The Hepple estate consists of ancient woodland, hill farms, and much of the heather moorland that covers the Simonside hills. It stretches from the highest point on the range, across peat bogs undulating with vivid green mosses, past wind-ground rocks that jut from seas of heather and blaeberry, past bog myrtle and stands of venerable juniper and birch, to the low sheep pastures and haughs of the river Coquet.
Hepple Gin draw their water, botanicals, and inspiration from this estate. Locavore talked with Walter Riddell, guardian of the estate and one of the creators of Hepple Gin, about distillation, juniper, and the faint heartbeat of the wild.
What was the genesis of Hepple Gin?
We founded the Moorland Spirit Company to create wild spirits in high fidelity. To do this we had to find a new way to distil. It all began with the green juniper at Hepple, and Hepple Gin.
We all crave a connection with the wild. Wildness is a place, and is a state of mind. Most of us are starved of it, and it is something that we all need. My old friend Valentine Warner, revered cook and wild food broadcaster, got together with Cairbry Hill, drinks developer, and Nick Strangeway, the legendary bartender, on a bone-chilling day in March 2013 in the far north of Northumberland at my place, called Hepple. It is a remote sanctuary for humans as well as for an array of wild plants, including juniper that grows prolifically in the dells and valleys of the estate. We immediately realised we should make a gin that went back to the heartlands of what a classic gin should taste of – juniper – but we would get there in a way that no-one else had taken.
The really great thing was to find that what Nick wanted to have in a gin to make the very best cocktails was also the thing that we found in the most remote and wild parts of Hepple – it was a vigorous, clean taste, complex but also massively familiar – something we call wild. But the only way to capture this was to change the way gin was made. It took two years of research, the system we found we call the Triple Technique.
In recent years, gin has made a huge resurgence to become extremely fashionable. Do you think there is room for another gin? And what makes Hepple stand out in a crowded bar?
Its taste! There had been a lot of innovation in gin over the previous decade but it had either innovated through wacky new botanicals or by going back to the traditions of copper-pot distilling. We wanted to rethink how a classic gin could be made fresher, and richer in the taste of juniper. The only way to do that, we found, was to combine very modern practices with very fresh ingredients (including fresh green juniper – the only gin to use this as far as we know).
The result is a gin that tastes fresher and more completely of its ingredients than anything else we have tasted. We are finding that when bartenders want to make a classic cocktail, such as a martini, a White Lady or a Negroni, when they make it with Hepple the result is a slow smile, something between recognition and surprise. It takes us back to a world of freshness, of that complexity that we find in the wild environment at Hepple, because it tastes so thoroughly real.
You recently won Double Gold at this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition. What does the ‘Double Gold’ mean?
Massive happiness! We have put so much idealism into this gin, and it takes a huge amount of time to make – not just harvesting, which we hugely enjoy, but the Triple Technique that takes at least seven times as long to complete than conventional “one-shot” distilling. So we are pleased that all the additional work and investment is getting recognition in arguably the most highly-regarded competitive spirits competition in the world.
You’re situated in the Northumberland National Park. How does the landscape inform the work you do?
We are working not just within a rural environment, but a wild environment. We are harvesting wild ingredients, plants that grow where they want to grow in the way that they damn well want to grow, so we are sensitive not just to them, but the wider environment that they have chosen to grow in. If they don’t want to grow, they won’t, but when they do, they have an energy – OK, let’s call it taste – that appears otherworldly when compared to things that emerge from an “agricultural” source. When this environment is working it is awesome, quite literally, for us human beings, because we feel invigorated by the energy that we find there. And that is the spirit that we try to bring to our gin – and that our Triple Technique allows us to capture with unusual fidelity.
You’ve begun a sustainable juniper propagation and restoration project along with the National Park, Newcastle University, and Hepple Whitefield farm – can you tell us more?
Juniper is one of the great pioneer species of the botanical world, and it has colonised more continents than any other. Unfortunately, other than for making gin, and warding off witches and warlocks (when burnt), it doesn’t have much “use”. So over much of the period since the agricultural revolution it has been grubbed out to make way for industrial grass (wheat, barley) and grass-guzzlers (sheep and cattle). Very happily, the farming at Hepple has always been very much more gradual and gentle and we have an unusual quantity of mature bushes.
Since juniper became a priority species the National Park has planted juniper in protected stands, but our harvesting regime on our own bushes now yields for us a quantity of mature berries. My wife, Lucy, has been working with Newcastle University and the NNPA [Northumberland National Park Authority] on measuring the fertility of berries from bushes of various age groups, and then planting them out on the SSSI [Site of Special Scientific Interest] area of the hill where we know juniper grows well. The exciting news is that we have begun to find self-seeded bushes appearing: this is testament to benign effects that changes in land management, brought in ten years ago, have had.
Our hope is that we will be able to stop our propagation work and just allow the juniper to develop in the way it wants, but this may not be for another ten years to ensure we have a really strong, young cohort of juniper stands in different parts of the estate.
What part does the juniper play in the local ecosystem?
Juniper is for us one of the best barometers of wildness. When it does well, so much else will do well. It supports a huge range of insect life, bird life – and nowadays even some bartender life, when we bring that species up from the South and over the ocean from the Continent.
You use three separate distillation techniques for your gin. What are these? And why do this?
To capture the taste of our ingredients fully we had to move beyond the “traditional” system of one-shot copper pot distillation. We do use a copper pot still to produce an incredibly clean “base” gin on which we weave our Hepple flavour – but as good as copper is for cleaning alcohol and combining flavours together it does cook ingredients.
To keep our fresh ingredients fresh, we also use a vacuum still, where we can distil at a low temperature. We then wanted our juniper to taste as complete and resonant as we know it does when it is still growing on the hill, so we turned to the perfume industry for our third technique, known as Supercritical CO2 extraction. This yields the “absolute” of juniper that we lace through our gin to make the finished Hepple Gin. In other words, the only way to let you taste the true flavour of the ancient, untouched wild was to turn to very precise, modern methods.
How important is sustainability to the company? What challenges do you face in terms of this?
The distillery is just a few hundred metres from my house, and we draw our critical ingredients and water from the burns and hills where I grew up, where my dad grew up and his dad before him. We are planting juniper that will only bear fruit ten, maybe fifteen years from now. The thing about the natural world is that it moves best at its own pace, yet so much about modern business is about moving at a pace that even technologically-enhanced humans find baffling.
So the challenge for us is to remain calm even when demand for our products outpaces our ability to make more. Our harvesting and propagating regime makes us look more like a wine-grower than an industrial distiller who can simply “dial for ingredients”, and is the secret behind why Hepple really tastes “as fresh as a cold wind from a mountain” – a lovely term I heard the other day. It is because it is real.
Do you think that the gin is an expression of the terroir of the area, in much the same way as a wine will be a translation of the vineyard and its surroundings?
Absolutely. It is singing with life.
What are your hopes for the future of Hepple Gin, of the juniper, of the estate?
I hope that when people taste Hepple Gin, and other things that we are planning for the Moorland Spirit Company to produce, that they can pick up that resonance of something that remains alive and real – a faint heartbeat of the wildness. The great thing is that we all still have the ability to pick this up, no matter how overwhelmed with the noise of modern, urban life. I know this because I lived, for decades, in London, and thought that I had lost it, but I recognise it instantly when I taste Hepple Gin.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
I am an idealist.
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