On the moors of Hepple, in Northumberland, it’s not only juniper that’s growing, excitement is too. For it’s here that homegrown botanicals and an impressive distilling process have revolutionised an intoxicating new breed of gin
They say that three is the magic number, and for Hepple Gin, that has certainly proven to be the case. Unlike most gins, it’s made using three different techniques. “It took us a while to get the recipe right but when Val added another drop of Douglas Fir to the mixture, it just sang,” said Chris Garden, who’s master distiller at Hepple Gin.
He’s referring to Valentine Warner, television forager and chef, who’s co-creator of the drink. The other gentleman at the helm is Walter Riddell, and he and Val have been best friends since they were 10.
“When Val and I ran in to show Walter, he took one sip and curled his hair round his finger. We instantly knew we were on to a winner,” laughed Chris.
When Walter’s father sadly passed away, he bequeathed his Northumberland estate to him.
“I knew I wanted to run a business from here, but it is also my home. As a business it is not principally about making money but about celebrating and strengthening the wilder qualities of the place,” said Walter, a former London investor.
It was during a stroll with childhood friend Val, across the 5,000-acre estate which features luscious moorlands, that a serendipitous moment occurred.
“The moors are fringed with juniper bushes, they were scatted everywhere,” said Walter, who embarked on the epic drink project with Val.
They enlisted the help of drinks innovator Cairbry Hill and together their idea was to go back to the tradition of a classic gin and make it all about the juniper – but to use the most modern techniques to bring a fuller, deeper flavour of juniper into the spirit. Other aromatic plants such as bog myrtle and Douglas Fir that grow on the moors around the distillery are also used to support the juniper.
“We knew that juniper would be at the heart and by combining both the ripe and young green stages of the berry can we reveal the full breath of its life and flavour. Throughout our experimentation it was really important that we remained faithful to the extraordinary brightness of each ingredient to make this most flavourful gin,” said Val.
The band of merry men was complete when Chris, former head of operations at gin giant Sipsmith, joined forces with the team and the three-stage extraction process began.
It starts with a base spirit being distilled with botanicals in the copper still. Secondly, more botanicals, such as Amalfi lemon, green (unripe) juniper and lovage, are vacuum distilled. The final stage involves a super-critical CO2 extraction process, in which carbon dioxide is put under temperature and pressure conditions that cause it to hold the properties of a gas and a solid simultaneously.
“This is juniper in its purest form – it’s exploding with flavour,” said Walter.
“We wanted to make the ultimate sipping gin. We had to innovate new techniques and establish ourselves in the heart of one of the most pristine, juniper-rich environments in Britain to make our gin exactly how we wanted it.
“Everything in our company is designed to resonate with the intensely invigorating surroundings of the Hepple Hills. It turns the classic model of buying in sackfuls of warehoused botanicals and distilling in a traditional way on its head and is massively labour intensive,” said Walter.
But for him, Val, and Chris, it’s a labour of love that they are all immensely proud of, and Walter says, “it is the only way to get our gin to dance with life.”