Looking back, I suppose I could have taken a few seconds and read the entire invitation instead of skipping ahead to what I thought was the most important part.
Let me back up a bit. Late last year, I attended a promotional event sponsored by Hendrick’s Gin. Called the “Delightfully Peculiar Cocktail Academy,” it was an opportunity to learn about Hendrick’s, how the spirit is made, and what distinguishes it from other types of gin. About 20 people attended, and it was held in a midsize function room at a Cambridge bar. Under the watchful eye of Brand Ambassador Jim Ryan, we learned a few cocktail recipes and made some excellent Hendrick’s-based drinks.
Overall, it was a fun, engaging, but fairly low-key evening.
So a few weeks ago, I got invited to another Hendrick’s affair. Now whereas it’s customary to familiarize oneself with the pertinent details of an event upon receiving an invitation, I just figured “free gin!”, and enthusiastically confirmed my attendance with the organizers. I assumed it was another cocktail-making class, something like that.
As soon as I stepped into the Revere Hotel’s enormous function room, known cryptically as Space 57, I realized this would be no quiet evening of cocktail instruction. But even if I’d studied every last letter of the invite, there’s no way I could have known what awaited me at the Hendrick’s “Voyages Into the Unusual.”
It was like stepping through a turnstile and into a late-19th-century traveling carnival. And not a carnival with cotton candy or ring-toss games, mind you, but the kind that mysteriously appears in an empty field overnight, unannounced. Think Something Wicked This Way Comes or The Night Circus.
No, there wasn’t anything sinister, like a supernatural carousel or a malevolent ringmaster. But there was a 20-foot-tall woman – a larger-than-life harbinger of the bizarre night that was about to ensue.
I arrived to find a troupe of costumed characters, dancers, and musicians buzzing around a gantlet of Hendrick’s-themed attractions. Some were instructive, like the botanist discussing the 11 botanicals that give Hendrick’s gin its unique flavor profile.
But the rest of it was straight out of a sideshow – two-headed skeletons, stuffed animals in glass specimen jars, and a slew of suspicious-looking apothecary bottles (the sort you’d find on the shelves of a creepy pharmacist who secretly dabbles in the occult).
On stage was a band called the White Ghost Shivers, a Vaudeville-themed septet whose mix of bluegrass, jazz, ragtime, and country music provided the score for an eerie yet upbeat atmosphere.
And eerie it was – the room was mostly dark, pierced by white spotlights that cast long, harsh shadows on the walls and floor. Seeming to have pulled into town just in time for the Halloween season, this was a spectacle bathed in the macabre.
While I never anticipated something on this scale, I was right about one thing – free drinks. Before a crowd of several hundred guests started oozing in, I was kindly handed a Hendrick’s and tonic. Even amid the spectacular scenery and a lineup of thoughtfully crafted cocktails, a standard like this is never dull.
Standing at an open table in the middle of the room, I sipped my drink and watched the dark carnival came to life. I wasn’t quite sure what to check out first: the hot air balloon with the acrobatic aviator?
The Wall of Curiosities, from which a hand would unexpectedly emerge and give you a cocktail book or a Hendrick’s newspaper?
Ultimately, I figured I’d start at the one spot where, in any environment, I can make myself at home.
The bar was called the Explorer’s Lounge, appropriately enough. I polished off my gin and tonic and moved on to the evening’s featured cocktails. First up was “On This Harvest Mule.” With crisp, autumnal flavors and a name inspired by a classic Neil Young song, this bold mix of Hendrick’s gin, pear liqueur, fresh lemon juice, ginger syrup, apple shrub, and pear-apple cider was ideally suited to the season.
I ventured away from the Explorer’s Lounge and headed over to the fearsome-looking Monster’s Box. This large, wooden crate, strewn with chains, was guarded by a keeper who, upon my arrival, knocked loudly on the front of the box. Out slithered two gray, scaly hands with long fingers and black nails – not to snatch passersby, thankfully, but to hand out drinks.
In this case it was the Traveler’s Testament – Hendrick’s, rooibos tea, lime juice, raspberry syrup, and sparkling water, deliciously topped with toasted coconut flakes. The tea was prominent but didn’t overwhelm the other ingredients, and its nutty, herbal flavor offered a contrast to the fruity elements.
From there I made my way to the Apothecary, which is a key element of Hendrick’s lore. In a nod to the days when gin was used medicinally, the distinctive Hendrick’s bottle is modeled after an old apothecary jar. There were many such jars at the Apothecary station, where the drink of choice was the Cucumber Blood Cocktail. This luminescent green potion was concocted with lemon verbena-infused gin, cucumber juice, simple syrup, and a dash of green chartreuse.
