upon its shoulders the anticipation of a new gin that would be unlike anything that you have ever tasted before.

As the story goes, Charles Brewer-Carias, widely regarded as the ‘last great explorer’ of our age, had tempted Lesley Gracie, Master Distiller for Hendrick’s Gin, with the promise of curiously exotic botanicals in his ‘back garden’, which according to David, is what Charles calls the entire Venezuelan jungle.

Fishes out of water, but loving every minute of it

Fishes out of water, but loving every minute of it (Credits: Hendrick’s)

But it almost never happened. Not many back gardens are littered with all manner of jaguars, spiders and snakes who are a bit miffed about the heat. Momentarily at least, it was almost was a step too far for the management at William Grant & Sons, as David recalls: “Lesley and I straightaway were, ‘oh yeah!’ But it took a bit of time to convince the company that it was a good idea. I’m dispensable,” he laughed. “I’d like to think I’m unique, but they could always find another person to do a similar job. Lesley’s pretty indispensable and unique, and she’s precious. Sending her to middle of the jungle, with all the dangerous animals and people – all the stuff there – took a bit of persuading.”

Indeed, they had every reason to be nervous. According to David, the outing was a total experiment, and totally open-ended. They were simply going to see what they could find, and there was the odd chance it would turn out to be a fruitless venture. While I had my doubts that it was as risky as he made it out be, but regardless it would have been understandable to exercise some prudence in letting your master distiller poke around with a stick in an untamed jungle, even if she was in the company of the world’s greatest explorer.

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Sniffing out potential candidates. Perilous stuff (Credit: Hendrick’s)

They were fortunate however, to have the company of the locals. The group stayed with a tribe of Indians from Kanaracuni village, and they shared with them the plants they used for medicine and for magic. “For us, the story of the botanicals we use is very important. We’re really into history at Hendrick’s and it’s important not to forget where everything came from, and how it led up to where we are now,” said David, in perhaps the most telling anecdote about the ethos of Hendrick’s undeniable, yet unspoken obsession with its roots and origins. He emphasised this with the example of Yarrow, which if you remember, is one of the botanicals used in Hendrick’s Gin: “Yarrow in particular I find really interesting because in China, stalks of the yarrow are used for I-Ching, but in Scotland on the islands by the distillery (Ed: in the Hebrides) they put yarrow leaves over your eyes to give you second sight; to make you psychic.” Painstaking preparation or a coincidence on hindsight, these little stories make for good backstories for the brand to build on – which is to their credit. “All this stuff is there, and whether you believe that a plant can make you psychic or not; somebody believed it. The more stories, the more your imagination is engaged, and the more interesting the world is.”

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Lesley preparing Scorpion’s Tail for distillation (Credits: Hendrick’s)

But the truth is, whatever botanicals they could find had to work in the context of what they were doing, good story or not. They had found a good share of interesting possibilities, but they didn’t quite work. It turned out good fortune was to be theirs, or truly perhaps, the native Gods nodded their approval, and the team stumbled upon something that they could use: Scorpion’s Tail, an unusual plant so named for its distinctive stem, which curls upward like its namesake’s lethal appendage. Lesley, who had with her a small 10-litre still, distilled as much as she could bring back – 8.4 litres, and The Perilous Botanical Quest was no longer in peril. The team could now pat themselves on the back for a job well done, and with a very interesting PR campaign in the bag as well.

“We were very lucky. It was amazing; there were some great ones, so on the back of that, Lesley and I are really hoping we would get to do some more, because it worked as an experiment. The results were very interesting, let’s put it this way.” But his enthusiasm alone wasn’t quite enough to make ‘perilous’ expeditions a regular affair, although, David hinted about the possibility of a visit to the arctic circle sometime in the near future.

The Scorpion’s Tail distillate that the team brought back to the UK was to become the key ingredient in what Hendrick’s would eventually call Kanaracuni Gin, named after the tribe that they stayed with. A limited offering of 560 bottles that would never go on sale, only God knows if they will ever make it again. Instead it would be offered to a select audience, media, and bartenders. It’s as though they want to share with you the stories before you get to drink it.

