Women in Spirits Business: Lesley & Kathy

There was a time when women drinking whisky were considered to have low standards, but for men drinking whisky was a sign of a true man. Today, women drinking spirits is no biggie; it is considered sexy when you know what you like, whether it is asking for a specific whisky or how you like it served: Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition neat, Don Julio Anejo from room temperature, or just being more specific about which tonic you prefer with the Botanist Gin.

Not only are we drinking spirits, there are many inspiring and hardworking women making them – anything from gin to vodka to whisky. Some of them might be new to the business but have always enjoyed a good tipple, but some women, like Lesley from Hendrick’s, have been playing around with gin for years!

I did a fast-paced two-minute interview with Kathy Caton from Brighton Gin and Lesley Gracie, the Master Distiller for Hendrick’s Gin, to find out how they ended up in the industry and whether they have always been into gin. 


What kind of background do you have in the drinks industry, and what first attracted you to it?

I most definitely come from the ‘passionate consumer’ end of the scale – after university had a spell of running pubs, including the Lock Tavern in Camden at the height of Britpop – a lot of fun! I’ve always had a love of good food and booze, and think we have some amazing British produce that we haven’t necessarily shouted about properly until now.

How did that lead to starting Brighton Gin Distillery? Did you always like gin?

I had a proper light bulb moment about Brighton Gin – I was going for a run down the seafront the morning after a late-night drinking gins around a friend’s kitchen table, and as I was trotting along I thought that if I’d been drinking anything apart from gin, I wouldn’t have made it out of the flat let alone for a run.

Gin lets you get away with it, and Brighton is the kind of town that needs to get away with things on a regular basis – it was the perfect marriage of booze and place. I’ve always drunk gin, and it’s been amazing to see the change in attitudes towards it, since being laughed at for drinking it as a student, to our burgeoning craft gin scene – but maybe that just gives away how old I am!

What is the best thing about having your own business?

I love working with a team, and it’s amazing to actually be able to see the fruits of your efforts at the end of the day, and to know that all the 12-hour days actually achieve something! I’m really looking forwards to our team growing over the year ahead, and getting more people involve in the wonderful world of craft spirits.

Are people ever surprised when you tell them what you do?

They’re occasionally surprised to find a former drama student and broadcaster (I worked for the BBC for a long time and still do a weekly show on Brighton’s Radio Reverb 97.2fm) popping up in the world of gin, but Brighton is a place where so many people juggle several jobs as well as family and community life so they’re generally not phased – mainly they want to know if I’ve got any samples knocking about my person for trying!

Your typical working day?

The days are long and don’t necessarily respect the need for time off or time away from the business, but that’s the nature of a small, but growing enterprise. There’s a lot of fun, such as running events, distilling a new batch of gin, evangelising about gin… But there’s also quote a lot of lifting pallets and changing the bins, so I definitely don’t get ideas above my station!

How did you decide on the botanicals in Brighton Gin and come up with the final recipe?

It took five months of playing with flavours once we had our rectifying licence from HMRC, and to get to a profile we were happy with. Initially we had a shopping list of botanicals we wanted to use but the recipe just wasn’t quite right – it smelled like gin and tasted of gin, but not necessarily the one we wanted to be Brighton Gin. For example, we played with black pepper, liquorice, hibiscus and many other things, but they didn’t give us the flavours we wanted.

We had to be meticulous about our recording as we didn’t want to end up with a George’s Marvellous Medicine situation, where we couldn’t replicate it – and in the end I distilled each botanical separately for us to be able to taste them in isolation and that led us to rejecting and tweaking quite a lot of stuff, like moving from dried orange peel to fresh orange peel. We took a lot of time over it, but I’m glad we have – every botanical has earned its place in Brighton Gin!

What do you see for the future of gin?

When we started off we knew that craft gin was in the ascendant, but where the gin scene is now is absolutely amazing. It’s particularly interesting to see the growth of provenance in gin, I think we’re following what’s happened with the craft beer scene, but I reckon the more people are interested in how their food and drink are produced, the better!

