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Brighton Fringe 2013

Hendricks Carnival of Knowledge – ‘Alchemy, Distillation & Botanical Folklore’.

Duncan McRae

Genre: Storytelling

Venue: No.1 Brunswick Square


Low Down

This was an illustrated talk on the history of gin making with an emphasis on the herbs used in the process and their properties, both chemical and magical, delivered in an esoteric and entertaining setting.


The Scottish distiller of Gin held a 4-day ‘Carnival of Knowledge’ mini-festival at the newly restored house at No.1 Brunswick Square. Kitted in out in the style of a gentleman’s club (think Idler Academy or Brighton’s own Odditorium), it was the perfect venue for this collection of gin-related talks and mixology sessions.

Before attending our chosen talk, we were invited to ‘meet the director’ in his office. This experience was rather like encountering a character created by PG Wodehouse. The office was decked out with all the paraphernalia of a dusty esoteric with animal skeletons, old hardbacks, and weird contraptions. We had a brief conversation with the director about Hendricks’ mission to deliver ‘divergent thinking’ to knowledge-seekers (presumably as apposed to the learning we got at school, which he informed us was ‘by the book’ or ‘rote learning’—assuming we all fondly imagined that we had received some kind of 1920s’ independent education), then we were whisked away to attend our talk.

Our chosen talk from the gin-related menu was entitled Alchemy, Distillation & Botanical Folklore. The talk was delivered by Hendricks’s ‘British ambassador’ Duncan McRae, an ex-bar manager hailing from the Isle of Skye, sporting a bow tie and waistcoat. Duncan delivered a very interesting if slightly shambolic and over-ambitious talk, encompassing the history of distillation, the secrets of the herbs and flavourings used in gin and a somewhat rushed foray into the life and works of Aleistair Crowley, on the grounds that Crowley had invented some interesting magikal (sic.) cocktail recipes ­– such as the Eagle’s Tail Martini or the Kubla Khan – involving ingredients that are now either hard to find, unobtainable, unavailable or illegal. Only very occasionally did I feel that I was in a marketing presentation for Hendrick’s gin, usually when a visual was used which incorporated the brand image.

Gin and tonic was served as part of the show, and although McRae did pass round samples of the herbs as he talked about them (angelica, caraway seed, juniper berries), it was essentially a traditional ‘chalk and talk’ presentation, which, although very interesting, showed no signs of fostering divergent thinking and would have been completely at home as a lecture in a 1920’s classroom!

It was nevertheless a very entertaining occasion, and the experience was enhanced by the setting of the newly-restored venue.


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