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Why a gin maker invented its own history

Why a gin maker invented its own history

Hendrick’s gin looks like it has been plucked out of the Victorian era. But the brand was launched in 1999

Hendrick’s gin looks like it has been plucked out of the Victorian era. But the brand was launched in 1999

Tom Vanderbilt | October/November 2019

With its squat profile and white rhomboid label decorated with juniper branches, a bottle of Hendrick’s gin looks like it has been plucked from a Victorian apothecary. The impression is reinforced by the date on the bottle: “Est. 1886”. This is accurate in one, slightly misleading sense. Hendrick’s is produced at a venerable distillery, William Grant & Sons, which opened in Scotland over a century ago. But the brand itself was launched in 1999, the result of a collaboration between a whisky company and Steven Grasse, an adman from Philadelphia known for his outspoken personality. “Craft distilleries are like assholes,” he once said. “Everyone’s got one, and what comes out of them tastes like shit.”

Grasse’s first ambition was to work in film and the world he helped to create with Hendrick’s is indeed cinematic – in a whimsical sort of way. The packaging and advertising depicts a 19th-century dreamscape of walrus-mustachioed men playing lawn sports; of penny-farthings and cabinets of curiosity; of cucumber-shaped dirigibles.

All this is a twist on “nostalgia marketing”, a common term in contemporary advertising signifying a brand using its history to excite the imagination of consumers. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, feeling nostalgic “weakens a person’s desire for money” – or, to be more direct, encourages them to buy lots of stuff.

But what if your brand has no actual history? That’s when you reach for “newstalgia”: using fragments of historical flotsam to spark warm feelings for a novel product. There are two reasons for this backwards drift. The first, as a recent article in the International Journal of Research in Marketing suggests, is a search for “enchantment” by consumers looking to bring some “wonder, romance and magic” to their lives. The second is one of capitalism’s endless dilemmas, as Walter Benjamin intuited it: how can goods that have been mechanically reproduced feel authentic. What distinguishes Hendrick’s is the enthusiasm with which it plays this game. It has sent a man it calls the “Humboldt of the 20th century” to the jungle to look for new botanicals. It has built a gin palace worthy of the Great Exhibition to house its vintage stills and cultivate those rainforest finds. Create enough reality and doubting the story becomes much harder.