Celebrated foraging chef Valentine Warner brought legendary bartender Nick Strangeway and distillery developer Cairbry Hill up to Hepple in the remote Northumbrian National Park to meet Walter Riddell, owner of the Hepple estate in March 2013. A bone-chilling wind was blowing from the east, as ever.
Our original plan was to make something esoteric, but out on the moor the wind hounded us to take refuge amongst a stand of ancient junipers, glittering with green and purple berries.
The gin revolution was underway, and innovation was coming thick and fast. The innovation was about new botanical inclusions, discoveries of ancient recipes and of new distilleries that honoured places, people.
As we huddled amongst the shaking juniper, bejewelled with berries, it became clear that something core to gin had never been fully revealed. In our chilly Aladdin’s cave was something bright, complex, glittering – the true essence of gin.
To capture the true taste of juniper, we had to rethink every stage of the gin-making process. We knew that while conventional distillation is magnificent at smoothing and cleaning the spirit, it can destroy delicate flavours because it occurs at 80 degrees, when long chain molecules degrade – or to put it simply, cook. This required us to go beyond conventional distillation into the realms of vacuum distillation, supercritical extraction, ultrasonics and other high-precision flavour techniques.
A tremendous stroke of luck happened in the autumn of 2014: Chris Garden, the super-star distiller of spirits stars Sipsmith moved North to Newcastle to where his wife’s family lived. Valentine, moving at his legendary kingfisher attack-speed, got in touch. Chris was soon pushing through the juniper stands, and having declared he would never make another gin, found the project interesting enough to join. Nobody has longer experience in small-batch distilling than Chris in the UK, his participation embedded huge expertise at the core of our operation.
What Nick and Valentine wanted to create was straightforward: a celebration of juniper, surrounded by a supporting harmonic chorus of flavours and aromas that cast our juniper soloist at her brightest, her richest and most complete. Straightforward on the page, complex in the volatile realness of the Hepple. Research on our first product took over two years. Each ingredient, chosen by our foraging master Valentine, had to be tested throughout its growing season, run through different systems with different preparations.
The result, in October 2015 was the release of Hepple Gin. In making the gin, we found that we required a great deal from our more esoteric techniques: most of our flavour comes through from these, rather than the copper pot still (as pretty as it is). It takes five times longer to make Hepple Gin than a conventional gin, but, we must do it to do what we set out to do. Since release we have won a raft of acclaim from the olympians of the spirits world, a double gold at San Francisco in 2017, a five plus star review from Diffords, and the growing choice of gin in a martini and other cocktails from London to New York, Hamburg to Singapore.
“The most important distillery to open this decade”Tristan Stephenson