Valentine Warner tells the windswept story of Northumberland’s Hepple Gin.
From the age of ten, I’ve spent happy days with my dearest friend Walter Riddell in Hepple, a small village with surrounding moorland high in the eastern corner of Northumberland. We would chase trout up the streams in our underpants, smoke autumn leaves taped in loo roll and roamed far and wide, always reluctant to return to the warm windows of home.
A remote place, as wild as is left in the UK, Hepple was a wondrous kingdom for young boys with lungfuls of cold air and nature all around. In fact, so remote and wild is Hepple, that when an Italian barman recently visited, whilst staring wistfully at the Cheviots he remarked, “is a very hard to finda da wi-fi here…and a wife no?”
Thirty-five years later, Walter and I were discussing our shifting sands over dinner, particularly as he had moved back to Northumbria. Extoling all of Hepple’s assets, we realised that a business might be under our very noses and that our childhood fantasies of one day running a toy or paint factory together had found a more adult theme.
For there exists on the Hepple hills a community of 300-odd ancient junipers sprinkled across the moor, shivering under the whip-prickle of rain driven by the northerly gales. This wet, boggy world also provided an active spring of the purest water, supporting an abundance of herbs and trees in a brimming cabinet of natural curiosity.
There was also an empty coach-house sitting idle, uninhabited for a number of years and which acted as a games room for murderous owls and hundreds of nervous mice. We realised this might be the place where we could start something special, which would have no impact on the environment and at the same time use the bounty mother nature had provided. Hepple indeed offered a unique package.
At the time, I’d been working with bar wizard Nick Strangeway and I suggested to Nick and his business partner Cairbry Hill, a drinks process developer, that we might be looking at prospects further North.
Thus the longest conversation I’ve ever had began between two friends and two relative strangers. Like the starts of all good things, we whittled away hours beside a crackling fire and the sound of big ice cubes rattling in heavy tumblers.
We concluded that, yes, there was room for another gin, but this one would be different. You see, although mature purple juniper berries (correctly called cones) are made for delicious gins, the inclusion of ‘green’ or unripe juniper may also bring some lively adolescence into the bottle. The whole life of juniper was the idea, a family day out rather than a coach load of pensioners. We would to make a gin as alive as Hepple hills.
We wanted our gin to be genuinely and distinctly different and Cairbry insisted it was essential to look beyond the copper pot still. Other technology was out there, he said, and so, soon after the distillery build began, we not only had a shiny new still, but also a rotary Evaporator and a Supercritical CO2 Unit.
Serendipty was also on our side. At the launch party of Sipsmith’s new distillery, I found out that Chris Garden, their head distiller, had left and moved back to Newcastle. Striking like a kingfisher, I slipped from the party to run home and call him. Chris accepted and Sipsmith generously waved his gardening leave.
Chris was soon making good base gin from the still but the super critical Co2 extraction unit, used to produce a clean, unaltered, consistent-yet-flexible product was an unknown beast. Neurotic as a film star’s salad, it required the most tender of touches, capable of exerting pressure that could fold cars like napkins, we experimented on mature juniper. The machine’s fragility soon saw us weeping at the dry stone wall, leaving us asking ourselves what the hell we’d gone and bought. Christ! We’d be mad eyed, bearded wrecks before we’d ever see the results we needed.
But we persevered, finally reaching the “eureka” day, sampling this ripe juniper extract and tasting its explosive olfactory resonance. We finally felt we were on our way with ‘weapon’s grade’ juniper.
The rotary evaporator gave us no such trouble, producing wonderful distillations and confirming a hunch that green juniper did indeed deliver brighter, greener, dancing flavours and our decision to vacuum-distill it at a lower temperature further protected this delicacy.
All ingredients were soon sorted into the correct three stables of two distillation processes and one extraction. We tasted in hundreds if not thousands of combinations. Nick and I were drunk pretty much throughout that year, our hearts knocked silly with a dangerous balancing act of tasting sessions and doses of night-black coffee.
The “Yes!” moment came in 2015, when we all decided that we had achieved the right harmony from the copper still, the rota-vap, CO2 extraction and spring water. We’d crawled over the finish line, wearied by tasting, and Walter’s arms and mind grazed with moorland harvesting and fastidious paperwork. But we had a final product. We had Hepple Gin.
But I must also mention Mother Nature, our other business partner, without whom nothing could have happened. Today Walter and his wife Lucy run one of the largest juniper propagation programmes in Europe. The community of ancient junipers twisted and bent on the Hepple hills now see their “children” sprout across the moor. The work they are doing to restore the woods and moorland from the impact of modern life is remarkable.
So when whenever I ask a barman to try our gin and he replies “Not another gin?” I don’t exit with a blush and an apology. “‘No,” I say “this certainly isn’t just another gin, this is Hepple Gin.”