Rachel Verghis is the creative force behind a small-batch gin that’s keeping the art world topped up

In 2016, American multidisciplinary artist Mike Bouchet hired a German perfume expert to distil the aroma of the US dollar and almost a year was spent extracting the chemical compounds from pressed bills. Cotton and linen were infused with over 100 chemicals, including ink, metal and sweat before, in early 2017, Bouchet’s new sculpture was revealed at Marlborough Chelsea Gallery in New York. Tender, the “synthesised fragrance of US dollar bills”, filled every corner of the 45,000 cubic feet of gallery space.

When art patron, collector and entrepreneur Rachel Verghis read an interview with Bouchet in The Wall Street Journal, she was riveted. “It was like a commentary on the commercialisation of art,” she says now. She recalled Tender during the pandemic, when it occurred to her that paper money would all but disappear. “People would no longer know what sterling looked or smelled like. So I got this crazy idea of capturing the essence of the white fiver, which was first issued by the Bank of England in 1793, and was one of the most recognised banknotes in the world until it was withdrawn 150 years later.”

However, Verghis, who worked in banking in the UK and in her native Australia for 15 years before falling in love with art and becoming a collector, didn’t want to simply replicate the aroma of the white fiver – she also wanted to distil it in a gin. “Two distilleries laughed at me, but Hamish Martin, the botanist who made his own gin, very kindly said he’d lend me his distiller, out of hours, free of charge.” The distiller sent vials of botanicals to Verghis; one replicated the white fiver, but by using printer ink, so he then had to find a botanical that matched the ink. “Creating MarGin was a long, complex process, but in the end it was pure alchemy,” Verghis says.

Verghis had no intention of turning MarGin into a commercial project – she was pleased to have a “very clean, very dry” gin to enjoy, since it’s her spirit of choice – but Martin said it was too good not to sell. It made sense, then, to join the dots: since Verghis is deeply entrenched in the art world, why not support various art fairs and gallery openings across London, including Frieze, with MarGin? On a more micro level, Verghis serves her white fiver gin at art-related events in her Belgravia home, which itself boasts an impressive collection of art.

When I arrive for the interview, Verghis offers “delicate white tea from Paris” with Oreo biscuits and a tour of her high-ceilinged flat, which is a little like a boutique private gallery. She jokes about nearly always wearing black, and relying on the art she collects to inject colour into her life. She can, she says, chart her life through the art she’s collected; pieces recall certain times in her life, such as the birth of her son Louis. “Art anchors me,” she says. One wall of the living room is dominated by 12 panels synched together to create an ever-changing algorithm of the different seasons—cherry blossom heralds spring while sunflowers signal summer. It’s mesmerising, a kind of floral version of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms.

“It’s like having an artificial garden in my home,” Verghis says, smiling. “It’s by teamLab, a collective of artists, engineers, CG animators and architects from Japan. It arrived on a USB stick, but then took a month to install. It was a nightmare! By the time I’d had the wall reinforced, the coding was out of date. I finally found a tech genius from Sussex who had nothing to do with art, but who managed to work it out just in time for the Serpentine Mystery Nights art fundraiser I was hosting in my flat.”

Another wall displays a large painting of elongated pink bodies by George Rouy, a 30-year-old UK artist who studied at Camberwell College of Arts, who is a rising star. “I went to his second show and by the time I got there, it was completely sold out. Note to self: always go on the opening night. This is one of my favourite pieces – it’s almost luminous. I got it early on, but goodness knows what they cost now.”

Rachel Verghis with an artwork by George Rouy Photography by Trisha Ward; Hair and makeup by Grace Hatcher

The living room is also home to another 30-year-old Brit, William Brickel, who works with oil paint, charcoal and watercolour and who has been compared to inter-war artists. “I’ve just discovered him,” Verghis explains. “He paints himself and his alter ego. Him and him. He says a painting is never finished until he gets the hands right, which I love. Like Rouy, he’s now gone stratospheric.”

I’m currently concocting a tea cocktail with gin. It’s not a bad way to spend one’s time

Rachel Verghis

Verghis points out several times that she has no formal training, apart from a short course she did at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, but she clearly has great intuition and always buys with her heart and not her head. She points out a sculpture of a plant by the French artist Marguerite Humeau and explains she paid for it in instalments. “It’s pretty much like using Klarna; most galleries are open to being paid in instalments, which I wish more people knew about because it would encourage them to buy art.”

We wander past two paintings by German Neo-Expressionist A.R. Penck, a colour photo by Australian artist Julie Rrap – a woman with a knife in her mouth which, Verghis laughs, is her before her morning coffee – and three artworks by Australian contemporary artist Shaun Gladwell, including a portrait made using Vegemite and a video of him skating at Bondi Beach. It reminds her of home, Verghis says, with a hint of nostalgia.

In the AstroTurf back garden, which houses a small goal and a basketball net for Verghis’s 13-year-old son, a tall wall is clad in 200 solid-lead frogs by the British artist Patrick Goddard – until recently, 180 of Goddard’s birds were attached by piano wire to her living room walls (one visitor had such extreme ornithophobia that she suffered a panic attack upon seeing the birds and Verghis almost had to call an ambulance). On the back wall is a neon sign by Tavares Strachan, the Bahamian artist whose sculpture The First Supper (Galaxy Black) (2023) is currently gracing the Royal Academy of Arts courtyard as part of the exhibition Entangled Pasts, 1768-now. “He has a Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture from Yale,” Verghis says, turning the neon on. “This sculpture simply says WE ARE IN THIS TOGETHER, which he made during the pandemic. It’s obviously a political statement, since we were only united globally for a nanosecond.”

Long term, Verghis hopes to open a private art gallery in Iceland to house the Icelandic art collection collected with a former partner, alongside her own growing collection. “It would be free for locals, but the two million annual visitors would have to pay. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s a dream that I hope to make reality. Art shouldn’t be locked away in storage; it really needs to be seen.” In the meantime, MarGin will be one of the sponsors of the 23rd annual Serpentine Pavilion Summer Party. The Pavilion opens in June, and this year it is to be designed by Korean architect Minsuk Cho. The white fiver is, it seems, still paying dividends. “Yes! The Pavilion will include a Tea House, so I’m currently concocting a tea cocktail with gin. It’s not a bad way to spend one’s time, watching the seasons change on my teamLab and testing gin.”

All material © Show Media Ltd

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