GIN MADE ODDLY” Interview with Hendrick’s Global Ambassador Duncan McRae

Duncan McRae - Hendrick's Gin Global Ambassador

It all began with a Negroni.

It’s a rather hot day in Geneva, Switzerland as we settle down to chat with Hendrick’s Global Ambassador, Duncan McRae at the Manotel Auteuil.  Delightfully charming and down-to-earth, yet profoundly knowledgeable and passionate about the gin and drinks industry in general, we immediately understand why Hendrick’s has appointed him Global Ambassador.

It all began with a Negroni” he explains.  A lady walked into a bar named Dragonfly in Edinburgh and ordered a Negroni,  Duncan admits he had absolutely no idea what it was and so needed her help to make it. Upon completion, he tasted it and thought “there must be something wrong here! Surely nobody could enjoy such a bitter drink!” It transpired later that the Lady was Geraldine Coates, a famous drinks writer, and it was through her (she’s quite the raconteur, he tells us) that he fell in love with Gin.

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From there he had a small events company that took him around the world making drinks before he sold up and started working for Diageo (the international drinks company). It was “a great place to learn” before he landed what he describes as the dream job working for the family distiller William Grant & Sons looking after Hendrick’s almost five years ago.

“I’m very lucky that get to spend time with some amazing people in many cities around the world. There are few industries where so many people put so much of their free time into furthering their own education – and strangely cocktail bartenders are one of these industries! Everywhere I find groups of bartenders giving up their days off to come and satisfy their own innate curiosity and listen to me talk about a strange gin we produce in odd little stills on the west coast of Scotland ! It’s humbling and rewarding and indicative that cocktail culture is being taken more seriously in more places around the world (great news for drinkers!) Beyond that – the travel is great fun and I enjoy being able to seek out the odd little things that make each city truly unique.”

It isn’t just press conferences and interviews of course!  Duncan has organised many ‘drinks experiences’ at high profile events including the Grand Prix and MTV Awards as well.

“I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to see some amazing parties from the other side of the bar. I once worked a three day wedding celebration in the Maldives across three different Islands, but honestly I think the most memorable mostly come from my time with Hendrick’s. We once organsied a bar in the middle of the Solent (an estuary off the south coast of England) on a Sandbank that appears once a year for around 40 minutes. Each year two sailing clubs race out and play a game of cricket on the strip of sand until the tide comes back in. We lost a few bottles to the sea but it was a truly surreal and most unusual experience!”

We once organsied a bar in the middle of the Solent (an estuary off the south coast of England) on a Sandbank that appears once a year for around 40 minutes.

Hendrick's Bathtub 2

Such is his passion that he is now also Warden of the Gin Guild, an organisation with the ambition promote and further excellence in the production of gin worldwide. It provides a platform for small distillers, advises on gin related issues and goes some way to ensuring the world of gin which is growing is doing all it can to help ensure drinkers of gin have a more enjoyable, accessible and rewarding experience.

“It’s a joint venture between the main gin distillers and as the William Grant’s family who are behind Hendrick’s have played a paternal role within the Scotch Whisky industry they were keen to do something similar in the world of gin to ensure the long term success of the category and protect it from being exploited in the short term. It’s a great honour for me to be representing the family there.”

Gin, we point out,  was, for many years, seen as an older generation’s drink – you’d imagine your gran and grandad sipping their gin and tonic on a hot summer’s day….. today we have seen a rebirth and it being perceived as ‘cool’ and ’trendy’.  What, if anything,  happened to make this perception change we wonder.  “Essentially” Duncan replies – “Gin had stopped innovating and resigned itself to one taste profile “classic” – juniper lead London dry style gins. Bombay changed all that in the 80s by emerging with a lighter floral side, and since Hendrick’s Gin launched in 1999 with its unusual infusions of rose and cucumber there have been more and more radical alternatives to classic gin taste profiles that have breathed new life into the category. Innovation is key to keeping things moving and although we’ve got a recipe for our gin we’re always experimenting at the distillery as what’s unusual one day could become less and less so. Our master distiller Leslie Gracie has a most curious mind and so she has lots of fun experiments on the go at any one time

Innovation is key to keeping things moving and although we’ve got a recipe for our gin we’re always experimenting at the distillery as what’s unusual one day could become less and less so.

Stills at Hendrick's Distillery
Stills at Hendrick’s Distillery

So what sets Hendricks apart from any gin in his opinion.  The reply is straight to the point:

Everything!” No other gin tastes like Hendrick’s because no other gin is made in the same way and both of these things inform the way in which we behave!We try not to take ourselves too seriously (we ‘re serious about good gin though) and we love to uncover the hidden oddness of the world at every available opportunity.”

We try not to take ourselves too seriously (we ‘re serious about good gin though) and we love to uncover the hidden oddness of the world at every available opportunity.

