Whether the whole thing was for real it was hard to tell, but it’s fair to say we wanted it to be. As Dallas bartender Stephen Halpin would later put it, the lines between fairy tale and fact were “bewitchingly blurred.” What were the chances that Hendrick’s Gin’s master distiller and global ambassador would be dispatched into the Venezuelan jungle in search of a unique ingredient with which to produce a spirit that would never see mass production?
“This was an experiment,” said David Piper, the Scotland-based company’s global ambassador. “A little bit of an indulgence.”
So began the saga of Hendrick’s’ so-called Perilous Botanical Quest, a zesty tale of pluck and determination spun early this month for two dozen DFW-area bartenders and spirit enthusiasts at, fittingly, the Dallas Zoo.In a setting of artificial moss, magnifying glasses, mini-globes and creepy-crawly things under glass – a most exotic and scientific atmosphere indeed – containers of crispy edible mealworms and crickets offered themselves for the taking, the former echoing corn nuts, the latter salty sunflower seed shells. It all fit the brand’s cheeky, carnival-esque vibe.
The mysterious gin – dubbed Kanaracuni – was labeled with clinical small-batch simplicity. As we explored our fantastical surroundings, a concoction was prepared – a mix of caramelized pineapple and peppercorn to which was added cinnamon, lemon, vanilla liqueur and finally gin. The drinks were served in distinctive gourds with metal tea straws, the kind with enlarged, enclosed ends with small holes to strain out leaves.
A short film delivered the thrilling narrative: The intrepid Hendrick’s team, joined by practiced explorer Charles Brewer-Carias and botanist Francisco Delascio, set deep into the Guayana Highlands, into an area “nestled among vertiginous crags and protected by ancient spirits” and hostile wilds teeming with what Piper not so fondly remembered as “lots of nasty little stinging things.” With them they had a baby 10-litre copper still, a small ice machine and generator, spices, freeze-dried cucumber and, judging from the final frames, at least one incredibly sturdy martini glass.
They were seeking an ingredient to complement Hendrick’s’ floral, green and spicy profile. The team befriended natives of the village Kanaracuni, a small-statured tribe with four-foot blowpipes who introduced them to local herbs and spices – many of them “mesmerizingly pungent, but not quite right,” said Piper, looking like a pith-helmeted Bradley Cooper.
Then, on the seventh day, they found scorpion tail – a leafy plant drunk in tea form by the locals as a digestive aid. (The same Venezuelan plant appears to be described in a 1968 article by researcher John H. Masters in The Journal of the Lepidopterists Society.) The taste was just what master distiller Lesley Gracie, a wee fairy godmother with a youthful smile and a mile-long mane of hair, was looking for. “We rubbed it in our hands,” she said. “It was very green, almost cucumber. I knew it would fit the profile…. I don’t think we could have picked anything better to strike all the cues.”
There in the jungle, Gracie produced a trial distillate, quickly deemed a success. She then made nearly 9 liters of concentrated scorpion’s tail, which with some difficulty the team managed to transport back to Europe. That became 350 liters of gin. “That’s all we have of this Kanaracuni,” Piper said.
As the film came to a close, we were treated to small samples of the prize distillate. No doubt the story’s allure added to its appeal, but it was lovely – the familiar Hendrick’s taste, less juniper-heavy than other gins and rife with floral and cucumber notes, but with a little extra, something like the tangerine-y sweet-and-sour taste of kumquat.
Then came a Kanaracuni martini. Eyes widened: Could this be for real, considering how little of this there was to go around? Dallas was one of only a select handful of cities on this tour, including San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Boston. But that wasn’t all: The Hendrick’s team then turned over to the group their bar setups – including a bottle or two of Kanaracuni – for our own experimentation.
“There’s very little of this gin,” Piper said. “It’s best to keep it as pure as possible. But the more you play with it, the more remarkable things it does.”
That Hendrick’s would create such a rare spirit just to showcase the brand’s pursuit of new flavors “was an extremely cool move,” said Tate’s bartender Austin Gurley. And to choose DFW as one of few venues to unveil it was an honor, too. “Dallas has stepped up in the cocktail world,” he said.
None of us were botanically informed enough at the time to ask whether this elusive Venezuelan plant was the same scorpion tail wildflower found throughout Florida and southern Texas. Maybe climatic differences make that a moot point, anyway. Yet despite the proclamation that Kanaracuni would never be available for retail, one had to think Hendrick’s would ultimately decide whether to produce more based on how it was received during this exclusive tour. Wouldn’t they?
But I later found an October 2013 article from London’s Daily Telegraph that detailed the same jungle narrative and noted that Gracie was then working on the final recipe for a small batch that would be available in 2014. A short time earlier, at London Cocktail Week, Hendricks’ Britain ambassador Duncan McRae had said the entire batch would be drunk during a series of special events the next year.“There is something quite special about a drink made in a finite quantity being entirely consumed over a short period,” McRae said then. “Once it’s been drunk, it will be gone forever.”
And if that’s truly the case, we had been part of a real adventure indeed.