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After the peril, come the cocktails (Credits: Hendrick’s)

But not all experiments have to be laced with perils to make good drama. History alone often is enough as a good subtext, and there is no lack of it in the story of gin. And the hearty origin of Quinetum, is rooted in perhaps gin’s greatest moment in its storied past. It is an ode to the humble quinine, once an important ingredient in fighting malaria, and crucial in the British empire’s rise as a colonial superpower.

Designed as a complement for Hendrick’s cocktails, the recipe features a range of botanical extracts and distillates, including lavender, orange, orange blossom, wormwood, holy thistle and of course, quinine. Like the Kanaracuni Gin, this cordial is limited in quantity and isn’t available to the public. Only 4,000 bottles were produced, with no clue as to whether there will be a second batch, even though its ingredients are far less exotic.

“It’s a very limited edition because it’s very hard for us to make, and so it’s actually very expensive,” said David. “At the moment we’re just releasing tiny, tiny amounts to a few bartenders to start working with it and see what they can do.”

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Quinetum’s roots lies in bark (Credits: Hendrick’s)

The cordial is apparently quite complex, and because it’s a fairly new thing, some bartenders have found it difficult to mix. It treads the fine line between sweetness and bitterness, and has a rather thick mouthfeel. Which is rather strange given that tonic water has been mainstay of cocktails since time immemorial.

But before gin and tonic, quinine was one of the most important medical discoveries in its day. The bitter-tasting extract from the bark of the cinchona tree demonstrated tremendous efficacy as an anti-malaria drug. However, the significance of quinine today in malaria treatment has diminished. It is no longer the automatic first-choice drug (it is used in treatments for pregnant malaria sufferers), but its legacy endures in the form of tonic water and a classic gin and tonic; though they bear little clues about its significance in shaping the world as we know it today, the story is a good one and bears retelling.

Winston Churchill has been often quoted saying, “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.” Then again, Churchill himself was partial to a tipple and had many favourites, including his very own Churchill martini: Plymouth gin poured over ice in a martini glass. Churchill abhorred Vermouth, and once said that he preferred to have it (or rather he means to observe it) from across the room.

But the British did build their empire on limes and quinine; nobody knew exactly how to successfully prevent scurvy, but the measures they took were enough to put them ahead of their colonial rivals. “The only reason that tonic water and gin exist, is because the British soldiers in the 19th century in India mainly, were given a shot of quinine every day to fight malaria,” said David. Back in the day, quinine was the drug of choice to combat the scourge of malaria, but it was incredibly bitter. The British soldiers did what they could to cut down its bitterness, be it adding lemon or lime – which also helped to prevent scurvy – or sugar, and some water to make it more palatable. Before long, an enterprising chap hit upon a brainwave and realised that it would be even nicer to drink it with some gin, the puzzle was complete.

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Old Parisian cartoon urging soldiers to take their quinine (Credits: Wellcome Images)

The idea of fusing medicine and alcohol isn’t new, and many cocktails feature some sort of ingredient that was once used for its medicinal properties. Laphroaig scotch whisky was famously imported into the USA during Prohibition as medicine, or a spirit with medicinal properties. How that was managed, only the customs officer who approved it can tell you. Angostura Bitters, a key ingredient in many classic cocktails like Old Fashioned and The Manhattan, was originally used to alleviate stomach complaints. It was also used in Pink Gin; widely regarded as a Royal Navy invention that is basically a dose of gin served with a dash of bitters. In recent years many old cocktails that have gone out of fashion experienced some form of revival, and some thanks in part to the period drama TV series, Mad Men. The Gimlet is one of them. The original recipe, another naval concoction it seems, called for Rose’s lime juice cordial and Plymouth’s gin and was created out of ‘necessity’ (i.e. another excuse to drink) to combat the scourge of naval men that was scurvy.