Do you see more and more women attracted to gin and other spirits? Why do you think that is?

One of the things that I love about gin is that I don’t see it being nearly as gendered as say whisky… The accessibility of gin as a category is brilliant. And once people are in to and exploring gin, then it’s an easy move across in to exploring other craft spirits. We’re all about fighting back against the stereotype of gin as Mother’s Ruin – I think it’s the opposite!

What is your favourite drink?

Luckily, I haven’t yet experienced the chocolate shop effect – a stiff gin and tonic is still my absolute favourite. I absolutely love a Pisco Sour too, but can’t make them to save my life.

Any tips for someone starting their own business adventure?

Take a deep, deep breath, do your research, talk to lots of people and keep the faith! Brighton’s a great place to get something going, get out and get talking to people! Also, make sure you eat lots of green veg, see your friends and have a day off every now again.

Describe yourself in three words.

Brighton-obsessed culture vulture.


What is your background in the drinks industry? What first attracted you to it?

My background is chemistry and I started at William Grant & Sons 28 years ago in the Technical Team, which covers all aspects of the business, including new product development. In my previous role, I had done some work on flavours, and therefore became involved in the new liquids.

How did that lead to becoming the Master Distiller, and how long have you been in the position?

I began work on the Hendrick’s liquid in 1999, and finalised the recipe and launched the product in 2000. The Master Distiller title just evolved from there.

Are people ever surprised when you tell them what you do?

I think people are more interested in the process of how the liquid was developed and of course the liquid itself!

How do you find being a woman in what was traditionally a male-dominated industry?

Within William Grant & Sons, being a woman makes no difference – and the spirit industry is changing, with more women becoming involved, so there are no challenges.

Your typical working day?

There is no such thing as a typical day! However, there are things that we do every day. We check every aspect of Hendrick’s production, from the individual raw materials, to every distillation in our Bennett, Carrick and Carterhead stills, to our finished product. We take our quality very seriously!!

What do you think makes Hendrick’s such a great success (I am fascinated by the steampunk image)?

Without doubt, the liquid stands out from the crowd. When it was launched, the product took the gin world by storm, introducing something very different from all of the other gins that were available at the time. The liquid, packaging and of course the brand all make Hendrick’s the success it is.

Do you ever fear for the quality when demand is so high? How do you keep on top of things?

We will never compromise on quality – even with rising demand, we have clear plans in place, which will ensure that our strict regime for assuring quality will continue.

Have you been experimenting with different spirits or new botanicals?

We continually look at new and different botanicals – hence our trip to Venezuela in 2013. There is a fascinating world out there and we are in the very lucky position to be able to investigate and taste it!!

What do you see for the future of gin?

I think that the interest in gin will continue. The versatility of the spirit lends itself to the creation of so many interesting drinks, and the ingenuity of mixologists supports this. The flavour elements within Hendrick’s ensures that it is compatible with a very wide range of other ingredients, giving a balanced product profile.

Do you see more and more women attracted to gin and other spirits? Why do you think that is?

Certainly, women appear to be interested in gin – I think that it is the range of possibilities from cocktails through to the G&T that attracts them, as they can choose a drink to suit their mood.

What is your favourite drink?

My favourite drink is quite simple – Hendrick’s, elderflower cordial and soda water served with ice and a slice of cucumber. Simple, quick, refreshing and very pleasant on a sunny afternoon!

Have you always liked gin? What is your history when it comes to drinking gin?

Gin was not my first drink of choice when I was younger as the only real option was a G&T, which with the gins that were available, was not particularly exciting. An understanding of gin itself and the possibilities for mixing and bringing out flavours has changed this – there are so many ways to enjoy a Hendrick’s!

Any tips for other women interested in distilling?

Distilling is a fascinating science and there are now many ways of getting into it – if anyone is interested then they should simply go for it!!

Describe yourself in three words.

Curious and curiouser.

What is your favourite spirit and how do you like it served? Are you more of a cocktail kind of girl or do you drink your spirits neat?

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