Of course there are some challenges from time to time, particularly when promoting in different markets.  “Every single market we visit has it’s own set of challenges” Duncan remarks, “but in a way they are the inspiration for new ideas and solutions too!”  Spain for example has a brilliant gin and tonic culture, but strangely bars struggle to get hold of great quality cucumbers which you can imagine makes life difficult for us. The great thing is though coming up with fun and interesting ways to overcome this.  We rolled out a bicycle cucumber delivery service to keep bars supplied with only the best which certainly turned a few heads!”

We rolled out a bicycle cucumber delivery service to keep bars supplied with only the best which certainly turned a few heads!

China, is still lagging in terms of  Gin as it doesn’t have the luxury profile of Scotch or Cognac but as the cocktail culture starts to slowly grow (which it is) they expect to see a steady increase over time. Much of the growth of western spirits has been linked to prestige and status through gifting over there and being an oddly packaged Gin from Scotland with an unusual interest in cucumber doesn’t quite resonate with that occasion (yet.) “However”, Duncan is keen to point out “The scene is growing and through the world of cocktails which is where we are happiest, we think we’ve a bright future there.”

As a proud Scotsman Duncan has a strong view about Scotland’s ability to produce some of the finest beverages in the world.  “Water”, he explains,  “is the key ingredient that makes Scotland an attractive place for distillers. Heating and cooling is the process of distilling but water is used for both so you need lots of it. Secondly, Hendricks is the brainchild of 5th generation family distillers William Grant & Sons, so generations of whisky expertise helps somewhat too. But on a more general note Scots are very proud people, and so they put a great deal of themselves into producing spirits. There’s something in the air up there!

Scots are very proud people, and so they put a great deal of themselves into producing spirits. There’s something in the air up there!

Duncan & Car
Move over Bat mobile – The Cucumber mobile is what life’s all about!

As part of a long-term project to put a sense of old world luxury back into travel Hendrick’s is working on a number of transport projects, and our favorite has to be the Cucumber mobile (move over Batmobile!) .

The Cucumber mobile was designed to drive people around at the distillery, ensuring that wherever it went we had the ingredients at our disposal so the driver could prepare the guests a situational cocktail to accompany the view.

“Slow travel as a movement is something we are fascinated by whether it was by train, plane or car as we live in a world where efficiency and cost control have made travel quite an ordeal. The Cucumber mobile was designed to drive people around at the distillery, ensuring that wherever it went we had the ingredients at our disposal so the driver could prepare the guests a situational cocktail to accompany the view. We’re working on a quite ambitious road trip in the future to bring the distillery to the world since not everyone can make it all the way to Ayrshire, where we call home.”

Ian Fleming and Sean Connery (courtesy of http://awesomepeoplehangingouttogether.tumblr.com/)

Duncan’s passion for gin is such that when we ask if there is anyone past, present or future he would like to prepare a drink for.  His answers were not quite what we were expecting, particularly when it comes to James Bond!

Past: I’d like to go for a martini with Iain Fleming, writer of the James Bond films, he was himself a gin man and whilst he has probably done more than anyone to promote and popularize the gin martini he’s given many bartenders the world over a bit of an issue with people insisting on their martini’s shaken rather than stirred. I’m not mad at him , I’d just want to explain that if you stir a martini you’ve much more chance of creating a better drink rather than the aggressive dilution that occurs when you shake it. I might not be too hard on him though as if it weren’t’ for that very line – martinis’ might not have survived in the way they have today at all!

Present: I do my best brainstorming with my colleague David over Martinis but we rarely find ourselves in the same city – so those martinis are fruitful and very enjoyable.

Future: I’d like to meet whoever has my job in 50 or 100 years time. I’d love to find out what is going to happen to the world of gin, the world in general and indeed what complete nonsense Hendrick’s Gin is up to in 2065 or 2115

I’d like to go for a martini with Ian Fleming, writer of the James Bond films, (….) I’d just want to explain that if you stir a martini you’ve much more chance of creating a better drink rather than the aggressive dilution that occurs when you shake it.

As we venture across the Mont Blanc bridge into Geneva old town with a stunning view of Lake Leman, we ask him what he thinks the ideal setting to drink gin is.  ” Gin” he replies” is traditionally an urban spirit, most at home in cocktail bars, over ice or in a mixed drink in a softly lit basement bar. However, I’d love to explore more how martinis taste in extreme locations, atop of a mountain, or in total silence, even in the jungle. We’re working our way through them slowly and will surely publish our results in due course. Mostly though, gin is a versatile and intensely mixable spirit so it is never a bad choice and provided you’ve got the time to enjoy it, good people to share it with and something interesting to ponder you’ve found yourself the perfect ingredients for a good cocktail!” 

When it is finally, and regrettably,  time to part ways (we could listen to his stories about gin and the industry for hours – Duncan is for all intents and purposes a walking gin encyclopedia)  we ask him if he could describe Hendrick’s gin in 3 words, what they would be.  His answer could not have been more fitting!

Exquisite, Unusual, Cucumber

or

Gin Made Oddly!

For a selection of fabulous drinks recipes featuring Hendrick’s Gin click here: Treasury of Tipples Recipes