Category Archives: Gin

When cucumbers fly: Hendrick’s Gin’s most unusual form of air transport comes to Texas

Hendrick's Gin
Hendrick’s Gin’s X-111 Flying Cucumber Airship. Because the skies must be tamed with produce.

Much is inherently ridiculous about the notion of a flying cucumber, and yet such concerns did little to deter Hendrick’s, the decidedly unusual Scotland-based gin, from conceiving just such a thing to loose upon the nation’s skies. That’s just how Hendrick’s rolls.

“Just as we applied the taste of CUCUMBER to GIN,” the Hendrick’s literature boasted in typical circus-sideshow fashion, “we are now applying the CUCUMBER’S AERODYNAMIC SHAPE to FLIGHT.”

Flying Cucumber
Part of Hendrick’s’ characteristically vintage setup as we prepared to take flight.

This weekend, the marvelous X-111 Flying Cucumber Airship found its way to Houston’s Ellington Field, a military and public airport on the city’s periphery, where members of the cocktail literati were afforded this most peculiar form of transport.

Arriving by Hendrick’s shuttle from a safe measure beyond, we intrepid travelers were deposited on the field at a pop-up parlor echoing Hendrick’s’ old-timey vibe with vintage furniture, trunks and an antique automobile with a pullout bar.

But there could be no doubt that it was the 130-foot dirigible in the distance that had captured our fascination. Cleverly wrapped in dark green vinyl to recall the familiar produce that is one of gin’s besties, it sported a single eye, the symbol of Hendrick’s Gin’s so-called Society of the Unusual.

Hendrick's Gin
Eye in the sky: The symbol of Hendrick’s Gin’s Society of the Unusual goes airborne.

Approaching storm clouds offered an air of adventure as well as a good amount of wind, requiring the blimp to be tethered by the nose to a large mast, lest it be disastrously swept away. I could only imagine that, should the craft tragically go down during my ride, that at least my obituary would be mildly hilarious.

Meanwhile, a Hendrick’s-attired crew attended urgently to the airship, wresting it into position with ropes and sheer brute strength as we took turns being ushered in groups of one to three into the surprisingly small cab.

I was lucky enough to ride alone with pilot Cesar Mendez, a Kerrville native who splits cucumber-flying duties with fellow pilot Charlie Smith. Theirs is a rare skill indeed: “There’s actually more astronauts in the world than people who can fly these things,” said Jim Ryan, Hendrick’s Gin’s U.S. brand ambassador.

Hendrick's Gin
The skipper, brave and sure: Cesar Mendez, Flying Cucumber pilot.

A wave of Mendez’s hand and the crew freed the ropes from their mighty grips, and off we sailed into the heavens. A pair of wheels to either side of him controlled our lift and descent, while pedals, or rudders, at his feet controlled direction.

Our ascent was casual and, as Hendrick’s would put it, civilized, a series of plodding front-to-back tilts that gradually took us up and forward, like a great whale rising from its oceanic depths. “We’re slow and low,” Mendez said. “We’re never really in a hurry.”

Hendrick's Gin
Our cruising altitude of 1,000 feet was perfectly acceptable for a flying cucumber.

The airfield and its surrounding greenbelts and neighborhoods opened up before us. Within a few minutes, we had reached our comfort zone of 1,000 feet, a height that not only allows those on the ground to take in the airship’s signature artwork but keeps the flying cucumber safely away from other air traffic or flying produce.

It was about this time that I remembered that I was terrified of heights. The fact that I was next to an open window from which my cell phone could easily spill until it fell, fell, fell indistinguishably to the ground 80 stories below, was no help, nor were the cab’s forward tilts that practically shoved my altitudinous predicament in my face.

Hendrick's Gin
The fearless crew prepares to haul in the descending airship.

Yes, I was in a real pickle. I’m not gonna lie: My hands had gone clammy and my heart was racing. I did what I normally do in such situations: I went into reporter mode, tossing a few questions at the Mendez and focusing on jotting down the answers until I realized that in actuality, the 35-mph ride was remarkably smooth. And enjoyable, too, despite the lack of beverage service, or more to the point, gin-and-tonic service.

Before long we were moving in for our landing as the crack Hendrick’s crew lined up in inverted-V formation, prepared to haul us home and toward welcome refreshment.

Houston was the fourth stop on the cucumber’s 13-city tour that includes Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Detroit, New York and Chicago. Next would be South Florida. Dallas had originally been on Hendrick’s’ schedule but unfortunately had to be scrubbed because of inclement weather.

“Everything is susceptible to weather conditions,” Mendez said. “That’s just part of the experience of flying in a cucumber.”

Flying Cucumber
At last, the beverage cart arrives.

 

Third time’s the charm: Front Burner’s Bonnie Wilson en route to Vegas to represent DFW in national cocktail competition

Frontburner
Wilson, DFW’s first female rep in the prestigious contest’s national finals. (Photo courtesy of Front Burner)

Sometimes all it takes is a pinch – a pinch of this or a drop or a float of that – to turn a drink around. Heading into this summer’s Bombay Sapphire-sponsored “GQ’s Most Imaginative Bartender” competition in Dallas, Bonnie Wilson aimed to put a different spin on the gin.