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An old 70’s advert, complete with recipe for the gimlet (Credits: Classic Film on Flickr)

As protocol, the British navy would carry lots of lime on board their ships, which was where they got their nickname ‘limeys’. They then learnt that lime juice could be preserved with 15% rum, which was known as grog. This method of preservation was considerably easier to store than endless sacks of fruit, and was de facto until Lauchlan Rose patented and more importantly, popularised the lime cordial in the 19th century, making it possible to preserve lime juice without alcohol. The idea that sailors back then would happily give up their grog is admittedly, unthinkable, and you’d be right. Grog remained the drink of choice for the deckhand, but officers now have options, thanks to the new cordial. The Gimlet was widely thought to have its origins in the navy, although there’s no definitive account of its creation. At this point David shared an indulgent Gimlet tip: “A very nice recipe with Hendrick’s is to do an absinthe rinse in the glass first, and then use gin and fresh lime juice.”

But back to Quinetum. David explains that Quinetum contains quinine and wormwood extracts, as well as a few other flavours. Interestingly, wormwood is a source of artemisinin, currently the anti-malaria drug of choice, due to its efficacy against the deadly plasmodium falciparum malaria. “If you were going to use it for medicinal purposes, which it’s not for, it might be doubly effective,” he joked.

What it was designed for, was to balance with the flavour profile of Hendrick’s perfectly – a perfect complement for Hendrick’s. As it is a cordial, you can add soda or sparkling water to turn it into a tonic, with the flexibility to change the intensity at your behest; you could add it to tonic water to make even it more intense, or you could use it as a cocktail ingredient: “that’s where it gets really interesting, because it’s got a flavour like nothing else,” says David. “There are some other quinine products now like tonic syrups out on the market, but Quinetum is very different and I find it a much, much, much more elegant expression of the idea of quinine.”

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(Clockwise, from top left) Jeremie Tan, Zachary Connor De Git, Steve Leong, Goodbye Momo, Cinhona Collins (Credits: Hendrick’s)

We’ve not had the pleasure of trying Kanaracuni Gin, but we’ve had the good fortune of sampling Quinetum on its own and in a pair of cocktails. Steve Leong of Tess Bar & Kitchen and Jeremie Tan of Jekyll & Hyde concocted some intriguing cocktails, which they called Goodbye Momo and Cinchona Collins respectively, and you’d be forgiven if you thought of them as cocktails with a hint of tonic water in the mix. But it’s certainly a lot more refined. The cordial, on its own, has a rather distinct personality that harks to its citrus-laced past; undoubtedly a throwback, a pining for simpler times, and yet, cloyingly indulgent.

But perhaps it’s in knowing that it was something different, which made it intriguingly different, or so I was inclined to think. Perhaps it’s the simple power of suggestion. It didn’t really matter. Perhaps this is they’ve been driving at all this while – the power of our imagination may well be the most important ingredient of all.

***

The hour drew to a close, the conversation became drawn out, and our time together came to an end.“It’s not for everyone,” was Hendrick’s provocative tagline in some of its promotional collateral, and it was screaming out to me as the question to end off. Naturally I obliged. Of course, I was not expecting a straight answer. Who would?

David pondered the question.

“It’s for everyone with an enlightened sense of taste, and I think with taste, comes imagination.”

“Taste is a sense that’s not so rational and logical, linked much more to the subconscious and instinct, and therefore to imaginations, dreams and a little sense of freedom.”

“It’s for anyone who can, at the very back of their brain, take a sip of Hendrick’s and for a split second, have their imagination plunge into the other world: a place without time, a world of nonsense, surrealism, and invention.”

I had the luxury of an audio recording, so I merely gave a nonchalant nod. But David had already picked up on my blank stare.

“Does that make any sense? No? Good,” he smiled.

 

**The events depicted are real but may not have happened in the sequence as described. Much like Big Fish, it just made for a better story – anyway I’m pretty sure you saw this coming. 

***If you’re interested to read about Hendrick’s unusual branding exercises, do check out excellent articles by The Spirits Business and Fast Company.