This one was a little too intense for me. I found the taste to be kind of medicinal – which, I now realize, was fairly appropriate, given that it was poured at the Apothecary. But despite the up-front cucumber flavor, which usually mellows things out, the lemon infusion was a bit much. I’m also not a big chartreuse fan, and that may have thrown the taste off for me.
It was around then that I crossed paths with Jim Ryan, the amiable Brand Ambassador who taught the cocktail class I attended last year. I asked him what his favorite drink of the night was, and he proceeded to mention every drink that included Hendrick’s. When pressed, he expressed a particular fondness for the Traveling Punch – which just so happened to be my next stop.
Hendrick’s loves its punches, as I learned at the Cocktail Academy. What we think of today as a cloyingly sweet yet economical way to get your party guests hammered on cheap vodka, punches were a centuries-old predecessor to the single-serving cocktail. Hendrick’s likes to hearken back to respectable, well-made punches, the kind that engendered a communal drinking experience.
The Traveling Punch was a robust combination of flavors meant to reflect New England’s most renowned season. It was a spicy, aromatic cocktail that conjured a vision of sitting on porch on a brisk October evening, wrapped in a blanket, sipping this mix of Hendrick’s gin, fruit tisane tea, cranberry liqueur, lemon/orange oleo-saccharum (a lemon-orange oil and sugar syrup), sparkling water, and Angostura bitters
I rounded back to the Explorer’s Lounge and ordered up the last of the evening’s featured cocktails – the Night of the Iguana. This one was pretty involved – gin, celery juice, cucumber juice, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, a cucumber wheel, ground sea salt, and ground cubeb berry.
For all its components, it was a surprisingly mellow cocktail, softer than some of its spicy predecessors. The cubeb berry gave it a bright, peppery flavor, but a prominent cucumber essence kept all the ingredients balanced.
Having exhausted the lineup of Hendrick’s drinks, only one objective remained – get into the skirt of that really tall woman. No, I wasn’t drunk or hallucinating. There really was a 20-foot-tall woman, attended by two little fellows with beak-like masks who would choose people from the crowd and escort them through the folds of her dress. What was beyond that silk barrier? No one knew, but it was a mystery I was determined to penetrate.
Getting in would prove to be a bit of a challenge, though. Only three or four people were admitted at one time, and pretty much everyone wanted in. And the guardians, though diminutive in stature, acted as judge, jury, and bouncer – no one got by without their say-so.
Fortunately, I was among the chosen few (how that happened is another story; many thanks to those involved, you know who you are). As I slipped through the thick folds of the skirt, I suppose I shouldn’t have been entirely surprised to find a cozy living room inside.
Enveloped by the skirt’s black fabric, the room felt like a fort made of pillows and bed sheets, though it was comfortably furnished with a table, four chairs, and a tasteful area rug. Small servers doled out more Traveling Punch from a bowl perched atop a black trunk, while candles and a decorative human skull provided some ambience.
Drinking a gin-based punch served by very short men beneath the dress of a very tall woman while a string band outside plays songs in a minor key is a good place to pause and reflect on the bizarre nature of this affair.
While only the latest chapter of an innovative marketing campaign known for colorful characters, eccentric taglines, and elaborate events, “Voyages” is easily the most extravagant. The production has been traveling to major U.S. cities for the past year and a half, entertaining and educating thousands of guests and leaving them with a message that, above the din of the bells and whistles, is abundantly clear – Hendrick’s is peculiar.
The relentlessness with which Hendrick’s tries to assert its uniqueness is almost as bewildering as one of these carnival-esque events. It makes me wonder whether the folks from Beefeater or Tanqueray occasionally prank-call an overly sensitive executive at the Hendrick’s distillery and say “Uh, why is your gin so boring?”, prompting him or her to exclaim “Boring? I’ll show you...somebody get Marketing on the phone, NOW!”
Perhaps not. But the irony here is that no one needs to be persuaded that Hendrick’s is an unusual gin. The signature flavors of cucumber and rose are hard to miss, and they make for a spirit that is at once accessible and complex. In my opinion, its quality requires little fanfare (this may be one reason why I don’t work in marketing).
But hey, if Hendrick’s wants to keep hosting offbeat events like this to notify, assure, and reassure the world that its gin is unusual, then I’ll gladly keep attending.
Next time I might even read the invitation.
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