Wilson, director of independent bar programs for Addison-based Front Burner Restaurants, was one of 10 finalists competing in the national contest’s Dallas-Fort Worth regional at Uptown’s Nickel & Rye. The victor would head to Las Vegas to face winners from 27 other U.S. markets in the finals, vying for a cover feature in GQ magazine.

One by one, the gin variations appeared before the judges – a drink inspired by Taiwanese bubble tea, another served up alongside a Venus flytrap, another with a smoked stalk of lemongrass for garnish. But when it was all over, it was Wilson’s so-called “Axl Rose” – a bouquet of Bombay Sapphire, Brut Rosé, strawberry syrup, lemon and rose water – that had taken top prize. (Full disclosure: I was among the event’s three judges.)

GQ Most Imaginative Bartender
The final touch on Wilson’s Axl Rose: A sugar-candy rose petal

This week, Wilson is Vegas-bound to compete in the finals, the first woman to have that honor for the DFW area. “I’m a little nervous,” she said. “I just want to make sure I represent our city well, that I represent myself and our brand and women well, all of those things. Most of all I just want to have fun.”

This was Wilson’s third attempt at the prestigious contest: Bartenders submit a recipe and a short essay, and a national panel whittles each market’s field down to 10. With her winning cocktail, she aimed for simplicity. “I’ve been obsessed with rosé lately,” she says, “so I wanted to do something around that.”

Citrus was a common flavor in the gin to play off of, but Sapphire’s floral aspects were often forgotten. That’s where the rose water came in, plus a self-made strawberry syrup to echo the flavors of the wine. The topper was the garnish: She worked with Front Burner’s pastry chef to produce a sugar-candy rose petal tinted with pomegranate juice. “We made about 60 of them over the course of two weeks to get the consistency I was happy with,” she says. “I think it came out really good.”

The national contest runs Monday through Thursday in three stages. After the 28 competitors present the cocktails that got them there, the field is whittled to about half. The survivors then face off in two further rounds, crafting entirely new cocktails featuring an ingredient to be specified by the judges.

GQ Most Imaginative Bartender contest
Sweet cocktail o’ mine: Wilson’s Axl Rose’.

Last year, DFW was represented by La Duni’s Daniel Guillen, who made it to the second round. Wilson has been prodding him for tips based on his experience. As far as being DFW’s first female representative in the nationals, she says, “we’ve just got to continue to elevate our diversity.”

That’s a priority for her at Front Burner, where she oversees bar operations for the corporation’s independent brands, including Whiskey Cake, Mexican Sugar and The Ranch at Las Colinas.  Menu development, special events and training are among her duties, but it’s the latter that lets her tap into her first love, customer interaction. “I can get behind the bar and make drinks for people,” she says.

Hospitality-minded people are the ones who catch her interest and attention. “You can teach somebody how to bartend and teach them about spirits, but you can’t teach the heart of it, the love of that interaction with the guest,” she says.

Others cite her dedication to cultivating talent and encouraging other women to pursue similar paths. “She’s moving up, but she’s not forgetting us,” says Alexandrea Rivera, a bartender at The Ranch at Las Colinas. Adds fellow Ranch bartender Gabrielle Murray: “Everything Bonnie says, we just sponge up.”

Daniel Guillen
2013’s national finalists were featured in a GQ photo spread. That’s La Duni’s Daniel Guillen with the giant honey dipper.

Now, after winning the local Bombay Sapphire contest, Wilson says: “I’ve actually had women come to me who want to work for me. That’s super flattering, and inspiring.”

It was people like Sean Conner – whose Pie 314 pizzeria recently opened in Lewisville – and The Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough who helped on her own learning path. And in particular, she credits Angel’s Envy bourbon rep Trina Nishimura with showing her how as a woman to negotiate a male-dominated world. Brands like Bacardi and Heaven Hill have given her valuable educational opportunities, but it’s her own company, she says, that has really challenged her recently. “Sometimes we have these amazing weeks, and we want to rest on our laurels and celebrate,” she says. “They always say, `Great job. How do we make it better?’ Everybody has pushed and encouraged me.”

Not bad for someone who never planned to make craft cocktails. But negative environments in previous workplaces spurred her to move onward, and she landed behind the bar with Conner at Whiskey Cake. “It was like a fated spiritual thing,” she says. “That’s exactly where I was supposed to be. It started me on this career that was like a dream. It’s been such a great ride and it keeps getting better and better.”

Sometimes all it takes is a pinch – to be reminded that it’s not a dream at all.

From the Venezuelan jungle, a most unique gin — and a rare tasting experience for Dallas

Hendrick's Gin
Out of the jungle, a mysterious elixir.

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.

Hendrick's Kanaracuni gin
Adventurous tales require adventurous snacks.

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.

Hendrick's Kanaracuni gin
Caramelizing pineapple and peppercorn for the first cocktail.

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.”

Hendrick's Gin
Through the looking glass: A cocktail served in a tiny gourd with a metal tea straw.

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.”

Hendrick's Gin
Creating a buzz: The rare liquid was unveiled in the most exotic of atmospheres.

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?

Hendrick's Gin
Bartender Juli Naida of Barter enjoys a gourd drink now and then.

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.

Gin
The makings of a uniquely mystical and improbable tasting event at the Dallas Zoo.